Several years ago, I attended a ten-day silent retreat in Thailand. As someone who had never really meditated before, it was an eye opener. Ten days with only your thoughts to entertain you, and strict directions to think about nothing but breathing, teaches you a thing or two about what you usually think about. I had imaginary conversations with old lovers, daydreams about fantastical things that would never really happen to me, and found myself writing a meditation-based comic book in my mind.
One thing was for sure: my active inner self was not interested in concentrating on the breath! It was a constant battle, one that I’m sure I lost. Luckily, medication is not about winning or losing. It is about playing the game, and play the game I did.
A new study looks at how mind-wandering impacts people, particularly as it might apply to mental illness. Sometimes the mind wanders freely, other times it engages in fanciful daydreaming, and still other times it ruminates. We’ve all been there. You’ve said something wrong, or been hurt by someone you trusted and you just can’t stop thinking about it. A certain amount of ruminating is normal, but what if you literally couldn’t stop thinking about it? What if weeks went by and your mind kept going back to hurtful moments and mistakes you couldn’t fix? It would be enough to drive anyone mad, or at least trigger an acute anxiety disorder.
According to a new framework designed to help us understand the wanderings of our mind, our seemingly erratic thoughts are bred from different brain networks interacting with one another.
It is perhaps best explained by co-author Zackery Irving: “Everyone’s mind has a natural ebb and flow of thought, but our framework reconceptualizes disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety as extensions of that normal variation in thinking, This framework suggests, in a sense, that we all have someone with anxiety and ADHD in our minds. The anxious mind helps us focus on what’s personally important; the ADHD mind allows us to think freely and creatively.”
Hopefully, a better understanding of how our thoughts are created and how they impact our lives can help people struggling with mental health disorders.