How to Stop Your Mind From Doing Mental Gymnastics
Confession: Pushing things off until the very last minute is one college practice I still can’t seem to shake (old habits die hard).
Sticking to deadlines for work? No problem.
But getting started on a personal project that would do me a solid in the future? I might as well be pulling teeth.
Recently, an untapped “passion” project started fueling my anxiety.
“It’s what they call mental gymnastics,” my therapist answered so matter-of-factly when I told her about my anxiety spirals.
My ears zeroed in on this unfamiliar phrase: mental gymnastics. Despite how it sounded, it wasn’t exactly a workout regimen to keep the brain fresh. In fact, it's the opposite.
Our Brains Love Mental Gymnastics
“Mental gymnastics” happen when our brains spiral into destructive thought patterns—making up excuses or arguments for unjustifiable decisions or situations.
In other words, they’re “all the thoughts that are within play to keep you from doing that exact thing you need to do,” psychotherapist Shemena Johnson, Psy.D., L.M.F.T., explains to Shine.
Rather than just biting the bullet and seeing this project through to the end, my thoughts began to snowball: “What if it’s not good enough?”, “What if I don’t finish in time for my trip?", “What if I can’t get into it?”
Worse was how my mind responded: “It’ll take too long for me to finish in one weekend, I’ll leave it for the next”, or “Maybe I can wait for inspiration to strike”, or “I need that email to get started, I might as well shop for those curtains I need.”
The result? Analysis paralysis.
Experts assured me I'm not alone in letting my thoughts distract me from what needs to get done.
“There is a wide gap between knowing what you want to do and actually doing it,” Teri D. Davis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Shine. “The phrase ‘If you knew better, you’d do better’ is the biggest lie ever told. Most people know what they need to do. But doing it is so much harder.”
How Our Thoughts Block Us
Davis suggests that in the middle of knowing what to do and doing it usually lies one or more forms of these five "mental gymnastics" roadblocks:
●︎ A lack of confidence
●︎ Fear of failure
●︎ Lack of motivation
●︎ An inadequate support system
Johnson likes to think of these thoughts as defense mechanisms—we think they'll help us, but they only stand to get in our way.
“As humans, we’re all driven towards trying to reduce some type of tension about what’s happening to either avoid it or escape it," Johnson says. "In order to reduce this feeling of tension within ourselves, we erect defenses which come through as procrastination or convincing yourself it’s not good enough.”
The good news: We have the power to recognize when our mental gymnastics spiral into overdrive and switch up our approach.
Whether you’re struggling to tackle a 10-page pitch deck, grad thesis, or even an intimidating mountain of laundry, here’s a game plan to get ahead of it:
Try Behavioral Activation
Ever attempt to cook for a huge party only to realize you missed that crucial ingredient halfway through your recipe? We all know anxiety is more likely to rise due to a lack of planning.
To better prepare yourself from panic mode, Davis suggests behavioral activation.
“Behavioral activation means that you do different behaviors that activate you to do (the work),” Davis says. “But it takes mapping, planning, prioritizing, time management, and breaks in between.”
For starters, make a list of the steps or resources you need to get the job done. Rank these items in order of importance. Then, give yourself a timeframe for getting each step done.
“That leads you to be excited about doing it because you’re crossing off things as you complete them which increases your motivation and triggers your brain to release those happy chemicals,” Davis says.
Break It Down
Yes, slow and steady can help you win this race.
Though my passion project initially felt like an overwhelming process, chipping away at it for an hour a day helped to distribute the weight off my shoulders—eliminating my need to make excuses.
To avoid a case of the mental gymnastics, take small steps each day on your task so you don’t later face an insurmountable workload. You might even find that referring to it as an assignment that’s “200 words each day for 5 days” is easier to digest than a “1000-word assignment.”
Give Your Thoughts a Chance
More often than not, we’re too busy beating ourselves up about having anxious thoughts rather than questioning why we’re having them.
Johnson recommends a mindfulness approach that starts with a deep breath, which can help us start to get space from our most emotional thoughts.
“In that moment when you’re taking a deep breath, which is helping to slow your thoughts down, it helps you ask questions like ‘Why am I so afraid?’ ‘Why am I so avoidant?,' really giving yourself a chance to think of it in an objective way.”
Realizing you are not the sum total of your thoughts will give you the power you need to get out of your head, get back to your true self, and know the actions you can take to move forwards.
We all do mental gymnastics—sometimes at an Olympic level. But we all also have the power to change our approach with a little self-kindness and curiosity.
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