How to Clear Your Mind When You Need It Most

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We've all had plenty of time to get lost in our own heads in 2020. Whether you've always been prone to a busy brain or you're new to wrestling with anxiety for long stretches, it doesn't feel good to be so stuck in a rut. There's a lot of advice out there for getting back on track, but not all of it has gone through peer review.

Neuroscientists at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Texas at Austin have just released a study with some pretty compelling data about what our brains look like when we succeed at clearing our heads. The researchers liken your memory to a "scratch pad," which we need to wipe clean every so often, "so it doesn't clog up our mental resources to do the next thing," according to coauthor Jarrod Lewis-Peacock.

"We found that if you really want a new idea to come into your mind, you need to deliberately force yourself to stop thinking about the old one," said coauthor Marie Banich. And in order to do that, you can lean on some pretty simple verbs to help you visualize that clearing-out process.

Try giving yourself an instruction to clear out your looping thoughts in a way that can "replace" a particular thought with something else, "clear" all thoughts (such as through mindfulness), or "suppress" ("focus on it and then deliberately try to stop thinking about it"). While the first two were found to work faster, according to the researchers' brain imaging, "suppress" did the most thorough job. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, but it could help the next time you find yourself lying awake worrying about something.