How To Get Your Mind Off The Treadmill

Okay, I admit it! I like retro cartoons. The other day I caught a glimpse of the intro to the Jetsons – particularly the scene where George Jetson is walking the family dog Astro … on a treadmill! I still chuckle!

(This is a guest post from Michael Rose)

The treadmill idea reminded me that sometimes, those who are more introspective tend to spend a lot of time in their minds processing thoughts and experiences. Sometimes this processing can be a bridge to help us make progress; sometimes it can be a treadmill! 

The treadmill gives the illusion that we are sorting things out, but in truth, we expend a lot of mental energy, produce a great deal of anxiety and make no forward progress at all.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could discern between the kind of processing that is a bridge to greater wholeness and that of the dreaded treadmill? Let’s try!

Take three deep breaths in and out.
Stop, Listen, and Observe what’s going on in your mind.

1. Have you passed that landmark before?

Look for the mental and emotional landmarks when you find yourself processing a lot.
Recognizing certain landmarks in our thoughts can be a clue that we are going around in circles. These landmarks can be specific thoughts, phrases, or replaying scenarios – real or imagined.

These landmarks can also serve as clues to where we might want to prayerfully look a little closer. What could they be telling us about the root of our distress? Could these be clues to the taskmaster that keeps driving us along? Is there an invitation of the Spirit to explore them a little deeper?

2. Are you making progress or spinning your wheels?

In my part of Canada, four-wheel drive vehicles are very popular. While they can provide great traction, but there are times they do get stuck, and when they do, they really get stuck! The more the wheels spin, the more stuck they become.

When we get stuck on the treadmill, we soon discover that despite’s lots of time and energy we aren’t making any forward progress, and in many cases, we may find ourselves more stuck.

Again, notice your emotions – are the thoughts getting more frantic and unwieldy or are you getting a sense of peace and a sense of the way through?

Progress can be slow, so don’t despise small beginnings. Often progress builds upon the ground gained before it. A small revelation or insight is often the catalyst for the next step forward!

3. Be careful of your questions

Almost 20 years ago, a young man in the youth group we were leading was shot and killed in our local high school. In fact, it was two weeks after the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. It was the first of its kind in Canada. It was a HUGE shock! Horrifying! In the face of shock and tragic circumstances, one naturally is working overtime to make sense of what has happened.

Some things, some questions, will never have a satisfactory answer.

For me, evil is a mystery. It defies any rationale. Even to blame it on a sinful, fallen world falls flat in the darkness of evil. It is my conviction that the only rugged enough response to the mystery of evil is healthy faith.

4. Avoid Catastrophizing

I don’t know if catastrophizing is a real word, but it is used by some to describe those times where our thoughts get away on us. Does this seem familiar?
You have an upcoming performance review with your boss, and in the anxiety, you feel about it, the twisted fantasy begins. Before you know it, you imagine the worst possible scenario complete with the whole transcript of the imaginary conflict. You’re in a full-blown lather as you imagine telling your boss off and that he has a stupid haircut! Then you panic because you will have lost your job and imagine that you’ll have to move in with your brother-in-law and endure his moronic story of how he made up the phrase “Cheese Doodle!” You get the idea.

Catastrophizing can happen so quickly but to recognize it can be an indication that we are on an unhealthy treadmill, and when we realize it, its time to step off.

5. (Cue music) Let it Go! Let it Go!

Part of the problem is many of us who are susceptible to the treadmill tend to cling to the troublesome thoughts. Instead of clinging to these thoughts, we can practice acknowledging them, and let them carry on through and out of our mind.

Research has shown that trying to control unwanted thoughts, often results in increased tenaciousness of the thoughts.

I found it particularly helpful when I realized that I am much more than my thoughts. They come, and they go. I have an exercise where I imagine a river. I notice the current, the colour of the water and the banks.

When I have a nagging thought enter my mind, I envision it as a log, drifting down the river. I watch it come and watch it go – gently resisting the temptation to grab it and ride it down the river.

When there is a particularly persistent thought, I find it is important for me to get out of my head or off the treadmill. This simply means I need to make a change in the moment, and often this includes something that is creative, expressive, experiential or physical. This tends to help get me back into the present moment and off the treadmill. The following are some of my favourites.

Practical Tips for Getting off the Treadmill

  • Walk or exercise to expend the emotional energy physically.
  • Gardening. Get your hands in the dirt!
  • Painting, sculpt, work in a colouring book, dance, sing, build model airplanes or birdhouses or some other kind of creating.
  • Ritual – meaningful rituals can help root us in the present moment along with a sense of the transcendent.
  • Nature – touch, smell, listen, (if safe, taste).
  • Volunteer for a cause that means something to you.
  • Active Prayer, meditation. For example, Yoga, Tai Chi, prayer walk, – these active forms of prayer can help get us off the treadmill and engages our whole bodies

Quotes to consider

  • “Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.” ― John Green, Turtles All the Way Down
  • “Don’t believe everything you think.” – Anon.
  • “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8).

Questions to answer 

  1. Sometimes our mental processing can be a bridge to help us make progress; sometimes it can be a treadmill.  Can you think of an example of a Bridge and one of a Treadmill in your life?
  2. In what three ways would your life be better by practicing to step off the thought treadmill?
  3. What is one strategy from above, or one of your own, that you will try this week to step off the treadmill?

Michael Rose Michael M. Rose

Image cc: Laura R. McFarlane

Michael Rose is a Spiritual Director, Grief Recovery Specialist, hospital chaplain, and Founder of based in Alberta, Canada. Michael is passionate about helping folks connect with the God-who-loves in healthy, thoughtful and life-giving ways; helping them to experience this love in personally transforming ways. He is the author of “Becoming Love. Avoiding Common Forms of Christian Insanity.