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Brain science suggests “mind wandering” can help manage anxiety

November 17, 2016

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Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Srini Pillay, M.D. ( is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Part-Time) at Harvard Medical School. After graduating as the overall top medical student in South Africa, he completed his residency in psychiatry at McLean Hospital—Harvard’s largest freestanding … See Full Bio
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November 26, 2016

Thanks ALL for illumination.
I’m a Bioinformatics researcher and keen on doing adding value to your research interests. As an individual I’ve had to win a long drawn struggle with and over myself from Depression. Anxiety yet knocks me down at times. Reading articles on psychology help me understand mind issues and ‘cure’ them.
I’d get deep personal satisfaction if I could add value to these discussions and/or orchestrate the trickling down of benefits to the end-beneficiaries-fellow humans. How may I?

November 23, 2016

The only solution for mind wandering is “let it off” with awareness
and meditation to a large extent reduces the wandering and a controlled mind becomes quietened down over a period of time.

Srini Pillay
November 23, 2016

Thank you for your comment. There is a great article that explains why mind wandering and mindfulness both help. e.g. Mindfulness can help analytical thinking and mind wandering helps creativity

Alternating between the two can be very healthy and helpful to the brain. There is also a useful book chapter on this:

Hope that provokes more thought and contemplation. Thanks again for your very insightful comment.

R. T Neary
November 21, 2016

Ray – It all makes a lot of sense, if you have intermediate pauses of a positive nature – and assembling the nice aspects of them into a small bundle. and then tucking it under the right arm.

Jennifer Leighton
November 21, 2016

Serotonin boosting foods are great unless one already has an elevated serotonin, for whatever reason. Then the foods mentioned can increase anxiety to almost psychotic proportions. Mental wandering then becomes dangerous! In addition with people who have malnutrition, malabsorption and few chewing surfaces, these foods also can cause problems.

Garth Everson
November 21, 2016

TO Andy:
Is it something about opening those windows for once? Letting the “chemicals” out?


Cherie Zarr
November 21, 2016

This reminds me of a strategy I use when my panic disorder locks into fearful, negative thoughts that seem to overwhelm me. I call it “distraction” rather than mind wandering but it comes down to the same thing. The most effective distraction is to reach out to another person for a conversation or comment or a visit. Their presence and/or words often breaks the grip anxiety has over me and gives my panic-exhausted brain a chance to relax, if only momentary. It can be very effective.

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

Mind wandering start with decoupling from perception. i.e. distracting yourself. But the process then requires going inward-choosing to daydream so that you can traverse the wonderful parts of your brain that focused thinking never reaches. It’s a way of training your attention to be inward, and to also search and be curious, rather than stuck. Distraction can change activation of the brain’s anxiety center, but to turn on the unfocus circuit, you probably need to stay “unfocused” though mind wandering. Thank you for your wonderful reflection.

Patricia Wightman Wortelboer
November 21, 2016

Patricia Wightman
I use mind wondering with Elite Athletes to help them deal with precompetitive anxiety and pressure !

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

How wonderful that you use this in such high pressure situations. I think of mind wandering like the spoon that picks up all of the delicious bits of who we are (unlike “focus” which is like a fork.) Mind wandering also allows for greater self connection, and what I call “psychological center of gravity.” In high pressure situations, this can be a life saver. Thanks for your comment.

Judith de Firmian
November 21, 2016

Try Sitting/standing still, focus on nothing for a few second try for a minute or longer bringing yourself into a relaxed state and then resume what you were doing before without as much or any anxiety .


November 23, 2016

Don’t think you’re quite getting the intensity of the experience of anxiety disorder. If it was that easy to get yourself into a relaxed state in the short time you mention, it wouldn’t be an anxiety disorder.

Rose Corey
November 21, 2016

Is ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’ a physical symptom of an anxiety disorder?

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

RLS is usually seen as a sleep disorder, and not an anxiety disorder.

November 21, 2016

Yes, makes sense…..but what if there is a rational basis for the anxiety??

Kelly B.
November 21, 2016

I have found allergies and anxiety can cause both and I usually try to analyze and understand what may be bothering me and sometimes just acknowledging the issue is enough for things to go away. Other times I have to meditate for awhile. And other times its my allergies acting up and then I respond accordingly. Hope that helps.

Kitty Ellis
November 21, 2016

I have been experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sweating. My Dr. Is trying to figure out why. He has me on Diltiaz now. It seems to be working, at least now. I also have trouble sleeping sometimes. He prescribed a anxiety med for me to take as needed. It works really well. Thank you for this article. I plan on discussing it with him. It makes me think that a anxiety disorder may be my problem.

November 21, 2016

I know it’s a long shot, but could this be a reaction to something chemical? This happens to me for the first couple of weeks of putting the radiators on in winter, so I have to open the windows; I’m guessing it’s something in the radiator paint, perhaps methylisothiazolinone. There are lots of chemicals all around us in the modern world, as well as in food, toiletries and cosmetics, and the water supply – and it only takes one!
That said, if it is anxiety, then tracking the source and practising relaxation will hopefully take care of it. I wish you the very best of luck, Andy.

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

Kitty-A good general approach to such anxiety is to first exclude medical illnesses such as hyperthyroidism, electrolyte abnormalities, etc. Proper tests can exclude these and other medical illnesses. Then, if there are unusual foods or drinks responsible for this, this should be excluded. Once this is excluded, the nature of anxiety can be understood through a psychiatric lens. Mind wandering is best tried after medical causes are excluded. Thanks for your comment.

Paul Stephens
November 21, 2016

Sounds like metacognitive therapy. Do not fight intrusive and over exaggerated fears. Let them do their own thing – namely, let them wander around – but do not give them the attention that they do not warrant. Tough to start but gets easier over time. Paul

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

It does take practice, Paul. Metacognitive therapy does also activate the DMN (the “unfocus” circuit) as it involves self-reflection, understanding others, and mental time travel. Thanks for making the connection for us.

November 18, 2016

Thanks it’s make sense for me. Gonna give it a try.

Relax and let it go

Thanks from Brazil

Srini Pillay
November 21, 2016

So glad you will try this out. Building in time in your day to do this is key. Which hour in the day will you take a break to try this out?

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