How do we calm and control our minds when they are furiously yet pointlessly circling round and round the problems in our lives?

When I was growing up, one of our family traditions on a Saturday evening was to watch the TV game show, The Generation Game, in which families would complete a number of challenges for prize money.

One game I always enjoyed watching was the plate-spinning competition in which the teams would try to get as many plates spinning on sticks for as long as they could. Usually they would manage to get two or three spinning, but when they tried to add a fourth and fifth, the first or second would start to slow and fall off. They’d rush to fix that, only for the fourth and fifth plate to fall off. It was often hilarious to watch the stress building as the timer ticked round and what looked so promising for a time all came crashing down.

Mental Plate-Spinning

Does your mind ever feel like a plate-spinning competition? Mine does. As we get older, problems arise in our families, in our churches, in our workplaces, and in our communities, with each issue adding another spinning plate to our minds. Also, if we are pastors or counselors, people come to us with their own problems, and ask us for help with their spinning plates, adding yet more to our lives. Eventually, we feel as if our minds are in a tailspin as our thoughts jump and dart from one mental stick to another to another, barely stopping long enough to do anything but spin the problem round again before sprinting on to the next issue.

Whether we are in the shower, in the car, in conversation with others, in bed, in church, or in the Bible, it’s so so hard to slow our minds down, to get our thoughts under control, to rest our mental processes, and to get spin-free quiet. Instead it’s often just spin, sprint, spin, sprint, spin, sprint, and so on. And sometimes it feels as if this is about to happen.

So why do we do it? Why do we just keep going round and round the same problems and challenges, just ruminating and revolving, without making any progress, without coming up with any solutions, without any benefit to ourselves or others?

But even more important than the “Why?” question is the “How?” question: “How do we stop this?” How do we slow down our minds, reign in our thoughts, and end the “game” that’s draining our mental and emotional energy, and killing our inner peace and joy?

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on this. What are some of your own thoughts on this common problem when dealing with problems. In the meantime, have a look at some the the following ideas. Some of them are from my own experience, and others have been passed on to me by friends I’ve asked about this over the past couple of weeks.

Margin: I’ve found that I do most of my plate-spinning when I’ve been way too busy. But when I’m not packing as much in, when I’m not rushing around, my mind is much calmer and I don’t get into plate-spinning mode. A key component of margin is getting enough sleep.

Coach: One of my counselor friends told me that he tries to view himself as a coach when helping people with their problems. Instead of taking responsibility for changing the person’s life himself, and getting over-involved, he gives advice and counsel, steps back and then hands responsibility over to the person. He can’t live their life or change their life. Only they can do that.

Homework: Another way my friend avoids spinning other people’s plates is by giving them measurable “homework,” practical changes that are to be implemented by the person seeking help before the next counseling appointments. No further counseling takes place without the homework being completed. Again, this hands responsibility back to the other person.

Transition: One friend told me that when he finishes counseling people, he consciously works at transitioning out of that mode before arriving home. He uses the time in the car to de-compress, to deliberately move his “self-image” from counselor over to husband and father. That helps him to leave the plate-spinning on the highway.

Limit: I’ve learned that I have to limit the number of counseling cases that I take on at any one time. Too many and my mind starts hopping from one issue to another to another, and the insane plate-spinning starts up again. I’ve gotten better at saying “No” when I’m at my limit or delegating it to someone else.

Trust: I’m not sure what I’m trying to accomplish when I start the mental circuit of problems again. One thing I’m not doing is trusting God, casting all my cares upon Him. It’s easier said than done, of course, but I confess that sometimes I don’t even try.

Acceptance: Some of my mental frenzy is caused by wanting to fix everything as soon as possible and get the problems off my desk and out of my mind. I want all the plates in the cupboard, all neatly packed away – no problems anywhere or with anyone. But that ain’t gonna happen this side of heaven – not if we want to serve others. Accepting that is itself calming and soothing on the mind.

Replace: I can’t stop thinking about problems – my own or others’ – by stopping thinking about problems. I can only stop that when I start thinking about something better – replacing thoughts about troubles with thoughts about blessings, substituting thoughts about broken relationships with thoughts about flourishing relationships, exchanging thoughts about people’s sins with meditation on Bible verses.

Children: For me, there’s no better therapy than my 2-year-old son, Scot. When I walk in the door each evening and hear his silly stories and watch him playing and laughing without a care in the world, the plates and sticks evaporate. Getting down on my knees with him to play trains or build a lego tower is the greatest de-stressor in my life.

I’d love to hear from you, what has helped you to stop the plate-spinning?

  • andyjoe81

    I find petting my dog helps. A week ago I was so overwhelmed that I was about to start taking it out ion my children with my tone so I went into our laundry room and was set to stay there with the lights off sitting in more or less a fetal position until the lack of sensory input calmed me enough to be able to bring it to God with a clear head. Before I got to that point my wife found me and just held me for a while, which was also nice, even if I wasn’t sure if she really understood what was going on. Finally, I find that the plate spinning is less likely when I start my day in silence conciously in the presence of the Lord with a prayer list prepared and a Bible on hand.

    • David Murray

      Yes, you’re absolutely right about the need to start the day with quiet in the presence of God. Wifely comfort, yes. But I draw the line at dogs, I’m afraid :)

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  • AL

    Singing helps stack the plates…they might not be in the cupboard yet, but they are at least stacked and ready to get there after singing a few songs!

    • David Murray

      I love that!