How to find mental space and cope with stress better

She lost her fight with brain cancer on Saturday. The aunt I knew better than all my others. The one whose home means Thanksgiving and Christmas to me. Whose spunk and no-nonsense attitude helped me feel okay, even if I wasn’t.

Her wisdom got me through my first year of teaching. She made me laugh when I wanted to cry about my worst students. And when I wanted to bury my head under a pillow as a new parent, she’d pipe up with lines like “Well, I bet you’re glad you wanted to be a mom so bad!” Everyone else risked getting punched for stuff like that.

Missing her would be hard enough on its own without having to push and shove life out of the way to make space for this grief. That kind of mental space is hard to come by. But we all need it to cope well with life – to handle ups and downs, process change and make good decisions.

This month in Newsweek, Sharon Begley reported Temple University’s finding that the thinking, deciding part of our brains actually shuts off when we take in too much information at once and try to act on it all. We need to have some mental space.

Here are some ways to do that in our information-overloaded, high-intensity world, so we can cope better when life happens.

Empty your brain. You can only interact with about 7 ideas at once – the rest go by the wayside. Unless you have a regular place to unload your thoughts. So jot them down on Macbook Stickies, a text file, notes on your smart phone, Evernote, or plain-old pen and paper. Programs like Evernote allow tagging of each note you write so you can find it again when you want it. And voice-to-text apps allow you to do this on the go.

Be quiet. Find a place to sit still and do nothing. It doesn’t have to be long – 10 minutes can do the trick. Just give yourself the regular gift of time to sit, with life unplugged, and preferably no lights or sounds… and listen to the quiet. I do this in my car because it’s really really quiet there when it’s parked!

Doodle. Begley’s article reminds us that our subconscious mind is where the creativity resides. Creativity doesn’t wear us out like over-thinking things does. Doodling gives our conscious mind something to do while our subconscious casually works through things we’re thinking about.

Pause before deciding. Information and scheduling overload creates mental paralysis. Begley described it this way: “The science of decision making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret.” So plan time throughout the decision making process to shut off all input and give your mind space to mull it over in it’s own creative way.

Get enough rest. A tired brain is a brain that wastes the space it has just trying to stay awake. A little extra sleep at night or a short nap during the day will get what you’re doing done better, and more efficiently. This is especially important when we’re processing tough things like grief and loss.

Exercise. Exercise releases endorphins that improve mood and relieve stress so you can think better. It makes the brain more efficient so you can do more with the mental space you’ve already got. So go for a walk or take the stairs at work periodically to give your mind a boost and help you cope better with life’s challenges.

Listen to music. A recent study revealed that when you listen to songs you like, it elevates mood and helps everything seem more optimistic and positive. It also serves to distract your conscious brain and allow your powerful subconscious to get in on the mental action, giving you a sense of mental space again.

Pray. All the best-intended strategies in the world will fail us if we go at it with our understanding alone. God can do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think,” so trust Him to keep His word and talk with Him about what’s on your mind. 

What helps you to have more mental space to process life? Share your ideas! To comment on this post, click here.

If this post resonated with you and you want help cultivating more mental space and coping better in life, check out my coaching page or send me an email at

Be blessed!

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  1. says

    Thank you so much for writing this blog entry. My parents are in the process of a divorce and it has been very difficult for me. I feel as if I'm undergoing similar grief. This post was very helpful for me.

  2. says

    Linda – Rocking chairs are so great! I often sit and rock in ours even after my toddler's nestled away in her bed. It really is calming. Great addition to the list.

  3. says

    So sorry for your loss Laurie. I just found out yesterday that my mom has Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma. I'd kind of shoved it into a tightly sealed compartment, but I'm planning to give myself some space this afternoon. I usually shut off the phone, close the laptop, crawl under a blanket, snuggle with my dogs, and read.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  4. says

    Lovely post, Laurie. And I am so sorry about your beloved Aunt. May she rest in peace.

    Thank you for a really important topic. I like the strategies for creating more mental space. Thankfully, I'm already doing some of them.

    When I was little, I rec'd a rocking chair as a Christmas gift. I used to sit in my room and rock while listening to music. Everyone thought it was a weird knack, but it really calmed me down. I later learned that rocking is self-soothing (interesting that I worked w autistic adults at the time, but didn't make the connection), and the back and forth motion relaxes and induces emotional well-being.

    You reminded me that my computer has “post-its” on the desktop. Completely forgot (must have been the 8th thing on my mind:)) until reading this. I will use those to help organize, and create more space in the brain.

    Take care, Laurie. I will pray for your Aunt today.

  5. says

    Laurie I am so sorry about your loss. When you lose someone you understand the fallen nature of this world…we were not created for this kind of separation and it never sits right or easy because of that. May you be blessed to remember all that she gave to you as time goes on!