Carrie Pollard, MSW RSW
The Power of the ‘Brain Dump’
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
Have you had the experience of laying in bed with your mind racing? Your body is telling you it is time to sleep, but your mind is (frustratingly!) wide awake. For me, this happens between 4am and 5am, which might be why I’m a ‘morning person’ as an easy thought-stopping solution is to get up. For many people, this early rising time might not work for their schedule, or they might find themselves with racing thoughts in the middle of the workday or when they’re going to bed.
One of the jobs of our beautiful brains is to process and organize things that are happening in our lives.
As the saying goes to ‘grow through it’ you must ‘go through it’. Thoughts are not facts, but the underlying worries, concerns, memories, and priorities are valid and may need to be addressed. Overthinking or rumination are not healthy ways of processing, as the same set of thoughts tend to circulate in similar (unproductive) patterns or iterations. When this happens, we can help our brain by releasing it verbally with a trusted, non-judgemental person. In fact, many counselling sessions start this way!
Another way to cope with racing thoughts is through the use of a ‘brain dump’. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a brain dump is defined as
“the act or an instance of comprehensively and uncritically expressing and recording one’s thoughts and ideas."
Some key terms that stand out in this definition for me are:
“Comprehensively”- write it ALL out, from something distressing you said to your boss to triggering memories to a list of things you need to get at the grocery store. Keep writing until there is nothing else circulating in your mind.
“Uncritically”- the brain dump is designed to be unorganized and imperfect. It doesn’t have to look pretty or make sense. You can use words or images, whichever way your brain best expresses itself. The key is to non-judgmentally get it out of your head and onto paper.
The act of writing itself tends to slow our thoughts down, which is helpful in and of itself. Once you’ve wrote it out, do something to calm you:
Deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation,
Warm shower or bath
Light stretching/yoga or go for a walk,
Have a glass of water or a snack,
Read a book or watch your favorite (non-triggering) TV show,
Color in a coloring book or app,
Have a nap or go back to sleep.
When you’re feeling grounded (hours or maybe days later), come back to the brain dump. Offer some compassion for yourself: “Geez, no wonder it is hard to sleep with that heavy load on my mind.” Remind yourself that “you’ve got this” and you can tackle “one thing at a time.”
One way to make it more manageable is to highlight or separate the list into urgent and important items. Hold space for the things that matter to you but are neither. With the help of a trusted person or on your own, create a plan for how you’ll address the urgent and important items and work on radically accepting and/or letting go of everything else.
Brain dumps are a powerful coping tool. They can become part of your daily routine (try a couple of hours before bedtime as a preventative practice), used weekly to help with mind/mood management or written as needed. Decide what works best for you!
To make this easier, I’ve attached a free ‘brain dump’ printable for you to use below. Consider scheduling a counselling appointment with myself or your own therapist to help guide you further.
If you’re stuck in your thoughts and need urgent support, contact a 24/7 crisis support service.
Learn more about the benefits of journaling on my Instagram @compassionate_counsellor and in this article: 83 Benefits of Journaling for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress