Every Friday on his way home from work, alone with his thoughts, Matt would replay the week’s frustrations over in his mind. He wasn’t even aware of it; the voices in his head just sort of took over. The chatter was practically deafening. And every Friday evening like clockwork, he would get a migraine.

For the longest time, Matt couldn’t figure out why he was getting these monstrous headaches after the stressful workweek was over. He eventually realized that he was stressing at the worst possible time – when he could do nothing about it. Once he started to deal with his issues in real time, the migraines magically stopped.

That is, until he started having Friday night conference calls with his company’s Asian headquarters to hammer out a big deal. For weeks, the lawyers picked apart every clause of the 20-page agreement. It was frustrating beyond words, but nothing a couple of glasses of wine couldn’t fix.

And on Saturday mornings, the migraines returned. That went on for a few weeks until the light bulb again went off in Matt’s head. Just another issue he wasn’t dealing with as he should.

A classic example of how not to manage stress, the story also points to a far bigger issue. Your thinking brain is the enemy of self-awareness. So are its many distractions. And that affects your relationships, career, success, and happiness. You might think you know yourself pretty well, but when it comes to what really matters, chances are you don’t.

Back in the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau decided to get to the heart of what life on Earth was really all about. To gain perspective, he escaped the hustle and bustle of everyday life and lived alone in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days.

That was the genesis of Walden, a source of many insights on the human condition, including the famous, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Even then, in a far simpler time, it took an extreme level of solitude and introspection for Thoreau to understand himself and, in so doing, uncover great secrets of the human mind, including a surprising ability to burry feelings deep beneath layers of thought, distraction and day-to-day nonsense.

Fast forward to today. We practically immerse ourselves in communication, information and entertainment 24×7. The more time we spend texting, tweeting, posting, linking, liking, gaming, updating, and viewing, the harder it is to be aware of what’s really going on under the surface of our increasingly busy and distracted minds.

If your deepest feelings – the things you most want and fear – remain buried in your subconscious, the harder your thinking mind has to work to try to come to terms with them. That futile endeavor is called denial. It results in undue stress and anxiety, not to mention bad life and business decisions you’ll ultimately come to regret.

Thoreau taught us that self-awareness does not happen on its own. When you’re troubled, stressed, uninspired, solving a tough problem, or making a big decision, don’t wait, disconnect. Sit quietly and look inward. In time, you will learn to get past the noise of your thinking mind to your feelings. That’s where you’ll find insight and inspiration. If there are answers, that’s where you’ll find them.

A version of this post originally appeared on entrepreneur.com. 

Image credit Juan Salmoral via Flickr

  • SamHanson

    Introspection is hard. We’ve grown accustomed to being busy, when we first introspect it can be scary.