As someone with depression and anxiety, one of the things I struggle with is too much brain noise: my mind stuck in a loop, the same upsetting thoughts rattling around and around and around again. One trick I use is to go through the alphabet and name a dog breed for each letter (I had an encyclopedic knowledge of such as a child and retain much of it). I can do it, but it takes concentration. Sometimes it only distracts me long enough to get to Z and then my mind snaps right back into the rumination again, but once in a while it does snap me out of it.
I do a fair bit of yoga. There are days when, even when I start off crying as I get onto the mat, it absorbs my attention so that there’s only yoga. There’s only the things my body is doing. The din of my mind is far away. It doesn’t always happen, and it often doesn’t stay for long, but when it does occur, it’s pretty glorious.
Conversation exchange sessions can also trick my mind out of an anxiety loop. I have to concentrate in order to follow along and respond at least somewhat appropriately. There’s no room for misery or doubt or anything except trying to process those words coming at me.
Unlike many people, I don’t get particularly anxious when trying to speak my target language. Sometimes I get stressed when something important or expensive depends on my comprehension — when I’m traveling, for instance. But with conversation exchange, that doesn’t happen. Whether or not I’ll click with the other person, whether or not we’ll have things in common to discuss, whether or not the conversation will drag because we find each other weird or boring — those things I worry about! But the actual forming of language feels all right. Almost kind of soothing, in a way, and I think that’s because of the mindfulness aspect and the laser focus it requires, which leaves no room for anything else. There’s just me, and these words I’m trying to shape and get out.
Of course, my brain can relax during the English half of the exchange, which sometimes means the dark thoughts slip back in. But at least in the other half, I’ve got to pay attention. A bonus is that doing so makes me feel slightly accomplished. Which is a lot better than feeling useless and stuck and miserable.
(I read another post about yoga and language-learning the other day, incidentally, which makes some other comparisons between the two activities; worth checking out.)