‘Overthinking: the art of creating new problems out of ones that never existed in the first place’ – anonymous
I’m an overthinker. There, I’ve said it. I own up to it. I wish I wasn’t, but it’s incredibly hard to stop overthinking if that’s the way you are. Those well meaning souls who tell us to ‘just stop thinking’ will probably never understand what it’s like to not be able to turn your thoughts off. For me it tends to largely be a night time problem but for many it can take over their life and can lead to depression and anxiety.
What do we achieve by overthinking? Nothing! How many days of our lives have been wasted or spoiled by doing it? Too many!
Life is a process, a journey, call it what you will, but it happens and we have no control over the majority of it. We don’t need to have an answer for everything, we just have to live the best life we can and resolve issues as they arise. That doesn’t mean never thinking about a contingency plan, we’d be crazy not to have at least an idea of what we’d do if our car broke down in the middle of the night on a deserted road. That kind of planning, or problem solving, is not overthinking, more a sensible use of thinking.
We can even sabotage our chance of happiness or success by overthinking. Whilst thinking is good, overthinking can often end things before they get a chance to get going. That job you didn’t apply for because you thought about all the things that might go wrong. That relationship you never gave a chance because you thought it might not work in ten years time. As Robert Herjavek said ‘Thinking too much leads to paralysis by analysis’. It’s true, we can actually avoid doing things because of what might happen instead of giving something a go.
Of course, it is important to think some things through. If you have a problem, it’s good to work out the options and decide on the best course of action. Lots of people rate mind-mapping for achieving this. But it’s important to think for a limited amount of time and then do something, not spend your entire life thinking but never actually doing anything about it. I like this quote, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte ‘Take time to deliberate but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go’. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate between the two, but a simple way to know if you are problem solving or overthinking is to ask yourself if you are actually looking for an answer which you will action or if you are just dwelling on possibilities and pitfalls without any real intention to do anything.
For me, overthinking mainly happens at night. I can be perfectly calm and composed all day, in fact, I would say I am pretty laid back and relaxed for the majority of my waking hours. But then my head hits the pillow and, bang, I’m awake, thinking. Not worrying, not stressing, just thinking.
So what can we do? I’ve started using mindfulness techniques at night. It’s early days, but I’d say it’s helping. Once I’ve experimented a bit more, I’ll write about it in another post. But if you struggle with overthinking, it could be worth a try, day or night, whenever those pesky thoughts arise. When you focus on something else, whether that is your breath, the sounds around you, or the task you are undertaking, you take your mind away from the thoughts that are circling in your mind. It’s not just overthinkers like me who can benefit, if you’re a worrier or suffer with stress, you might also find this technique helpful.
There are lots of methods but one simple one is to focus on your breath. Imagine a box and as you breath in you move from the bottom left corner of the box up to the top left corner, counting to five as you do so. As you breathe out, imagine moving across the top of the box, again counting to 5 in your head. Then breathe in as you move from the top right corner to the bottom, and out as you move across the bottom. Repeat at least 8 times but you can continue until you fall asleep if you wish. This does two things: it slows your breath which is particularly good if you are stressed or anxious; and it stops you thinking about anything else because you are focussed on the box and counting your breaths in and out.
Amazingly our brains make around 35,000 decisions every day, many of which require very little or no thought process at all. For example, as you are reading this post, you might have shifted position, scratched your arm, taken a mouthful of water, checked an incoming text message – all of those things required you to make a decision but I’m sure you didn’t spend any time at all deciding whether to do so! Even many of our more conscious decisions are simple – what shall I have for breakfast today? Shall I go for a walk? Have I fed the cat? Shall I press the snooze button or get up?! For the remaining decisions that do require some thought, we need to make sure we are problem solving and not overthinking. Is it something we have control over? If not, try not to waste any time thinking about it. What is my gut telling me? Often instinct, or our gut reaction, is the best thing to go with. Somehow we know inside what we need to do and it’s important to trust our gut.
So what can we do this week? Can we try to notice when we are overthinking and focus instead on active problem solving rather than endless rumination? If you’re like me and it’s mainly a night time thing, then could you try a mindfulness meditation before sleep? Or how about the box breathing technique or mind-mapping? Maybe a yoga session? If you’re not an overthinker, then could you perhaps be extra kind to someone you know who is?
I’d like to leave you with two quotes today. The first made me laugh and the second made me think:
‘If overthinking burned calories, I’d be a supermodel’
‘Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best’.
Until next time xx
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