I RECEIVED an email from an avid reader who asked me to write about overthinking today. It was such a great suggestion as the majority of us are guilty of doing this- myself included.
Over-thinking is exactly what it sounds like – when we simply think too much. We over analyse every situation and read into too many details that (most of the time) aren’t necessary or even have a positive effect. It is a common method of self-destruction. There are those who over-think current and even future situations and then there are those who over-think by replaying past situations over and over. These are called ruminators.
Both affect our ability to accurately dissolve situations, to make effective and healthy decisions, to take action and are constant consumers of time and energy. It’s one of those things that take away our inner peace. One of the biggest issues with it is that only some of us know we are doing it. I believe most of you know by now that something cannot be fixed unless it is first identified and accepted.
Normally, as we fall into REM (deep) sleep at night, our brain files events away into our ‘memory bank.’ We forget most of the unimportant daily activities during this time; if we may have tripped on the stairs, what emotions we felt when we saw our loved one and so on. However, this wouldn’t happen so easily for the over-thinker- especially if they are losing sleep over analysing these situations.
So, do you over-think?
Now, everyone thinks about both past and future situations- this is normal. It’s very healthy to think things over – to both praise ourselves for a job well done and to learn from our mistakes. However, when does it become unhealthy and unproductive? Affects our mood, energy levels and overall well-being? When we overthink, we make every little thing an issue, even when there isn’t any. We also make any issue bigger and scarier than it is.
When we over-think, it looks a little something like this.
You go to work and your boss doesn’t smile at you the way he/she usually does. The first thing that pops into your mind is ‘I did something wrong- what did I do wrong?’ ‘Maybe when we last spoke, I said this and he/she is still upset by it.’ You come up with a million explanations as to why/how your boss is upset with you and ruined your mood. OR you go the other route and have a whole new opinion on that person’s character. ‘I thought they were nice, but look how rude he/she was so they must be awful people.’ When the simple reality is that maybe they just had a tough morning. Maybe they smiled and you missed it. Maybe it doesn’t even matter.
This is very common with intimate partners as well. ‘I said I wanted to see him/her and they texted back ‘ok.’ ‘They must not want to see me. They must not like me very much. They must be cheating.’ They could have simply meant okay.
In general, when overthinking, we:
* Cannot stop thinking about a certain situation/thing/event
* Read too much into other people’s behaviour/ actions towards you
* Are not thinking about the solution, but rather the problem on repeat
* Often think in the negative
* Often think about the worst-case scenario
* Often create problems where there aren’t any.
* Often create possible, negative scenarios in our minds
* Often think about what you could or should have done differently in situations
* Often worry about what we say and what we do
* Often distracted/ have poor performance
What are the harms of over-thinking?
Over-thinking interferes with our overall mental health. Dwelling on our mistakes or potential future mistakes increases the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This pattern of thinking causes a high level of stress, unwanted memories as well as heavy burdens and regret. It interferes with both our eating and sleeping patterns. I believe we have all had sleepless nights because of something we cannot get out of our minds; something that really bothered us and we cannot fully explain why.
Because of these effects, over-thinkers must have a high level of coping ability- which sadly is often not the case. Subsequently, they turn to alcohol/drugs or food as comfort which could potentially develop into substance abuse or eating disorders. All of these potentials often lead to self-hatred, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
So, how can we overcome over-thinking?
I’m not going to lie- this is/ will be very difficult to do. I have been trying it this last week and can say it takes much effort and commitment- but it is worth it!
There are quite a few things we can do.
Basic distractions are very good for taking your mind away from obsessive thoughts.
* Exercise – walk, jog, run, swim, ride a bicycl, etc.
* Music/ television
* Journalling – writing down the accurate situation always helps
* Get creative – draw, paint, adult colouring etc.
Basically, do whatever you find enjoyable.
Pay close attention to your thoughts. Counter negative thoughts with positive/ more realistic ones. When you think of a situation, ask yourself- is what I’m thinking true? Is this as important as I’m making it seem? Will this even matter in a few days? This helps to put things into perspective.
Set time for thinking and deadline decisions. Many of us do not do this as it is much easier said than done. Allocate a certain scheduled amount of time to think about a certain event. When that time is done, try one of the proven to work distractions.
Try focusing on the solution, rather than the problem. Repeated thinking of the problem does nothing for us- concentrate on solutions instead.
Use positive self-talk
I’ve said this time and time again- we need to stop putting ourselves down. This decreases confidence and self-esteem. This is important as when one has high self-doubt, they are much more likely to over-think.
Try to be more present- live in the moment. This means, avoid worrying about things that have already happened or haven’t happened yet.
Spend time with the right people. This is something even I hate to admit, but we become who we spend a lot of time with. Our personalities tend to change to suit who is around us. Just like when we become the most mannerly person ever when our bosses or elder family members are around, we tend to adapt to everyone else. Think about it, there are always people who permit us to curse more, who compel us to “talk name” more, or even force us to be more kind. This means, some people dwell on the past and future events that force us to do the same thing. Identify these people and limit the time you spend with them. This is hard I know, but until you have mastered counteracting and positive thoughts, being around these people will harm more than help. Keep in mind that this is not only personal individuals but also social media platforms. Limit your time on these as well.
Do progressive relaxation and deep-breathing techniques. These help to calm and relax the mind.
Progressive relaxation involves relaxing all parts of the body from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. Sit up straight (but comfortably) in your chair. Start by paying attention and feeling the tenseness in your toes. Twirl them around and feel the stress releasing. Tense the muscle and release it for a few seconds. Work your way up your body. Do the same with your fingers- squeeze them tight and then release. Work your way up to your neck- rotate it- feeling all the muscles relax. This whole process should take 10-15 minutes
When your body is relaxed, your mind will soon follow.
If you would like to calm down in a shorter amount of time, try a quick breathing exercise. Breathe through your nose for four seconds and out through your mouth for eight seconds. Pay attention only to your breathing at this point; drown everything else out. This quickly helps to relax the body/mind. Repeat at least three times (or as much as you need).
Lastly and very importantly, accept that there are certain things over which we just do not (and will never have) control. Overthinking (especially for future events/scenarios) is a way to attempt to control what’s going to happen- which we cannot do. This is not all bad. Not being prepared for certain situations forces us to step out of our comfort zones, learn invaluable lessons and develop resilience.
What worked best for me was asking myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ I still get nervous giving speeches/lectures and I asked myself this question before I performed yesterday. Of course, the answers were ‘I could forget what I have to say’ ‘I could fall down’ etc. However, when the worst was played out in my head- I realised it wasn’t that bad. If I forget, I refer to my notes; if I fall, I get back up.
Again, all of these are much easier said than done. So do it in small steps if you like; a small step in the right direction can be counted as a leap. It will take some time to perfect this, but my research on the topic has allowed me to believe that I can indeed overcome over-thinking. I severely dislike when people say “I haven’t hurt you, you let me hurt you” but they are right. The only thing that’s making it a thing is that I keep thinking about it. Accepting that my mind is my own worst enemy is a comforting fact because unlike other people’s actions and thoughts, I can work to control my own. Criss Jami said it best- “The older you get, the more you understand how your conscience works. The biggest and only critic lives in your perception of people’s perception of you rather than your own perception of you.”
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