26 September 2020
Overthinking is the act of thinking too much and too deeply about things.
We can all do it, but if it stops you from being calm and present or doing things like engaging with people or sleeping, it’s time to kick it into touch.
I used to overthink a lot. I remember in my 20s being worried for weeks that I’d got a speeding ticket. I’d braked as I saw the policeman with the speed gun, but didn’t know if I’d been ‘caught’. I remember going from happy – I’d just played tennis – to deflated and consumed by the thought of getting penalty points on my licence in the space of several seconds. And it lasted, and lasted, and lasted. However much my husband – who had 6 points at the time – told me it didn’t matter, I couldn’t overcome the sense of dread and the extrapolation of a simple act into a life defining disaster.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter but at the time the uncertainty of the outcome led me to ruminate long and hard, stealing away precious moments of several weeks until I concluded that I’d have heard from them by then if I had indeed been the speed demon of Leamington Spa.
For me, overthinking – and caring what others thought of me – came from my experiences as a child. I was made to feel unsure of my own thoughts and opinions and so I’d overthink the responses, outcomes, and what-might-happens until I was even more unsure of myself.
Have you ever done something or said something wrong and then let that sit in your consciousness for far longer than you should as you go over all the reasons you’re stupid and rude?
Do you worry about how your words have been taken?
Do you ponder over every conversation, looking for the signs to make real the potential you’ve decided will happen?
Overthinking takes a simple error and turns it into a cataclysmic disaster. If a thought is a cube of ice, an over thinker can turn it into an iceberg that covers a space the size of the UK – “and it will probably sink all the ships around it, and it will definitely be my fault.”
Going from hero to zero is the overthinker’s speciality and it’s really not right or fair. We all do the best we can at the time with what we have. But overthinking comes from the primitive emotional part of our brain, where a kitten becomes a sabre toothed tiger faster than you can say “Oh, why did I say/do that?!” It can become a cycle of thoughts and behaviour, and lead to anxiety and other mental health issues.
So how do we stop it?
1) Recognise we do it – take a thought audit for a day and see where your mind has gone. Are you rolling over what Beryl in accounts said to you in that email last week? Or the fact the psychiatrist cancelled your child’s appointment? Did your friend or child not replying to your message straightaway – even though you knew they were online – consume you? When we recognise something we can begin to change it. Be kind as you reflect on the thoughts you’re entertaining.
2) Distract yourself – when you feel yourself falling into a thought, bring yourself back to the moment – what can you see, hear, touch, taste? Have something you can go to when thoughts become too heavy. You can’t be considering how bad your relationship is going to be since you said something that didn’t land well as you cogitate on 7 down, 11 letters, in the cross word.
3) Flip it, remove it, or replace the thought – this takes practice and attention, but when the overthinking starts, engage a different voice in your head and flip the thought. From “my child will never leave home” to “I can’t say what will happen in the future, so I’ll focus on doing the best I can now”. From “She hates me” to “I don’t know what she’s thinking, and I’m only in charge of my own responses, not hers. I’ll wait to hear what she thinks.” Or even a simple “I’m overthinking this. Everything will be fine.” If that feels hard, I use a virtual eraser in my head to rub out visual images I don’t want to keep coming up. You can also replace your thought with a fluffy bunny, or happy memory. You have a choice what sets up shop in your head!
4) Write a list of your good points – this might seem odd, but if you have it to hand, you can reflect on all the good you do and are and this can help dispel some of the myths that overthinking delivers – that we’ve caused a bad situation to happen and we can’t cope. No, we haven’t, and yes we can! You’ve got this!
5) Work out why – you may need to do this with a therapist or supportive friend, but working out where your overthinking comes from can help you deal with the root cause. Maybe like me you have a childhood that didn’t give you the foundation you needed to feel confidence with ease, or maybe you’ve had a few knockmbacks and now decided that you’re a bad person? Maybe the relentless uncertainty of caring for someone with a mental health issue has lead you to feel you only have control over the certainty of your uncertain thoughts? Whatever it is, it’s worth digging deeper and seeing what’s at the bottom of this. So you can see it, address it, and give yourself some peace. Years of self help books have helped me overcome it. I am a different person to the one who would worry for weeks about how someone took an off the cuff remark, or lie awake at night going over the events of the day. You can move on too.
6) Be grateful – I know, I know, all roads lead to Gratitude! But they really do with overthinking. You can’t be overthinking when you’re truly, deeply present and grateful. Take a moment and breathe in and out. Get still. And listen to what your body and mind is telling you – what things you can find gratitude for. It can be cake, chocolate, and wine or my family, my family, my family. Whatever it is wrap yourself in the sense of gratitude. And then share them here. It works for so many things, and if you are grateful each time you are overthinking, soon you’ll find your thoughts don’t go that way. Your neural pathways will have been rerouted.
Please share any reflections on today’s post in the comments.