Don’t overthink it.
When I wrote “Hippy Affirmation Day 17” it was about shifting our focus out of overthinking.
Touching lightly on the subject, I suggested using mindfulness to help stop overthinking. Overthinking is defined as thinking about a subject too much or for far too long. It is analyzing, commenting and repeating the same thoughts over and again, instead of acting.
Common scenarios that cause us to overthink are:
1. A conversation we had in which we wish we had said or done something different.
2. In anticipation of a very important conversation we will be having with someone.
3. We have a decision to make that is particularly difficult (whether to quit a job, break up a relationship, move to another city, etc).
4. We have to do something we are not confident in our ability to do.
Our overthinking can also be a result of:
1. Catastrophizing the future with bad outcomes (being a “Chicken Little”).
2. Comparing ourselves to others (finding ourselves lacking).
3. Fear of having anxiety attacks or panic attacks in public.
Whatever the cause of our overthinking, there are ways to stop overthinking. These ways are not permanent. The overthinking will probably come back. With practice though we can stop it more effectively each time that it reappears. The first step is always awareness. I don’t know about any of you, but I sure don’t have a problem with this one. When I am overthinking I am very aware of it because I feel like I am going a little bit crazy. My mind is taking over and just running riot with my thoughts. I have no peace. And I just want it to stop. Trouble is that when I tell my mind to stop the thoughts the overthinking persists more, even magnifies.
I am prone to being obsessive especially in my thoughts. I don’t like it one bit. It is a part of who I am so I accept it. At this point of awareness and acceptance is the jumping off point into what can be done about it.
- Practice mindfulness – As discussed in the Hippy Affirmation Day 17, mindfulness is a way to shift our focus out of our thinking into the present moment of what is happening and what we are doing. For example, if you are petting your cat or dog, focus on how it feels to touch their fur, look at the colors and patterns of their fur, notice how their ears move, notice the sounds they make, etc. By doing so, the mind cannot be occupied by mind chatter, rather by the shared moment of connection with your pet.
- Occupy yourself with something that requires focus – This can be art (like drawing or painting), a project (like building something), a craft (like sewing or knitting), organizing something (like a drawer or closet), cleaning something, writing, reading, or learning something new. There is a wealth of knowledge out there on many subjects in books at the library and tutorial videos on the internet. An added bonus is that we keep our minds healthier when we learn something new.
- Get active – Do something that gets the body moving. Exercise is commonly recommended. Traditional exercise bores me so I don’t stick with it. I ballroom dance and dancewalk. During either activity, my mind is totally free of overthinking and I have so much fun. Find the activity that works best for you so that you will want to do it. Yoga and tai chi are other body moving disciplines that can be good for slowing down or stopping our thinking.
- Breathe – This is the least utilized tool in our toolbox of life. Just the act of learning to slow down the breathing can help to slow down our thoughts. In order for breathing to be effective when we find ourselves stuck in overthinking, we need to practice during times when we are not challenged by our runaway mind.
- Meditate – There are quite a few ways to meditate. I was trained in transcendental meditation so that is what I do. For some people focusing on an object like a candle flame helps them to meditate. Find out what works best for you. Keep in mind that meditation is a practice. It takes time and effort to use meditation to help stop overthinking.
- Work on feeling safe – Much of our overthinking is a result of us not feeling safe. We see the world as a place that can tear us down in an instant with it’s unknown circumstances waiting in the wings. Sure there are challenges that will arise and the world can feel very unsafe. The key is to realize that we can weather whatever may come. And, to not scare ourselves to death imagining the worst case scenarios. Remind yourself of the times you came through difficult challenges in your life and know that you can do it again.
- Work on your confidence – When we don’t have confidence in our abilities we get very fearful of making mistakes. We will make mistakes when we attempt new things. It’s only by doing these things that we gain confidence. We have to be willing to get past our fear of screwing up to get to the other side where confidence grows. I have been taking ballroom dance lessons for 18 years. I will never forget when I first started learning to dance. I was so afraid to make a mistake that I would freeze like a deer in the headlights whenever the instructor watched us. Thank goodness I stuck with it. It’s a huge source of confidence in my life now.
- Don’t think about what people think of you – We cannot control anyone outside of ourselves. People will think what they think. They are usually so self-focused that they aren’t even thinking about us at all. If they are judging us, it has very little to do with us. It’s their own shortcomings and misperceptions within themselves that fuels their judgmental thoughts about others. There is not one thing your thinking will do to change any of that.
- Use a timer to limit your time spent in overthinking – When you are trapped in overthinking set a timer (perhaps for 10 minutes). Let yourself do all the analyzing, ruminating and obsessing you need to do for that set period of time. Once the time is over, write out on a piece of paper what comes to mind. This could be quite revealing and could help you resolve a difficult situation. Then, throw the paper away and go on with your day.
- Have grateful thoughts – Whenever we have good thoughts about the good in life they cancel out negative thoughts about the bad in our lives. And the really cool thing about seeing the good is that we tend to see more good. Of course the opposite is true, that when we focus on the bad in our lives we see more bad. By shifting into the grateful thoughts we can enrich our life immeasurably while also nipping overthinking in the bud before it ever starts.
Psychological disorders can be at the root of overthinking. Obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder are some of the top culprits. Mental illness is difficult to contend with since it is inherited from our parents. Medication is usually necessary. Eating calming foods and beverages and avoiding stimulating foods and beverages is important too. Certain supplements can be taken as well. This does not mean that my suggestions will not help in the case of endogenous psychological disorders. They can definitely help. If you have a psychological disorder, you’ll need to attack your overthinking with all that I have suggested. Let me also recommend going to therapy that is focused on your thinking and getting at the root of your insecurities.
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by all these ideas. Take it a little at time. Sometimes we have to work on one or two things to make progress. Once those ones are integrated into our lives, we add another suggestion. It’s a process. Just like life. Nothing happens overnight. It happens in increments. Until, eventually we find that we have changed when we weren’t even aware that we were changing.