Are you an over-thinker? Of course all of us are thinking all the time. Our minds are producing upwards of 60,000 thoughts every day because it is our minds’ job to produce thoughts. Thinking itself is not the problem. Rather, it’s the kind of thoughts you’re engaging in and the amount of energy you’re giving to really unhelpful thoughts.
I’ve come to recognise a few common culprits that fall into the ‘overthinking’ category and cause you the most distress. Here I’ve listed my top three and given you some tips for how you might overcome them.
This is the very definition of overthinking. It essentially means to obsess over a problem and to keep thinking about it from every angle without doing anything productive to solve it. You know how they call cows ruminants because they keep regurgitating their stomach contents and chewing over it again? (I know.. gross!) Well that is essentially what we are doing when we ruminate. Chew the same stuff over and over. This kind of unproductive, obsessive problem focus is a massive time-waster and strongly linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety.
There are various ways to break the habit of rumination:
- When you notice yourself going down that path, imagine a stop sign in your head and tell yourself STOP. Then immediately switch your thoughts to something more pleasant, more present focused or positive.
- Give your mind a distraction. Call a friend, read a book, play music, start a new task. Find out what works for you to keep your mind from wandering back to the problem
- Remind yourself that what you are doing is NOT problem solving and is in fact, likely making things worse. Don’t let yourself be fooled into believing this thinking is productive.
This is when you question everything you do and say, and every decision you make, never trusting yourself to get anything right. It could come up when you’re making decisions about what job to take or what outfit to wear. If it’s about things you’ve already done, you might go over and over it wondering if you’ve done the right thing. Every little thing is subjected to your own harsh scrutiny, constantly wondering if you should have done something different. Here’s what to do about it:
- Practice being more comfortable with uncertainty. Second-guessing yourself is a type of anxiety caused by needing to be 100% sure you’ve done the right thing. Of course, nothing in life is 100% guaranteed (and even if something is right for a short time, things can change in an instant!) so learning to live in a world that is inherently uncertain is essential for your sanity.
- Challenge your ideas about the importance of some of these decisions. Will it matter in a year? Does it matter to anyone else but you? Is this decision entirely irreversible such that you will live with devastating consequences for the rest of your natural born life? Probably not. So relax.
This is when you obsess over what other people might be thinking or will think about you. It has elements of rumination and a bit of second guessing which makes it doubly torturous. It is often highly self-critical thinking because you assume other people have negative thoughts about you or your decisions. Mind reading is one of the worst kinds of over-thinking because at the end of the day, it’s pure fantasy. Not only are you taking the worst, most judgmental thoughts about yourself but you’re attributing them to someone else without any way of checking the validity of your assumptions. Bad idea!
- When you notice yourself fixating on what you think other people are thinking or guessing what other people’s objectives or motivations are, use all the skills I mentioned in Point 1 to stop and shift your attention.
- Remind yourself that your mind’s inbuilt negativity bias means you will always assume the worst. This is part of your biological make-up but you are can take control of those thoughts.
- If possible, simply let go of those thoughts. If not, try coming up with several more positive scenarios to replace your negative assumptions and remind yourself that since you’re only guessing anyway, the positive options are just as likely to be true.
Of course one of the best ways to manage all the unhelpful thinking traps. we all fall into is by practicing mindfulness. When you can learn to watch your thoughts with curiosity (or even humour!) instead of being consumed by them, and you finally are able to stop believing all the terrible stories you’re telling yourself, you open up to a whole new way of living.
If you’re keen to learn more about mindfulness and how it can help you, hop on my mailing list (below) or better still, consider joining me for my 8-week online course, Mindfulness for Busy People.