I have a love-hate relationship with thinking. Sometimes, I get in these kinds of flow states where I follow my train of thought – connecting the dots along the way – to an exciting, unexpected destination. When I follow my thoughts in this way, I find it euphoric. I often derive my best writing doing so.
This is all well and good when my thought train takes me on a such journey; however, it’s not so great when my train of thought – as it likes to do – takes me down some dark tunnels. I’ve come to realise that the problem isn’t negative thinking per se, but an inability to get off the train and determine the clouds from the sky.
Thoughts are a lot like clouds. When viewed from the outside, we can see them clearly and the air is calm. When you’re stuck inside, however, the air becomes turbulent. Seeing things clearly becomes much more difficult as a result.
That’s why it’s essential to know how to get off the train – especially when our thoughts aren’t serving us. It’s in the space outside our thoughts that we can view them objectively. It’s in this space that we can then choose which thoughts to engage with and which/when we shouldn’t.
The question is, how do we get off the train to distinguish the clouds from the sky in the first place?
What Is Pointless Overthinking?
Before we work out how, it’s important to define what and why.
There’s a fine line between thoughtful, thorough consideration surrounding a problem or idea versus worrying about certain should haves or could haves or events over which we have no control.
The first type of thinking – let’s call it deep-thinking – is about figuring something out or coming to a deeper understanding. That’s to say, it serves a purpose. Either helping us grow as individuals or take more meaningful action. Engaging in this kind of deep-thinking is necessary when we have a difficult life decision to make.
The danger comes from engaging with an idea or problem to such an extent that it actually prevents us from taking any kind of action or deepening our understanding on a topic. Not only does this type of thinking – let’s call it pointless overthinking – fail to achieve anything, it’s actually counter-productive.
It usually involves dwelling on how bad we feel or worrying about events we have no control over.
Why Do We Pointlessly Overthink?
Many perfectionists and overachievers are prone to this kind of overthinking. According to Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York, this is because “the fear of failing and the need to be perfect take over, which leads to replaying or criticizing decisions and mistakes.”
For others, overthinking is rooted in mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Which comes first – mental illness or overthinking – is a bit like asking if it’s the chicken or the egg. At any rate, those who overthink are more prone to neuroses and vice versa.
It can also lead to a host of other problems affecting everything from your work and relationships to your sleep and health. One Harvard study found that excessive brain activity depletes an essential protein, which may shorten the human lifespan.
Clearly then, learning to tame the overthinking mind is important. So how do we curb overthinking?
How To Curb Pointless Overthinking
- Understand what triggers overthinking
Ideally, you want to spot the storm on your radar so you can go around it or, at least, prepare yourself in advance. This is why it’s useful to have a clear understanding of what your triggers are.
One tip is to write down specific moments that caused you to overthink or worry during the day. One of my major triggers is fatigue. It often sends me into a spiral where I tell myself that I shouldn’t feel tired all the time. So I end up feeling bad about feeling bad, which makes me feel, well, bad. This, of course, sends me down the emotional rabbit hole.
The good news is I’m now much quicker to spot it now. This has allowed my to better implement a number of different coping strategies.
- Observe your thoughts without judgment.
“Pure attention without judgement is not only the highest form of human intelligence, but also the expression of love.” – JIDDU KRISHNAMURT
It’s best to go around the storm clouds if you can help it. However, we need a plan for the times we inevitably find ourselves enveloped.
Just like flying an aircraft – the best course of action isn’t to try and control the plane when we encounter turbulence but to sit on our hands and ride it out. Similarly, when it comes to the mind, the best solution is often not to look for one.
What I’m getting at here is the practice of observing your thoughts without judgement. The more we do this, the better we become at letting them go.
Eckhart Tolle is his famous book “The Power of Now,” suggests asking yourself the following question, “What will my next thought be?” This works by creating a gap in the mind that allows you to dis-identify with your thoughts.
If you keep asking, “What next?” you will soon start to see the thought clouds begin to dissipate.
- Redirect your attention to the present.
This is the equivalent of exiting the clouds by coming back to earth. Meditation is a handy tool here.
One acronym I like to use in the real world (when I don’t have the time to sit and meditate) is STOP. It stands for:
- Stop for a moment
- Take a deep breath
- Observe without judgement
- Move your body/Engage in flow.
“No problem is so formidable that you can’t walk away from it.” – Charles M. Schulz.
One of the best ways to get out of your head is to get into your body. Practicing yoga or going for a walk outside can be a big help.
A great deal of research demonstrates exercise can improve depression and other mental illnesses such as related to chronic overthinking. It can also help shift your nervous system out of the fight or flight mode. This can be particularly beneficial for those suffering from any trauma-related rumination.
Other activities where you can focus your attention – that generates a flow-like state – are also good.
For example, recently I bought a lego fire engine for my 3-year old that I thought we could build together. It turned out to be too advanced for him, so I made it myself. I was surprised by how much enjoyment I got from it. It took me a little over two hours to build, but I hardly noticed the time go by. I was completely immersed.
- Challenge your thoughts objectively.
Our attempts to analyse our thoughts are often futile precisely because we are stuck inside them. That’s why it’s vital to first exit the clouds before attempting to understand them. Of course, many meditations work by bringing your attention to the present before attempting to understand any thought or emotion that may arise.
One meditation I like to use – useful on those particularly stormy days – is called RAIN. It stands for:
- Recognise the emotion or thought pattern
- Accept it (practice compassion towards it)
- Investigate it (question it objectively)
- Not identify with it (zoom the lens out)
Another way to examine your thoughts is by journaling.
Every morning as part of my routine, I ask and answer the following questions: What is worrying me most today? What can I do about it? What can’t I do about it?
This helps me determine whether I’m engaging in thoughtful, deep-thinking or pointless overthinking. It also helps me concentrate on what I can control and formulate a plan to commit to meaningful action.
- Talk to someone/Get professional help.
Talking to someone – whether a close friend or health care professional – can go a long way. We all need a support network. Often the courageous act of articulating our thoughts helps to see them clearly. I liken it to placing your thought clouds out in the open.
In clinical psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is one of the most effective methods to improve anxiety, mood, and self-confidence.
Brad Stulberg, in his book, “The Practise of Groundedness,” notes the most powerful teachings of ACT – which happen to fit into the acronym – are to “Accept what is happening without fusing your identity to it. Zoom out to a larger perspective or awareness from which you can observe your situation without feeling like you are trapped in it. Choose how you want to move forward in a way that aligns with your innermost values. Take action, even if doing so feels scary or uncomfortable.”
Ultimately that last part – taking action – is what matters most. We are not defined by our thoughts but our actions. But, of course, our thoughts are what lead to action or inaction as the case may be.
If you find yourself paralysed by your own thoughts, then the first action you should take is to reach out for help.
I hope you enjoyed my guide to pointless overthinking. I’m curious to know if overthinking is something you have trouble with? What techniques, if any, do you use to help? I look forward to hearing your deep thoughts on the matter.
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com
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