It’s a funny term, overthinking, when you think about it. What constitutes overthinking and how do we know we’re doing it? Overthinking could loosely be placed in the same category as any of the following: negative thinking, overwhelm, anxious thoughts, stress, worry, reflection, rumination and more. For our purposes today, we’re going to class overthinking as thoughts that feel out of control in some way and that aren’t serving you; they’re probably negative, you find them hard to shift and they seem to spiral.
What we’re often led to believe is that we must change these thoughts in order to feel and be OK again – to be successful, happy and to move forward. These thoughts need to be gone, and replaced with strong, positive, motivational thoughts for us to get clear and take action in our lives in whatever way we choose.
However, that doesn’t (always) help because:
- For some more than others re-thinking and adjusting our thoughts feels impossible or very hard – the whirring and non-stop-ness carries a lot of weight that isn’t easy to shift
- We get stuck in patterns that we think may have served us in the past and don’t always see the way out
- There may be an underlying disorder, like anxiety or depression, that makes them hard to shift
Thus asking someone to replace their negative, frequently difficult or negative thoughts with others that help them more may only serve to create more difficulty for that person because they feel they’re failing and can’t shift them like they ‘should’ be able to.
That’s not to say the exercise of noticing your overthinking, identifying what it’s generally pointing to and discovering alternative words and beliefs isn’t helpful. It’s just that we want to be careful we’re not expecting too much of ourselves in doing this work (of course being always hopeful it will help in some way).
With that in mind, how can we make overthinking work for us, so that even with it, despite it, we feel able to make good decisions, be relaxed and happy, and create, be and do what we want?
Here’s my brief guide.
1. Channel overthinking into activities you love
Chances are you’ve felt that you’re an overthinker for a long time. You may have been chastised for it e.g. ‘you’re too sensitive’ or it’s been (probably well-meaningly) minimised e.g. ‘just think of something else’. But you’ve felt for a long time that maybe your sensitivity is also helpful to you and you can’t, or at times, don’t want to ‘just’ think of other things.
So how could you make this analysis, this rumination you experience, work for you instead?
Ask yourself this: what hobbies or activities enable you to channel your thoughts into something productive or releasing?
Creating in some way can help us to experience our thoughts differently. We often turn to practical things when we want to get out of our heads somewhat, finding present, mindfulness and calm in these activities.
What might those activities be? It may be writing (privately or publicly, about your thoughts or not), creating or looking at art, pottery, woodwork, dance, cooking, editing, photography – the list is endless.
This isn’t so much about distracting you, although that will likely happen if you’re really in flow with the thing you’ve chosen, but rather enabling you to know that your sensitivity and thoughts can bring you joy, a sense of achievement and positive, rather than negative, associations.
2. Consider acceptance of overthinking rather than avoidance
Rather than seeing overthinking as something you need to get rid of or change, learning to live with it may have significant benefits.
I would however caution you to check in with yourself here too – if you think there’s underlying anxiety or other mental health issue, please seek the additional help you want (your GP, anxiety resources, a chat with me).
But that aside, the phrase ‘what we resist, persists’ isn’t far away in this discussion.
If we feel and acknowledge we’re overthinking – we can’t stop processing a difficult chat, always reflecting on actions and how they went, fixated on a specific person or issue, for example – what would it be like to allow yourself to work with this, and not against it? To get on with your day despite these thoughts? To even invite the thoughts to be there?
Not to be confused with encouraging and investigating every angle they’re exhausting us with, this is, rather, saying something like ‘I recognise I’m overthinking this issue, but I’m OK anyway’, or, similar: ‘I realise I’m ruminating on this memory/person/interaction, I choose to be present despite this’.
The difference with this version is that it’s softer and it doesn’t require pushing. It’s almost a shoulder shrug and a ‘meh’ in a neutral way to the difficult thoughts, rather than a ‘I shouldn’t be thinking this and it’s really upsetting me’.
Layering guilt on top of the overthinking doesn’t help anyone, but it is very common. Thus, working to remove the guilt is a really solid step to being in alignment with what we’re thinking and may help shift the thoughts as a result too.
3. Talk about overthinking in a way that helps you
You’ve probably been told that you think a lot, that you’re a dreamer, that you’re a natural introvert (you need time on your own to process life) but have you ever considered taking charge of your overthinking and embracing it as part of you? That means owning it in a way that is positive, rather than a negative label. That means, perhaps once more acceptance is present, that you’re able to be with it and talk about it in a way that’s helpful to you, rather than being ashamed or hiding from it.
It makes sense that we would try to do this – hide it, change it – because it links so strongly to mental health and wellbeing which is often hard to discuss. Shame also comes into it, for reasons I cover above: ‘what can’t I just stop thinking about this’.
Yet if we can articulate it in a way that’s powerful and right, perhaps we’ll feel more able to see it as part of us, our disposition, how we were made or the experiences that have happened to us, rather than a malfunction to remove?
Equally if we start to channel it into things we’re more confident to try out (point 1) perhaps we’ll see how it actually fuels our fire and feel prouder of it and ourselves.
Finally, our overthinking may have brought us many benefits over the years – able to help others, empathise, can see things objectively, improved our relationships etc. So remember what it’s done for you, thereby helping you to refer to it more positively too.
4. Learn your patterns and triggers for overthinking
Although this sounds more like a way to stop overthinking, learning our patterns and triggers will also help us to notice when it’s likely to occur and take precautions.
If we know our overthinking increases with the time of the month (women), change in our diet, our sleep, who we’ve spent time with, the projects we’re focusing on etc, we can track when we’re most likely to be in a state of rumination and avoid or minimise things that might be more stressful.
Equally if we reflect on when we’ve felt clearer minded, more content, more present and generally with less of a need to ruminate, we can try to emulate those times. If we discover that this was when we were on the once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world which we can’t afford to re-create, no problem – this isn’t about going back to all the same situations, it’s about what conditions you can find that are similar.
For example, were you more content and less likely to overthink on that trip because you’d finally made the right decision about a work situation, as opposed to just being away?
Or perhaps it was that you did a lot of it on your own, reminding you that you love solo-trips even to your local yoga centre.
Or even that you felt great in your body because you were moving so much, which reminds you that you want to walk more because it helps calm your mind. All valid ways to recreate the good moments.
Likewise, your triggers may be similar to your patterns but less controllable so knowing what’s likely to trigger your over-thinking in future helps you to plan for possibilities. If you know you’re triggered by a place, person or situation, have a plan for what you’ll do if those occur – perhaps the acceptance over avoidance strategy can be used here too.
5. Find other overthinkers, and those who claim they don’t overthink!
There’s nothing like being in a tribe to make you feel less alone, and if the response to the question of whether I should write this blog was anything to go by you’re certainly not alone – loads of us want ways to work with our overthinking because we’re fed up of being held back by it.
You don’t have to start sharing all your deepest thoughts to find other overthinkers. Rather it’s about being comfortable in your own mind, and learning that the people we attract tend to like our interesting characteristics rather than all our successes and positivities alone.
Channelling your overthinking in to activities you love often means we find others who are doing similar activities for potentially similar reasons. Being authentic about your feelings rather than covering them up where possible encourages others to be also. And learning to grow with our over-thinking rather than hide it can bring about a sense of confidence.
Equally it’s lovely to learn from others who don’t think this way – those who say they don’t overthink and don’t worry – notice these people and learn from them where possible; you never know what you’ll find out that may help you just as much as a like-minded person might.
This is, of course, partly about allowing vulnerability in; I’m an overthinker and I accept I’m trying to work with it rather than pretend it’s not there.
There. Now you.
If you liked this blog, you may also like this one on cultivating more self compassion.
Want to join other over-thinkers making their way into calmness? Head over to the gentle and successful Facebook Group for our latest discussion on finding peace in a frantic world.