Overthinking is your mind trapped on a treadmill. It’s exhausting and you are not getting anywhere. More importantly, if you don’t find a way out, it can cause some serious and lasting damage to almost every aspect of your life.
The worst part is that it doesn’t always seem like a trap. People often confuse it with a helpful workout.
So, let me ask you. In the past week or two, have you caught yourself —
- spending an inordinate amount of time struggling to make a decision?
- ruminating over the past and thinking what if you or someone else had acted differently?
- worrying about how something could go wrong in the future even though it’s unlikely?
- obsessing over why somebody said something about you?
Congratulations, if you answered no to each of these questions.
But chances are you do one or more of these things more often than you would like to admit. They are all examples of overthinking and if they are a part of your daily life, you could be a chronic overthinker. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Having suffered through countless phases of overthinking during the past decade, I know how agonizing it can be. And how big a toll it can take on your quality of life. Some of my episodes were so bad I couldn’t sleep, experienced panic attacks, and was unable to work for days or weeks. There were times when I thought I would never be happy again.
Even if it’s not that bad, overthinking can make it difficult for you to do anything productive. It causes stress and makes you susceptible to anxiety and depression. And puts you at a greater risk of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning.
“When stress is excessive, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure, also called hypertension, to asthma to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome,” says Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital.
How to stop overthinking and lead a healthy life
As usual, it all begins with awareness and acknowledgment of the problem.
Once I had realized I was habituated to overthinking several aspects of my life, I started asking myself the 4 questions mentioned earlier once or twice every day. Here’s why.
- It helped me identify the thought patterns that contributed to the bulk of my overthinking.
- It trained my mind to be alert to such patterns.
And this was important because as Muhammad Ali once said —
“ Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
What matters is how you respond
An alert mind that could recognize the usual suspects meant if I was drawn into overthinking, I quickly became aware of it.
On such occasions, I would take a few deep breaths and remind myself that I had been through that cycle numerous times in the past and that there was nothing new — good or bad — to come out of it. So, I might as well spare myself the agonizing repetition.
Around the same time, I was also learning about mindfulness and so I understood it’s never a good idea to resist or wrestle with a thought. Forcing yourself not to think about something only makes it impossible to not think about it.
Thoughts tend to be anti-fragile. The more you try to push them back, the more powerful they become.
So, I’d tell myself it was normal to have those thoughts but since they had nothing new or good to offer, I didn’t have to respond to them — emotionally or physically. I could continue with my life. There was no need for a pause.
And then I would get back to doing something more meaningful or fun. It could be work, a hobby, going out, or talking to someone — anything that would make my day better and limit the space in my head for the undesired thoughts to grow.
By doing this instead of pausing and following that train of thought, I avoided going down the rabbit hole. And thus, I protected myself from the stress it would produce. This also told my brain to mark the thought as less important, which made it disappear over time.
But while this strategy of response management and distraction was very helpful, it was not enough. For a more permanent solution, I needed to go deeper and work on developing a healthier mindset. I needed to reframe my ideas, beliefs, and overall understanding of the world.
But for any of that to happen, I had to first understand and accept three fundamental truths.
#1 — The past is untouchable
We all have things we would like to change or erase from our past. The problem is that’s not how it works.
I had to accept the finality of the past.
I also realized that my past self hadn’t deliberately crafted a future that I didn’t like in the present. What I had done in the past was the best I could do with who I was, what I knew and the circumstances I found myself in.
Putting the two things together has made it easier for me to accept the past and to be more forgiving and compassionate with myself. It has also helped me avoid falling into the "would’ve", "should’ve", and "could’ve" traps.
#2 — The future is unknown
Much of our anxiety and overthinking stems from our fear of the uncertain future. We often torment ourselves with the worst ways in which the future could unfold, even if they are the most unlikely.
In his book, The Worry Trick, David Carbonell says —
“Worry predictions aren’t based on what’s likely to happen. They’re based on what would be terrible if it did happen. They’re not based on probability — they’re based on fear.”
In the past, I have wasted years worrying about and trying to solve unlikely problems in an imaginary future. Problems that, thankfully, never presented themselves in real life.
One thing I have learned over the years is the future will surprise you, even when you are expecting a surprise. So don’t be too obsessed with your perception of the future. You will, almost certainly, be wrong.
Now if I sense a persistent concern about something in the future, I pass it through an analytical filter. It’s a much better way to deal with such concerns, but more on that later.
#3 — You don’t have control over everything
Another reason why we are so prone to overthink is our desire to be in control. It makes us obsess over the details and go crazy over things that affect us but that we can’t do anything about. And it has its advantages.
But there’s only so much you can do to influence the future. Wisdom lies in knowing what is worth trying to control and what is not.
So, I try to have the humility to accept that there are many things I have little or no control over. I am learning to make peace with the fact that the future won’t be exactly as I would like. Sometimes it would be the opposite. But that’s okay.
The best part is it has not only helped me avoid overthinking and be kind to myself but it has also made it easier for me to respect others and empathize with them.
A better way to think
Coming back to concerns about the future, now if I find myself worrying about a problem (present or future), I work through the following list of questions.
- What exactly is the problem I am worried about?
- How do I know the problem is real and not just a figment of my imagination?
- If it’s an anticipation of a problem in the future, I ask — what is the likelihood of it becoming a reality? Also, is my anticipation based on reliable evidence?
- Are there other more likely scenarios?
- Given its likelihood and severity, is the problem significant enough to deserve my attention and action?
- What are the reasonable measures I can take to confirm, prevent, or solve the problem or to minimize its impact?
Asking myself these questions forces me to view my concerns through an analytical filter and when needed, it gives me a concrete action plan. It helps me gain some perspective and shifts my focus to working on solutions. And in that way, it inspires hope and confidence.
It also helps put my mind at ease the next time that thought pops up because I know the problem has been given the attention it deserved and that there is a plan to address it.
Now when you try it, I’d say you do this exercise in writing. Writing pushes you to be clearer and more coherent in your thinking, which in turn drives away the anxiety resulting from confusion and ambiguity. Also, it frees your mind from the burden of having to remember everything.
For greater and lasting calmness
Overthinking generally draws our attention when it gets too bad. But the truth is most people tend to overthink things. And so, we can all benefit from habits that can help us navigate the ups and downs of our lives with calm heads.
The two most important things in this regard are to give yourself enough rest (about 8 hours of good and timely sleep) and regular exercise. Both of these have huge impacts on your mental and physical health.
According to one research, “physical activity was shown to be associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Physical activity has been consistently shown to be associated with improved physical health, life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, and psychological well-being.”
Also, watch your company and the content you consume. And please stay away from lovers of conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions.
Lastly, each one of us is different and what works for one may not work for another. So don't hesitate to seek professional help if you struggle to find a way out yourself.
Regardless of what it appears to be, habitual overthinking can be catastrophic for your health and well-being. But with some intent and a good strategy, it’s not too difficult to overcome. Here’s what helped me do exactly that.
- Thoughts are natural and harmless. You don’t have to pursue or respond to every one of them.
- Don’t torment yourself with memories of the past or imaginations of the future. Let go of things you can’t control.
- Question your assumptions. Focus on solutions.
- Develop a healthy lifestyle.
- Seek professional help if you need to
It may take some time but once you have escaped the spiral of negative thoughts and worries, you will see how futile and silly it was. You will once again find pure joy in little things life has to offer. You will again be able to laugh whole-heartedly, without having to pretend. Believe me, you will. Even if it all seems impossible to you today.
Like once it did to me.