Hey, I don’t mean to brag, but… I’m a world-class overthinker.
On the one hand, I’ve always wanted to be world-class at something, so I’m pretty chuffed about this (!). #lifegoals
On the other hand, it can also be a major liability.
Someone once told me that the mind is a double-edged sword. When used well, it gives you the power to “cut through” to what really matters. When used poorly, it can inflict a considerable amount of pain.
If you think I’m exaggerating about the pain, here’s just a sample of the “symptoms” of overthinking:
Inability to focus
Difficulty making decisions, feeling “stuck”
Procrastination due to perfectionism or fear of failure
Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
Headaches and muscular tension
Fatigue/exhaustion, even when you’re not “doing” anything
Anxiety and/or depression
Low self-esteem caused by self-doubt and self-criticism
Inability to relax and rest (“rest resistance”)
That sounds pretty painful to me!
And aside from all of these direct consequences, overthinking also prevents us from being present in our own lives and building genuine connections with the people around us.
Why conventional strategies don’t work (for long)
The trouble with overthinking is that it’s a mental habit that stems from a process that is generally valued in our society – namely, thinking. And it occurs in the very place that has the ability to deal with it – namely, the mind. And that’s why conventional strategies for managing overthinking are often limited in their effectiveness.
Most of these strategies fall into one of two buckets:
The “stop it” bucket: If you’ve seen Bob Newhart’s “Stop It!” skit, you’ll know what I mean! Even experienced mindfulness practitioners know that it is virtually impossible to stop thinking. Our minds are just too powerful (especially if you have a habit of overthinking) and will eventually override this basic command, especially when we are tired and lack the willpower to keep our minds in check.
The “fight thinking with thinking” bucket: The majority of strategies belong in this bucket because they involve thinking something different to what you’re currently (over)thinking. This can work, to an extent. I mean, overthinking is typically a response to uncertainty – when something is uncertain, our minds tend to keep spinning until they find a level of certainty – and by bringing curiosity to the uncertainty, it is possible to relax into the “not knowing” and find some sort of peace there. (Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty) But have you noticed how once you’ve resolved one issue, your mind goes searching for something else to stew on? It’s like I playing “Whac-a-Mole” in your head! It’s effective but not necessarily sustainable.
Now, if you’ve had success with either of these approaches, that’s great! Keep doing whatever works for you. But if you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you’ve found that these approaches aren’t enough. Maybe you’ve just accepted that you’re wired to overthink and you manage it as best you can – in ways that are healthy (like exercising) or not so healthy (like polishing off a bottle of rosé every couple of days).
But fortunately there is a way that you can curb your overthinking. I discovered it by accident a few years ago and the peace of mind it created was indescribable – literally indescribable, because I was no longer in my head. And, as it happens, that is the key…
How to get out of your head
For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me to get out of my head. But this begged the question: Where else was I supposed to go?
The short answer is: “get into your body”.
Let me explain...
Most of us live in the realm of our thoughts. We are constantly analysing, judging and labelling everything that happens within and around us. The weather is good, the traffic is bad, and so on. We tend to live primarily in language – much like having our own personal David Attenborough in our heads, except with far less wonder and far more fear and judgment.
But there is another option (which I dare say is unfamiliar to most of us) – and that is to experience life through our direct physical sensations rather than indirectly through the filter of our mental assessments of those sensations.
This is what happens when we are “in the body”. We experience the raw information coming in through our eyes, ears, nose, skin, and so on – and instead of judging it, we simply observe it. So rather than thinking, “the weather is good”, we simply notice the warmth of the sun on our skin, the freshness of the air, the sound of a car engine humming in the distance, and so on. (Now, even these observations are somewhat subjective, but they are more direct and – importantly – require more presence than simply accepting our head’s edited version of events.)
There are many ways to get into your body. The thing is – you are probably already doing this several times a day without even realising it. So the trick is to become conscious of how you do this and do it more deliberately to “get out of your head” when needed.
Personally, I’ve learned how to do this by practising yoga. For me, yoga isn’t about achieving perfect physical alignment or contorting my body into increasingly uncomfortable configurations. It is simply an opportunity to be present in my body and notice what is happening within it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my mind stops chattering altogether. At the beginning of a class, my mind could be quite active as I transition from the outside world to the world that exists on my yoga mat. But I have learned to use the physical poses to detach from my thoughts, which in turn tends to reduce overthinking because I’ve withdrawn my energy from it. This creates a sense of peace that lingers well after the class is over and is also a reference point for those times when I feel stressed or overburdened.
If yoga isn’t your thing, then you can access this state through many other physical activities – for example, walking, running, hiking (which gives you the double benefit of movement and nature), dancing, singing (which is surprisingly physical), playing.
The activity itself is not so important – it’s the choice to be fully engaged in it that matters. For example, you could be walking and still ruminating over a problem. While the walking could help to soothe your thinking and perhaps even generate fresh insights, it’s not as powerful as choosing to focus on the physical sensations associated with walking. So, whatever you do, choose to be present in it.
If it’s not convenient to engage in one of these activities, that’s okay too. There are many simple mindfulness techniques that can help you to shift your focus from your head into your body. For example:
Bring your attention to your breath and notice the temperature of your breath as it passes through your nostrils or the back of your throat. Is it warm or cold?
Imagine that you were invisible but that the energy in your body still has a “presence”. What would that presence feel like?
Place the soles of your feet flat on the floor and imagine that there are roots growing out of your feet and burying deep into the floor and the earth below. (You can do this even if you’re on the top floor of a high-rise building or on an airplane!)
Focus on the pinky toe of your left foot and listen to it carefully. What is it trying to tell you?
Do a quick body scan. Start with your toes and move your attention through your body, noticing any sensations – for example, hot/warm/cold, tingling, pulsing, tightening, expansion, and so on. There’s no need to change anything; just notice what you notice.
These techniques might seem simple – even strange, at first – but they can also be life-changing. Choose one that works for you – or create a technique of your own!
Is there are downside to not overthinking?
Now, you might be wondering whether not overthinking will make you – well, a bit stupid. I suspect that those of us who overthink do so because we’ve learned to value our intellectual powers and rely on them to navigate life successfully. So it’s worth addressing this briefly.
The short answer is “no” – you’re not going to become less intelligent or miss something because you stop overthinking. On the contrary, your conscious mind will get a much-needed (and well-deserved) rest, which will free up a huge amount of energy and creativity to invest in other things – like actually living your life!
Your subconscious mind will still be doing its thing under the surface of your awareness, and you’ll probably find that the space you create by reducing your overthinking will free up your attention to take in more – both from your external environment and your subconscious mind (in the form of creative inspiration).
It’s not always easy to break our long-held habits. And yet learning to curb your overthinking is ultimately an investment in your mental health and your ability to be, do and have more in the future. As you become more familiar with how to shift your focus from your head into your body, you are building a new “mental muscle” that will be there to support you in times of stress and turmoil. And that’s worth thinking about!