By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, a podcast and blog about mental health and wellbeing. This week I’m talking about over-thinking – why over-thinking happens and how to tackle it head-on for better mental health and wellbeing, especially when you’re in the middle of an over-think-a-thon. Listen in the Spotify player below or read the transcript beneath the player. Let’s talk!
Over-thinking. Most of us have done it at one time or another, and it can be a real bastard when you’re stuck on a thought about something that you just can’t get out of your head (and even worse when you try to get it out of your head and that just makes it ten times worse).
Most of the time, it’s just like getting a song or a movie quote stuck in your head like an ear-worm — I drove my partner and our best friend nuts in 2009 when we went on holidays together and I could not physically stop myself from saying out loud, over and over again, “Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick, I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” from Lady Gaga’s ‘Lovegame’ for three days. Three days.
Serious over-thinking is different to an ear-worm though: at its worst, it goes round and round (like a record – sorry, I had to!) in your mind and it can distract you from rational thought which moves you forward. That’s what we’re talking about this week: why it happens, and what to do about it.
We all over-think sometimes – over-thinking is when you get hung up on something or find it hard to get it out of your head. For some of us, it’s a more than ‘sometimes’ kind of thing: some of the hallmarks of anxiety are excessive fear, worry, and obsessive thoughts. There’s a simple article about six steps to stop over-thinking in Psychology Today, which you can find here, which talks about two destructive thought patterns that can happen: ruminating and worrying. Ruminating is when we go over and over past events in our minds, even though we know that we can’t change what has happened. Worrying is when we go over and over what may or may not happen in the future – often the thoughts are wildly negative and we think the worst is going to happen.
Whether it’s the past or the future that we’re over-thinking (or both, which happens a lot too!), it is negative energy being expended in our minds which can often send us on a downward spiral. In fact, often it starts off with a specific distressing thought and then we can spiral into lots of other negative thoughts, and even the fact that we’re over-thinking can be another source of worry in and of itself. Excessive worrying and/or rumination can actually be signs of either anxiety or depression – or both – so it’s important to get to the bottom of it and understand what’s happening, and seek help if needed, if not from a professional then at least from someone you trust.
Before we go any further, let me just make clear that I’m not talking about the odd bit of worry about what may or may not happen, or the odd concern over something that has already happened. That is completely natural, and I don’t think you’d be alive if you didn’t do that sometimes. I’m talking about when you can’t find a way past those thoughts – when you find yourself spending hours stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, when you can’t get to sleep because your mind just will not switch off, when you wake up in the middle of the night and immediately start thinking about that thing that happened in 1994 that you wish you had have handled differently. That’s over-thinking, and that’s the stuff that needs a proactive approach to get through it – which is what we’ll talk through today.
Some examples of over-thinking are: You might find yourself replaying conversations and wishing you had handled things differently; you might be hung up on a mistake that you made at work; you might be worried about the outcome of a big meeting coming up; or, you might be obsessing about how you’re going to tackle a huge number of tasks in a short timeframe to meet a deadline.
This is a timely topic for me because I’ve been dealing with a bit of a relapse into anxiety over the past few months which has seen my over-thinking rear its ugly head. I only just realised this week that when my anxiety made a return (with a vengeance) a few months ago at work, that it didn’t just disappear overnight when I left my job. I know that might sound really obvious, but when you’re in it it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. I naïvely thought that leaving my job and focusing all of my energy on my writing and podcasting would push the anxiety away (even though I definitely know better and would never tell someone else that it would work that way), so over the past couple of weeks, when a few extra challenges popped up as I work through some standard tax and business stuff, it just tipped me over the edge. I’m writing this on Wednesday, and this morning I went into a total meltdown in the car as I was driving my partner to work. I’m thankful that I wasn’t alone when it happened and once I got it all out I was able to talk through options – and by 10am I had sorted out the thing that had set me off (which was actually only a minor issue, but I just couldn’t see it rationally until I had calmed down a bit). Part of what happens with me in terms of anxiety is that I get into a place where I feel so overwhelmed with even just basic stuff that I either explode, or I go into total shutdown and nothing gets done. Or I eat my feelings (but that’s a much bigger topic for another day!).
Over-thinking and mental health
Understanding what over-thinking is – and knowing that it’s happening when it’s happening, and that you need to do something about it – is important because, like I mentioned before, excessive worry and/or rumination can actually be a sign of depression or anxiety, or both. Regardless of how serious the situation might be for you at any given time, being aware of the risks associated with over-thinking means that you can be more conscious of it if and when it happens, and you can put in place strategies early to deal with it before it becomes a bigger issue – deal with it while it’s still a molehill but before it becomes a mountain (you know I love a good cliché!). Tackle it early and tackle it often, so that it doesn’t become something bigger – that’s the whole point of being proactive with your mental health and wellbeing because prevention is better than cure, just the same as it is with your physical health.
At its core, over-thinking is a defence mechanism and it’s our mind trying to look out for us. There are lots of different notions about what sets it off, but one of the things that we know is that multiple parts of our brains can set us off and seem to drive our fear responses and anxiety (there’s an interesting article about the latest theories on how the brain deals with anxiety from BrainFacts which you can find here if you’d like to read a bit more about the current science in this field).
When over-thinking goes beyond just the occasional occurrence and instead goes into overdrive, it can be completely exhausting – it feels different for different people; for me it’s like being on edge for a really long period of time and then eventually I just crash and can’t function for a while. However it might manifest, over-thinking is usually related to stress and it’s something that can be managed, over time, with the right tools and the right support. Fundamentally, over-thinking is a symptom of stress – I mean, let’s be honest, when you’re feeling calm and happy you tend not to over-think that often because you’re busy being calm and happy, however I think we all know that our emotions are fleeting and happiness is never a permanent state because nothing is permanent. What’s important to focus on is how you tackle the crappy feelings if and when they happen.
Like a lot of thought patterns related to anxiety, over-thinking can often be short-circuited by confronting that terrible ‘c’ word that’s responsible for so much self-inflicted suffering: control. We like to think we have a lot of control in our lives, but the reality is that we only have control over ourselves – how we think, feel and act. Often when we’re in over-thinking mode, we’re stressing about something that is out of our control: how people might perceive us, or what may or may not happen, or that thing that happened months or years ago. When this happens, we need to be blunt with ourselves because sometimes you’re just wasting energy on stuff that you have absolutely no control over.
When it comes to the past: you have no control over it, because it’s already happened and it can’t be changed. Deal with it, get over it and let it go. It is done. Just remember to learn from it so you don’t do it again! If you made a mistake, check out my podcast and blog from a couple of weeks ago for how you can work through it in detail to learn the lesson.
When it comes to the future: you have limited control over it; in fact you pretty much just have control over what you do, say and think now, which is what shapes the future – and even then, nothing is guaranteed. All you have is now. Plan for the future by all means, but you don’t live there: you live here, now – so live here, now!
Daily practices if you’re prone to over-thinking
Let’s talk about specific steps you can take to deal with over-thinking if and when it rears its ugly head to rain on your parade. There are a few different things I’m going to go through, so let’s get started with what you can do every day to prevent yourself falling into over-thinking patterns then we’ll talk through steps you can follow if you find yourself in the middle of an over-think-a-thon.
Let’s begin with stuff you can do every day to proactively manage your mental health and wellbeing if you’re prone to over-thinking. First, let’s talk about Awareness. This is the most important piece of advice I can offer, which is: if you’re prone to overthinking, be aware of that and put in place daily practices that can help to build your resilience, such as gratitude, reflection, journalling, mindfulness… the list goes on, so find what works for you and try multiple things because the more proactive you are, the greater the chance that you’ll reduce the instances of falling into the over-thinking trap. Why is this so important? Because prevention is better than cure!
Some of the other things you can do every day to manage yourself are:
- Ask for support: If you’re prone to over-thinking, don’t feel you need to go through that alone – because you don’t. Find a counsellor or therapist who you feel comfortable with and talk things through with them on a regular basis, or ask for support from a loved one and talk to them regularly (not just when you’re in over-thinking overdrive) about what’s worrying you; just remember that a conversation is a two-way street so don’t forget to talk about how the other person is doing as well! If you’d rather just unload all of your worries and fears, that’s where a conversation with a professional can serve you better because then it can be all about you without any guilt or remorse
- Accept yourself: Don’t be tough on yourself. Take things one day at a time and know that you’re doing your best. If you like daily affirmations, then go and affirm the hell out of yourself – do whatever works for you. You need to treat yourself with kindness – as RuPaul always says: if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?!
Dealing with an over-thinking attack
What do you do if you find yourself slap-bang in the middle of an over-thinking marathon? Here are some steps you can follow in the moment:
- Acknowledge it and accept it: Don’t pretend it’s not happening – face it head on. Acknowledge that you’re in over-thinking mode and accept it, and remember that it’s happening because your mind is trying to protect you – it’s just going a funny way about it. If you do find yourself over-thinking: recognise it’s happening, pause (slowly counting to ten is a good pausing technique to use to help you pause), acknowledge that what is happening is a defence mechanism, accept it and thank your mind for looking after you. Breathe slowly – a good technique to use to calm yourself is square breathing: breathe in slowly for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, exhale slowly for four counts, wait calmly for four counts, then repeat several times until you feel calmer.
- Alternative views, Alternative thoughts – Ask yourself, what’s a different way of looking at things? What are some other ways that you could come at the problem? Challenge yourself to look at things from a different angle. If it’s really bad and you just can’t stop over-thinking: short-circuit yourself out of it by putting yourself in a completely different setting. Go outside, go make a cup of coffee or tea, put on a TV show (preferably a favourite comedy because it’s an immediate shift in gears mentally – I use The I.T. Crowd and it works for me 9 out of 10 times)… if that doesn’t work, go and throw yourself in the shower. Whatever you do, just do something to mentally and/or physically short-circuit yourself so that you can change your energy, and then just breathe through it.
- Allow yourself to run out of steam if you need to – If the over-thinking really won’t stop, sometimes you just need to let that over-thinking energy out of your system. Find someone to talk to or, if there’s nobody around to talk to, write it down and just keep on writing until you run out of steam. If you’re a more structured person, it may help you to set a timer for five or ten minutes and just allow yourself that time to get out all the worry and concerns in your mind before you then push yourself into problem-solving mode. [Just a quick sidenote here: if you do have someone to talk to but you don’t want them to see you in this state, that’s totally understandable because this is pretty vulnerable stuff – but I challenge you to push past that and talk to someone supportive if you can. Nothing quite matches the sensation of feeling truly heard and understood, and while it won’t fix everything immediately it will make you feel just a little less manic if you’re in serious over-thinking territory.]
- Assess – Once you’ve run out of steam and are feeling a little calmer, now you need to assess what you’ve been overthinking about in order to determine if it’s in your power to change the situation or not. Can you change it? If so, change it. If not, accept it or let go. This point applies to pretty much everything in life: if it’s within your control, do something about it; if it’s out of your control, all you can do is change your approach, your mindset and/or your actions.
- And finally, ascertain what the lesson is for the future. I’ve said it a thousand times before and I’ll probably say it a thousand times again: if we don’t learn from the past we’re doomed to repeat it, so when you’re feeling in a better headspace take some time to reflect on what triggered the over-thinking and consider what you can learn from the experience. Is there something you could do differently? Is there a specific trigger you need to be aware of? Is there some support you need from either loved ones or a professional to work through issues that push you into that place or to work through stuff that you need to let go of? Whatever the lesson might be, identify it and learn it.
Three quick tips for dealing with over-thinking
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for over-thinking:
- Be gentle with yourself if you’re prone to over-thinking: nobody is perfect and it’s not a sign of failure to get in that headspace.
- Be proactive: Put in place actions every day to proactively manage your mental health and wellbeing to reduce the chance of going into over-thinking mode.
- Ask for support: you don’t have to go it alone, and getting help from someone you trust can help you to get to the bottom of things that might be worrying you so that you can begin to let go.
As always, let’s finish up with a quote. This is a quote from Churchill about over-thinking and worry that I think is very relevant, as it illustrates the point that often things are far worse in our mind than they are in reality, and I’d like to encourage you to reflect on this quote and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“When I look back on all these worries I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.”Winston Churchill
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and blog posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff) so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about Taking Chances – I hope you’ll join me again. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.