Hands up if you’re an over-thinker? Do you worry about past mistakes or current stresses, do you run through the various possible outcomes of every decision you take? Are you constantly asking what if? Do you over-analyse situations and social interactions – so and so didn’t smile when I said hello at the gym today… what have I done? Doesn’t she/he like me anymore? Have I annoyed them? … etc. This kind of dissecting, over-analysing and over-thinking can lead to a spiral of negative thinking and self doubt.
For some it’s worries about present situations or actions which may lead to negative outcomes in the future, for others it may be worrying endlessly about things that have happened in the past, or over-analysing situations and experiences or even linking one bad thing to all the other bad things that have ever happened in your life. All this can result in feelings of anxiety, sadness and even depression. When you focus on everything that can go wrong, it’s hard to think about all the things that have gone right.
So if you find yourself doing this then you are also an over-thinker or ruminator. Studies have linked this pattern of thinking (if left unchecked) to anxiety, depression and ill health. And girls, I’m afraid we’re far more likely to behave like this than men.
So my hand is firmly up. I’m an over-thinker. I over-analyse, I dwell, I re-think, I run through hundreds of scenarios in my head, I agonise over decisions (most decisions!)… Most people may not believe me, but those closest to me know this to be true. As an over-thinker, and a sensitive one at that, I’m prone to obsessing over things – reading things in to situations or interactions that aren’t actually there. We all try to stay positive right? but I’d be lying if I said I never have negative thoughts – we all do – it’s natural. It’s how you respond to them and whether you let them take over your thinking that matters.
Being an over-thinker isn’t a bad thing in itself. It doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact psychological studies have shown that many over-thinkers are lovely, intelligent, caring people who truly value relationships and care very deeply for the people in their lives – which is one of the reasons they over-think. Sadly though the worrying, constant need for reassurance, obsessive behaviour and anxiety can push those very people away which further isolates over-thinkers and can spiral into serious anxiety and depression. But this is not something that can simply be switched on or off, if you are an over-thinker (on any level) then it’s a pattern of thinking that requires a lot of work to get out of. If you know an over-thinker be compassionate to that – they may drive you crazy but it’s coming from a place of love, self doubt and insecurity – do your best to support them through it and maybe share some of these tips with them.
These tips are based on personal experience and pyschological research. If you feel you have a tendency to over-think then give them a try.
Admit you are an overthinker and forgive yourself
It sounds like a cliche but the first step to addressing any problem is admitting that you have it. There’s a scale there from those who might just obsess over things from time to time, through to people who find that anxiety about the future is actually stopping them enjoying the present. So if you are somewhere on this scale then yep, welcome to the club, you’re a ruminator too 🙂 If you’re not sure – ask your closest friends or family – they’ll know.
Now forgive yourself. This pattern of thinking is hard-wired in to the brain. Thoughts and memories are linked – that is the way the brain works, and so when something triggers those links it can easily lead to a series of negative thoughts and memories that have little to do with the original trigger e.g. when you drop your shopping and break the eggs, on the same day you got stuck in traffic, it’s raining, it was raining all weekend, you didn’t get the gardening done, you burnt the toast, forgot to call your friend, you’re a failure, no wonder you have no friends, in fact you deserve to have no friends, you’re rubbish…. all you do is sit around doing nothing and wasting your life…….. etc etc
In actual fact few of those events in that example are directly linked, but once something triggers a bad mood or negative thought it becomes much easier to see connections that may not exist between all the bad events that have happened in your life. This pattern becomes learned – the more frequently you think like this the more likely you are to think like this again in the future – it’s a vicious cycle – but one that can be broken IF you’re aware of it.
What you can do to help break the pattern? Here are a few things that may help.
Exercise and keep busy
Exercise is a great way to both occupy the mind and make you feel happier. We all know that exercise releases endorphins (happy hormones!) so what better way to help bring you out of that negative thinking than leaping around for a bit! It doesn’t have to be organised exercise like a fitness class, you could go for a cycle, swim, even a brisk walk – the more absorbing and mentally stimulating it is the better though so it pulls you out of the obsessive thinking.
Just keeping the mind busy also helps – games and hobbies are great for this – arts and crafts, painting, gardening, jewelry making, sewing, baking, drawing, playing cards, even computer games, doing a jigsaw all help. Or how about something more social – join a local club or volunteer, you never know you may meet new people as a result too, and have some fun.
I’m definitely guilty of this one – lots of overthinkers, especially women, want to talk it out when they’re feeling stressed or worried. Now this can help – so I’m not suggesting you don’t talk, but when you get to the point that you’re just rehashing the same stuff over and over again, dissecting every little detail for the umpteenth time then you may end up talking yourself into an even more negative frame of mind. This can be even worse if it’s two overthinkers talking together! You can easily lead each other into even more anxiety. Studies have shown a link between co-rumination amongst female friends and increases in the stress hormone cortisol.
So what can you do – well talk less is one option, or talk to someone who isn’t an overthinker – or at least doesn’t overthink WITH you and will let you talk through it but stop you before you end up rehashing everything over and over. You can also write it down, leave it for a while, then come back and read your thoughts/worries back to yourself out loud – you may find some of them seem a little silly once you do that and this will help you to dismiss them.
If you do find yourself starting to get anxious or over think then one simple thing to do to help is to calm yourself by focusing on your breathing. When your mind starts to race it can be hard to stop it racing to all the negative places so try to pause and breathe. There are lots of breathing techniques out there but one that’s easy and really works is the ‘4-7-8’ technique:
– breathe in through your nose for a count of 4
– hold your breath for 7
– breathe out through your mouth (making a whooshing sound) for 8
– repeat three or four times
By inhaling over a 4 counts you are taking in more oxygen, when you hold for 7 as much as possible of that oxygen will get in to your bloodstream initially, and then by exhaling for 8 you expel as much carbon dioxide as possible. This combats and shallow breathing and mild hyperventilation you may experience when you’re anxious or worrying and will calm you down.
Enjoy the present, be grateful and practice mindfulness
This may sound easier said than done but it’s one of the most important things you can do. The past is the past – you can’t change it, the future hasn’t happened yet so worrying about it isn’t going to help. Try to focus on today. One way to do this is to practice mindfulness. This is a form of meditation where you focus on the present moment, without dissecting or worrying about it. As obsessive, overthinking thoughts come in to your head you acknowledge them, then let them go. There are various techniques you can learn to help with this – find out more at the Mental Health Foundation Be Mindful site here (including online resources, courses and links loads of great resources). There are also other ways to practice mindfulness by being fully aware of your surroundings and what is around you every day, and there’s lots of information on the Action of Happiness site.
Another great little trick is to focus on the positive things in life, no matter how small they are. Those of you who are friends with me on facebook will no doubt be fully aware of the 100 Happy Days Challenge. It’s simple – you post a photo every day for 100 days of something that has made you happy that day – it can be anything – your morning cuppa, lunch with a friend, cuddles with the cat, absolutely anything. I’m nearly at day 400! I enjoyed it so much and found it was a brilliant way to record all the little things that make you smile – and when you’re feeling a bit low, or overthinking things you can go back and look at them and it will cheer you up. There’s more info at the 100 Happy Days Challenge site.
I’ve also got a ‘Happy Jar’. It’s just a normal jar actually, nothing particularly happy about it but I keep a pad of paper and pen near it, and I jot down anything that’s made me smile, or any “good” things I want to record on the paper, fold it up and tuck it in the jar. At the end of the year I tip them all out and read them (a fab new year’s eve ritual) – it makes me smile, sometimes laugh out loud, and reminds me of some of the good or funny things that have happened over the year that I’d otherwise forget. I don’t do it religiously every day, it’s not meant to be a chore, but I record stuff as and when. And if you’re having a really bad day – reach in, unfold one of them and read it – it will probably make you smile 🙂 It’s a fantastic way of making you feel grateful for the little things in life, taking the focus away from the negative and helping when you are over-thinking – about anything!
If you find over-thinking is taking over and you need more help then do talk to your GP about it, or you can find a local therapist from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
(This article was originally published on Pureformfitness.co.uk)