I have a love-hate relationship with thinking. Sometimes, I get in these kinds of flow states where I follow my train of thought – connecting the dots along the way. When I follow my thoughts in this way, I find it euphoric. I often derive my best writing doing so.
This is all well and good when my thought train takes me on a pleasant journey; however, it’s not so great when it takes me down some dark tunnels. The problem isn’t negative thinking per se, but an inability to get off the train and determine the clouds from the sky.
Thoughts are a lot like clouds. Sometimes they are light and fluffy. Other times they are big and gnarly – covering the whole sky. When viewed from the outside, we can see them clearly, and the ride is smooth. When you’re stuck inside, however, the air becomes turbulent. Seeing things clearly becomes much more difficult.
That’s why it’s essential to know how to get off the train – especially when our thoughts aren’t serving us. It’s in the space outside our thoughts – when we’re resting in awareness – that we can view them objectively. We can then choose which thoughts we wish to engage with and which/when we shouldn’t.
The question is, How do we get off the train to distinguish the clouds from the sky? How do we stop ourselves from pointlessly overthinking?
What Is Pointless Overthinking?
Before we work out how it’s important to define what pointless overthinking is and why we do it.
There’s a fine line between thoughtful, thorough consideration surrounding a problem or idea versus worrying about certain should haves or could haves or events over which we have no control.
The first type of thinking – let’s call it deep-thinking – is about figuring something out or coming to a deeper understating. That’s to say, it serves a purpose. Either helping us grow as individuals or take meaningful action. Engaging in this kind of deep-thinking is necessary when we have a difficult life decision to make.
Pointless overthinking, on the other hand, doesn’t achieve anything. Of course, it is pointless. It usually involves dwelling on how bad we feel or worrying about events we have no control over. If you find yourself going over and over the same issues or ideas in your mind without taking action, that’s an indication that you’re probably engaging in pointless overthinking.
Why Do We Pointlessly Overthink?
Many perfectionists and overachievers are prone to overthinking. According to Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York, this is because “the fear of failing and the need to be perfect take over, which leads to replaying or criticizing decisions and mistakes.”
For others overthinking is rooted in mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Overthinking can also lead to other problems such as fatigue and sleep loss. One Harvard study found that excessive brain activity depletes an essential protein, which may shorten the human lifespan.
For all these reasons and more, learning not to overthink is important. Here are a few strategies that can help you determine the clouds from the sky.
How To Curb Pointless Overthinking
- Understand what triggers overthinking
Ideally, you want to spot the storm cloud on your radar so you can go around it or, at least, prepare yourself in advance. This is why it’s useful to have a clear understanding of your triggers.
Of course, the practice of mindfulness can go a long way here. One tip is to write down specific moments that caused you to overthink or worry during the day. By doing this I learnt that one of my triggers is fatigue. It often sends me into a spiral where I tell myself that I shouldn’t feel tired all the time. So I end up feeling bad about feeling bad, which makes me feel, you guessed it, bad.
The good news is I’m much quicker to spot it as a result. This has allowed my to better implement some coping strategies.
- Observe your thoughts without judgment.
“Pure attention without judgement is not only the highest form of human intelligence, but also the expression of love.” – JIDDU KRISHNAMURT
It’s best to go around the storm clouds if you can help it. However, we need a plan for the times we inevitably find ourselves enveloped.
Just like flying an aircraft – the best course of action isn’t to try and control the plane when we encounter turbulence but to sit on our hands and ride it out. Similarly, when it comes to the mind, the best solution is often not to look for one.
What I’m getting at here is the practice of observing your thoughts without judgement. The more we do this, the better we become at letting them go.
Eckhart Tolle is his famous book “The Power of Now,” suggests asking yourself the following question, “What will my next thought be?” This works by creating a gap in the mind that allows you to dis-identify with your thoughts.
If you keep asking, “What next?” you will soon start to see the thought clouds begin to dissipate.
- Redirect your attention to the present.
This is the equivalent of exiting the clouds by coming back to earth. Meditation is a handy tool here.
One acronym I like to use in the real world (when I don’t have the time to sit and meditate) is STOP. It stands for:
- Stop for a moment
- Take a deep breath
- Observe without judgement
- Move your body/Engage in flow.
“No problem is so formidable that you can’t walk away from it.” – Charles M. Schulz.
One of the best ways to get out of your head is to get into your body. Practicing yoga or going for a walk outside can be a big help.
A great deal of research demonstrates exercise can improve depression and other mental illnesses such as chronic overthinking. It can also shift your nervous system out of the fight or flight mode. This can be particularly beneficial for those suffering from any trauma-related rumination.
The activity doesn’t have to be exercise. Any pursuit where you can focus your attention – that generates a flow-like state – is good.
Recently I bought a lego fire engine for my 3-year old that I thought we could build together. It turned out to be too advanced for him, so I made it myself. I was surprised by how much enjoyment I got from it. It took me a little over two hours to build, but I hardly noticed the time go by.
- Challenge your thoughts objectively.
Our attempts to analyse our thoughts are often futile precisely because we are stuck inside them. That’s why it’s vital to first exit the clouds before attempting to understand them. Of course, many meditations work by bringing your attention to the present before understanding any thought or emotion that may arise. This allows you to do so objectively.
One meditation I like to use is called RAIN. It stands for:
- Recognise the emotion or thought pattern
- Accept it (practice compassion towards it)
- Investigate it (question it objectively)
- Not identify with it (zoom the lens out)
Another way to examine your thoughts is by journaling.
Every morning as part of my routine, I ask and answer the following questions: What is worrying me most today? What can I do about it? What can’t I do about it? This helps me determine whether I’m engaging in thoughtful, deep-thinking or pointless overthinking.It also helps me concentrate on what I can control and formulate a plan to commit to meaningful action.
- Talk to someone/Get professional help.
Talking to someone – whether a close friend or health care professional – can go a long way. We all need a support network. Often the courageous act of articulating our thoughts helps to see them clearly. I liken it to placing the thought clouds out in the open.
In clinical psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is one of the most effective methods to improve anxiety, mood, and self-confidence.
Brad Stulberg, in his book, “The Practise of Groundedness,” notes the most powerful teachings of ACT – which happen to fit into the acronym – are to “Accept what is happening without fusing your identity to it. Zoom out to a larger perspective or awareness from which you can observe your situation without feeling like you are trapped in it. Choose how you want to move forward in a way that aligns with your innermost values. Take action, even if doing so feels scary or uncomfortable.”
Ultimately that last part – taking action – is what matters most. We are not defined by our thoughts but our actions. But, of course, our thoughts are what lead to action or inaction. If you find yourself paralysed by your own thoughts, then the action you should take is to reach out for help.
I hope you enjoyed my guide to pointless overthinking. I’m curious to know if overthinking is something you have trouble with? What techniques, if any, do you use to help? I look forward to hearing your deep thoughts on the matter.
You can find AP2’s personal blog here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot