November 30, 2015

7 Steps to Combat Overthinking.

woman thinking alone sad

Generally there’s a lot of flapping of the mouth or tapping of the fingers going on, which leads to a lot of external noise: discussions, arguments, chatting, pleasantries, emails, texts, instant messages.

We live in a society where communication is king, and getting our own message out there is vital. But there’s even more noise going on in our minds. It is almost impossible to believe that we’re thinking more than we are verbally communicating, but we most certainly are.

In More Time for You,Tator and Latson introduce a powerful system to organize our work and get things done. They suggest that us “deeper thinkers” have around 50,000 thoughts per day…that’s a lot of thinking!

Our instant reaction to that statistic might be, “Good on you brain! You are indeed thinking productively!”

But how much of our thinking is actually constructive?

Here’s an anecdote of the over-thinking variety. Recently I took a dive in the Great Barrier Reef. In the short period I was in the water without my scuba diving suit on, something stung my hand. Instantly panicked, I abandoned the diving mission, and took myself, my over-thinking and the minimally injured hand over to the instructor to be assessed. I shoved the offending hand under his nose like a woman possessed demanding to know what had stung me, and if impending death was nigh.

Once I told him that the pain level was close to zero, he waved me off with the advice to keep it monitored and if any change in pain, sting appearance or personal behavior occurred, let him know.

Well the pain and sting appearance didn’t change, but the personal behavior certainly did. Paranoia set in, along with a morbid case of over-thinking (the latter likely being caused by the former condition).

Of course, I turned to Dr. Google, and after considering many different types of stings I could have been afflicted by, I settled on a tiny box jellyfish known as the Irukandji, which can be found off the coast of Australia.

The tiny critters can be deadly: two tourists died from Irukandji syndrome (caused by a sting) in 2002. I knew it. There I was taking an innocent dive, only to be struck down by some minuscule sea creature with no spine. I was destined to join those statistics, destined to be ranked number 3.

As I perused the symptoms that I should have been experiencing had I been stung by Irukandji, I came across the confirmation I was searching for. Hidden amongst a raft of other symptoms (which I wasn’t experiencing mind you) like severe headaches, muscular cramping and fever, I discovered the only one which applied to me:

An impending sense of doom.

That’s right. Victims stung by the Irukandji experience an impending sense of doom. And isn’t that exactly what I had?

The end was nigh…of this I was certain!

I spent the next 48 hours cooped up in my hotel room, unwilling to go out and enjoy the beautiful weather and my Whitsundays adventure because at any moment I could be struck down, dead.

Given I’m writing this, it’s self-evident that I wasn’t struck down by the Irukandji. I was probably stung by some ubiquitous, local variety … nothing quite as exotic or rare as the Irukandji.

I could have saved myself a whole lot of panic and paranoia had I been able to control my chronic overthinking.

But how do we radically alter our thinking pattern?

In asking ourselves this question, we have to also consider what effect this veritable array of thinking, or this quagmire of thinking is having on our person:

1. Negative self-thought.

Psychology today identifies that around 70 percent* of our mental chatter is negative. Conscious thought tends to be self-critical, pessimistic and fearful, and

2. I think therefore I am.

Much of western psychology and spiritual thinking is based on the notion that our thoughts eventually manifest into our actions and our behaviors.

3. Are these thoughts stopping me from living my life and actually productively engaging with my friends, family and colleagues?

When our minds are in overdrive, we can never actually be in the moment. We might be having coffee with a friend who will say something like, “I really hate red dresses,” which can instantly trigger our internal dialogue, “I own a few red dresses. I’m sure she’s seen me in some of them. She must be telling me she hates my sense of style. I thought I was stylish. Am I stylish? Maybe she just hates me.”

You see what happened there? Before we finished with the negative thoughts, the friend has probably already moved onto the next topic while we stare blankly.

So how do we take the virtual broom to our thinking and how do we replace these thoughts with positive thinking?

1. Observe.

Vipassana is a Buddhist mindful meditation which usually consists of ten days of noble silence.

One of the many positive effects of vipassana is that it allows us to develop the capacity to introspectively “hear” our thoughts: Given that we are no longer babbling out content, we are able instead to focus more clearly on our thoughts. Not all of us can take time out from our lives for ten days, but what we can do is use the moments of silence during our day to observe our thoughts. When we’re in the shower in the morning, or walking the dog or feeding the baby, you have the opportunity to sit back like a casual passenger and consider what you’re thinking.

Awareness is half the battle.

2. Write.

The thing about thoughts is they are just that, thoughts. The fact that we’re the only people that actually hear them means that there is no one about to vet them and apply a realistic perspective. Have you ever found a negative thought spiral into complete, mammoth, apocalyptic annihilation in seconds? For example, you suddenly discover a discoloration on your upper lip in the mirror one morning. Your self thought goes from discovery to, that’s never been there before, it sort of looks like a mole, and if it just appeared and it’s that big it must be growing quickly, that’s it, it’s cancer, I’m going to die.

In less than a minute you went from a pleasant mindset to your own death.

If we write down these kinds of thoughts in honest terms, we’ll often see them for what they are—irrational—and will be able to more quickly discard them the next time you rethink them.

Irukandji syndrome much?

3. Create a thought bin.

Many of us like to think and behave in absolutes. Did you ever keep the gifts from an old flame and then have the inexplicable desire to burn them, fling them from your window or tear them to shreds, once the relationship had ended?

Since we generally like to “bin” things as a way of coping, we can literally “bin” our thoughts too.

Once you’ve written them down, tear each one up and throw them away.

4. Practical solutions.

The thing about a thought is that it’s ephemeral, intangible, and that can be half the problem, because we can’t actually apply practical solutions to them, all we can do is sit back and watch them balloon in our mind’s eye like some sort of a juggernaut of a butterfly effect. If we were able to give them a voice and discuss them with someone instead, we might be able to come up with an actual solution to ameliorate the perceived problem.

Why not set aside five minutes of time every day to discuss them with a partner or a friend and give them the opportunity to apply their knowledge?

5. Stop mindreading.

We all try to infer things. We can never really know what someone’s thinking or why they acted in certain ways, so why do we hypothesize?

Have you ever heard of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment?

If you place a cat in a box with a radioactive beaker, the beaker can shatter and kill the cat, so when thinking about the cat in the box, the cat can be both dead and alive, but when you open the box it can only be one thing. The question is: when does supposition end and reality begin?

When you open the box.

Unless you’ve opened the box and discovered the tangible, don’t hypothesize possible outcomes or reasons for action.

6. Remember that comparison is the thief of happiness.

When writing down thoughts, you’ll be surprised how many of them are comparisons.

Why does so-and-so get all the luck? She has a husband that loves her, a beautiful house and the perfect baby. Why do I have none of those things? As soon as you catch comparison in your thoughts, alter the thought. Either stop comparing, or remind yourself that person’s reality is probably very different to what you perceive.

7. Emphasize the positive.

There are a lot of positive things that happen to us on a daily basis. It’s human nature to play those down and emphasize the negative. When you experience something positive, dwell on it. Bask in it.

Enjoy the moment and watch the impact that positivity has on a daily basis.

If you’re afflicted by your own Irukandji syndrome, remind yourself, your thoughts are ephemeral, intangible, impermanent—they don’t actually exist! You control them, not vice versa!





Raghunathan, Raj. How Negative is Your Mental Chatter. Psychology Today. Oct. 10, 2013.




Relephant read: 

10 Ways to Clear Your Mind Without Meditation.



Author: Lisa Portolan

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: lucahennig/Flickr; Pedro Ribeiro Simões at Flickr

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