Thinking over Overthinking
Do you find it hard to make decisions, no matter how big or small they are? Do you find yourself replaying conversations over and over in your head, analysing every word that was said? Are you constantly trying to find the ‘hidden meaning’ behind what people say, or how they behave? Are you overwhelmed by ‘what if?’ thoughts when your exam paper comes back with a grade lower than you expected?
If you answered ‘yes’, then you’re not alone. Welcome to the club of classic overthinkers.
As you grow towards your late teens and beyond, and into your final years of formal education, overthinking becomes a common symptom of learning. Whilst the education that we gain from school and university is a wonderful tool that sets us up for life, it does filter out a certain amount of creativity…and this can contribute to overthinking.
Cast your mind back to when you were a kid. You’d merrily scribble away with your crayons, creating a mess of random shapes and colours. When mum asked, “What are you drawing, darling?” you’d proudly declare, with complete conviction, that this bunch of scribbles was, in fact, a drawing of mum, dad, and the pet cat zooming off to space in a rocket. Of course! You see, when you’re a kid, adults accept your answers, no matter how whacky they may seem. There’s no right or wrong. You turned a cardboard box into a fully-functioning car. You had tea with the Queen of England. You opened up a very successful cupcake business and happily served your teddy bear customers. This was your imagination and creativity. And, because you were a kid, this was embraced and marvelled-at by all around you. Because that’s what being a kid is all about. No right or wrong ways to draw a picture, and no limits to imagination.
As you grew older, and the demands of school went beyond learning your ABCs, slowly but surely, your creativity became the inevitable compromise. Unfortunately, because formal education tries to shape you into a smart individual who’ll be successful in today’s competitive marketplace, there just isn’t time for that same boundless creativity anymore. There’s content to get through in the classroom. Concepts to understand. Right and wrong answers to establish. Grades to be got. Suddenly, we’re required to learn and retain monumental amounts of information and we have to be right, 100% of the time. And we don’t have the luxury of time on our side. There’s no longer room for imagination, for being convinced that cardboard box is a space rocket just because you say it is. You must stick to the facts—soak up the knowledge, sort and analyse it, and come up with a clear and rational way of thinking about it.
The trouble is that when you combine this way of trained thinking with our emotions, experiences, social influences, and expectations, we start to expect the same pattern of rational outcomes even for abstract thought process like emotions. We expect that there should be one, easy, correct choice for every problem we’re faced with—whether that’s a personal, emotional, social, or whatever other kind of problem or decision we’re faced with. When we can’t easily locate the answer or solution, we overthink, over-analyse. What’s worse is that this one thought process can then become a jumbled mess of all the information we hold, because our memories, experiences, emotions, and knowledge are stored in complex networks in our brains.
Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D. says our brains are truly hardwired for overthinking. She uses the example of what happens when emotions trigger overthinking:
“When you are in a bad mood of some type — depressed, anxious, just altogether upset — your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. These thoughts may have nothing to do with the incident
that put you into a bad mood in the first place, as when a poor job performance causes you to think about your aunt who died last year.”
Once we’re in the cycle of overthinking, it can be a downward spiral. As an overthinker, you’re definitely going to start overthinking the fact that you overthink! And where will that get you?!
So, what can we do?
Accept that this is normal—As we mentioned above, this is how our brains are hardwired. We’re made like this. Our brains are amazing, and the vast amounts of knowledge and experiences we can retain is bound to lead, from time to time, to a jumble of associations. Accept that you’re not the only one who overthinks.
Relax—Unfortunately, sometimes major overthinkers can allow this to be a great cause of stress. Overthinking decisions or replaying events and ‘what-ifs’ might even keep you up at night. Adopt some relaxation techniques and breathe. Check out this issue’s beauty section for some DIY de-stressors.
Talk less—When we’re trying to make a decision or make sense of an event, it’s normal to want to talk about it (women do this best). This is called rumination, and it does serve its purpose at times—building bonds between buddies and allowing us to ‘release’. But try to ration how much time you spend talking about your issue. Sometimes talking only reinforces stress.
Get up and get out—Make yourself busy, take a walk outside, get to the gym, start a craft project. Just find a way to put your mind onto something else.
Let go—There comes a point where you have to accept that some things are out of your hands. What will be, will be. Have trust that things will work out as they’re supposed to, and whatever the outcome, it’ll be for the best.