Updated: May 17, 2021
I have always been a serial over thinker.
The way I like to describe it is like I’ve wound up a wind-up toy and faced it towards a wall. And it’s just going and going and going, banging straight into the wall, not getting anywhere.
Overthinking is when our brains latch onto thoughts and then get stuck in them. Going over them and over them, spiraling out of control until our heads literally ache from the mental strain.
How do you know you’re overthinking?
1. When your thinking is creating more harm for you than good
2. When you are unable to reach a conclusion or solution
There is a huge difference between ruminating (overthinking) and problem solving. Ruminating creates a feeling of being stuck and fuels confusion. Whereas problem solving provides clarity and propels you forward.
Our caveman brains
Our brains are wired to solve problems - which stems from the caveman days (the Paleolithic Era – which was around 2.5 million years ago) where our primal brains’ job was to keep us alive.
Keeping you alive involved a lot of problem solving skills. For example, if we were cold, our primal brains told us to go skin a wild animal to get the fur. If we were hungry, our primal brains told us to go and hunt and gather. If there was a predator nearby, our primal brains activated fight or flight mode and pumped the adrenaline through our bodies needed for us to survive a tiger or bear attack.
And while our brains are still used in modern society for daily problem solving, the degree of danger it’s faced with is a hell of a lot lower. We have police to protect us, we have warm houses with radiators, and we have food that can be delivered to our doorsteps at the push of a button.
But despite having less need for it, this survival instinct is still very much set in its programming. Our brains are hardwired to scan for problems and try to fix them. Which leads to them kicking off over things like us not getting a text back, being dumped, or any kind of slight embarrassment.
If our brains categorise something as a problem, it will fight to solve it as if it's life or death -because it once was.
So what is happening when we’re overthinking?
Overthinking occurs when we give our brain an instruction to solve a problem that ISN’T a problem and DOESN’T need to be fixed.
I know what you’re thinking…
Yes – my partner not replying to my text message IS a problem, and I DO need to fix it.
Yes – COVID 19 is a problem. And I DO need to worry about it.
But the thing is – someone not replying to a text message may make you feel emotions you don’t like to feel. It may bring up insecurities for you. But that isn’t a problem, in the sense that it has no ‘fix’. Other than to accept, feel, and process those emotions.
And COVID 19 may be something you don’t like, but for the majority of us who aren’t paid to come up with the cure, it’s not a problem we can fix. We can’t solve it in any way.
But when we say to ourselves (and our brains) this is A PROBLEM, our brain jumps into FIX IT MODE.
Which is more like FIXATION mode….
You’re basically telling your brain that this is a maths equation that needs solving, and that there is a definitive answer it can find, if it just digs deep enough.
So off your brain goes. Digging and digging, and analysing, and searching for this ‘fix it’ answer. The solution to the problem. Like the wind-up toy crashing into the wall.
But there is no solution – and so it gets stuck in a fixation loop.
There is nothing physically to be done about your lack of a text back. You don’t know, and will never know, what a lack of text back means for sure. And worrying about whether the relationship will end will not FIX it if it does, nor will it prevent it.
There’s also nothing to be done about the fact COVID 19 exists and we’re in lockdown. And worrying about the chances of you getting it won’t prevent you from getting it, create a cure, or make it go away.
It’s a solution-less task.
Problems your brain can solve:
X + Y = Z
Problems your brain can’t solve:
If my partner leaves me I’ll feel sad.
If I get COVID I might die.
How many of you when you’re stuck in overthinking honestly believe yourself when you think, ‘okay if I just think about this for a little bit longer I’ll solve it and feel better’?
Because I do, every time.
And every time – I think about it a little longer – and still…. no solution. Just confusion, anxiety, and more thoughts.
I’m literally sending my brain on a wild goose chase. Then getting annoyed that it can’t find this goose I’m telling it is out there somewhere.
And your brain really thinks it’s helping you. Back in the day (the caveman days) you brain spots a problem, it solves it, it saves your life! Happy days! It’s a hero.
But now – you think something is a problem, your brain sets out to solve it, can’t, and you sit there in fight or flight mode, spinning in anxiety, which isn’t helpful to anyone.
So… how can I stop overthinking?
If overthinking happens when we decide things need ‘fixing’ that don’t, how can we stop doing this? How can we stop seeing things in our lives as problems?
When you notice you’ve fallen into the trap of overthinking, you first need to become aware that that’s what’s happening. You need to stop and notice, ‘ah – my brain is on the hunt for a solution to a problem. And it’s failing because there isn’t one’.
Acknowledge this is just a sign that you have a very efficient brain, with a habit of relentless problem solving.
Ask yourself the question, ‘Why do I think this is a problem that needs fixing?’ ‘What emotion am I trying to avoid having in the future?’
· Allowing the urge to fix it
Allow the urge to ‘fix it’. Say to yourself, ‘my brain wants to fix this’, and breathe into it. Let the urge be there. Watch how much you just want to think about it and find the answer, without judging yourself for that.
· Allowing the emotion you’re trying to problem solve your way out of
Then allow the feeling that your brain wants to help protect you from.
What does your brain mistakenly see as the problem? What is the worst case scenario your brain is trying to solve for?
Does your brain want to try and protect you from the feeling of rejection if your partner leaves you? Does it want to protect you from feeling sadness if a family member gets sick?
Instead of resisting those feelings – allow them. Say to yourself, what does rejection feel like? What does sadness feel like? Let yourself feel it in your body. Look at it as a third party watcher. There’s you, your brain and thoughts, and then the emotions (physical sensations) in your body.
Invite them in. Imagine the situation where that emotion would come up, and allow the sensations to wash over you, without tensing up or resisting.
Notice how they feel in each part of your body, describe them to yourself. Allow them to pass through you.
Offer your brain some other thoughts, e.g.
‘This is not a problem I need to fix’
‘What if nothing has gone wrong here?’
‘What if I knew I could handle any emotion?’
'What if I knew I would love and accept myself no matter what?'
Don’t judge yourself and what’s happening inside your brain.
Overthinking is simply trying to solve a problem. So when you tell your brain your overthinking is a problem, it’s going to start overthinking about overthinking.
There’s no problem, nothing has gone wrong here. Accept that this is where you’re at and that nothing needs to change.
Other lies that cause overthinking:
In addition to ‘this is a problem’ and ‘I need to fix it’, here are three other thought errors causing our brains to spiral into overthinking.
1) I need to know WHY or predict the future
Our brains often think if they just had a crystal ball and could find out WHY something happened or what’s going to happen in the future then they would feel 1000 times better and the ‘problem’ would be solved. This is a lie.
You not knowing why something happened isn’t a problem. Not wanting to process the emotions of what has happened or what could happen, is your real problem. Learn how to handle any emotion, without resisting or avoiding it, and you’ll be invincible.
2) I need to know the right thing to do
The urge to find the RIGHT answer gets me a lot. If I could just get a signed letter from the universe telling me the RIGHT thing then I would suddenly feel at peace, right?
Well no such letter exists I’m afraid.
And right and wrong is a social construct. So your brain being told to find the ‘right’ answer, is like telling it to find a sparkly unicorn doing backflips. It’s not going to find it.
What if there was no right or wrong answer, and you were allowed to just be true to your own judgement and do what felt best for you?
And what if you also trusted yourself not to beat yourself up in the future if you changed your mind about something?
3) I need validation (I need someone to validate me)
I just need them to text me back so that I can feel loved OKAY?!
Your brain is thinking that someone telling you you're loved is the only way to make you feel loved. But actually, your brain is just using their words (or text) as permission to think and believe something it could just believe on its own.
What if you could believe you’re loved, good enough, attractive, and valuable without anything or anyone else giving you permission?
So that is overthinking.
And as much as I understand this all intellectually, it won’t stop my brain winding itself up in the future and setting itself off on a mission to solve a non-existing ‘problem’.
But when it does, I’ll remind myself that this is a completely normal, primal brain function – and that I, in fact, don’t need to find a ‘solution’, and that I can handle any emotion I need to in the future.
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