How to cope with an overthinking mind?
For as long as I can remember I've always been the kind of person who doesn't stop thinking! From a young age, I would be awake during the night thinking about everything that has happened in school and trying to find ways to beat the bullies who made my school experience a nightmare.
Or I would be overthinking about the school exams, or about conversations I had with my peers, or why my best friend was avoiding me.
Growing up, the overthinking didn't get any better, it just visited me with different things to worry about: bills to pay, shopping lists, how to approach my son's school about something I wasn't happy about, arguments with family, or conversations with friends- just to name a few examples.
So, what exactly is overthinking?
We overthink when we constantly flood our thoughts with things we worry about and that we cannot control. As a result, we may experience a lack of sleep, extreme stress and anxiety, lack of motivation, irritability, and even depression.
I know in my case, the fact I've been battling chronic anxiety for over a decade leads me to overthink everything. I need to feel in control of the situations in order to feel safe and have the confidence to deal with whatever it is that is causing me to worry. I overanalyse, I plan everything to the last detail but still feel unease.
Deep down I know there are things I cannot control, but it can be hard to detach from my thoughts sometimes.
The key is to have the awareness that we are actually over-thinkers and then find a way to reduce and cope in situations that our brains insist on not shut up.
What I tend to do and I found is helping me a lot over the past couple of years is mindfulness meditation and journaling.
Especially when I feel my brain working overtime, I pause and think about was is it that it's actually overthinking about:
- Is it ruminating thoughts about situations that already happened?
- Or is it worrying about the future?
It is important to notice the pattern of thoughts and disclose which of the two types of overthinking is present: ruminating thoughts means reliving the past, which can lead to depression. Worrying about the future means going too far ahead, which can lead to anxiety.
The balance is to find ways to be in the present moment.
Mindfulness meditation is exactly the type of meditation that encourages you to be in the moment. When you recognise your thoughts, you acknowledge them but don't engage in them. It can be hard at the beginning as it's so easy to notice one thought, engage, and be lost in this chain of unrelated thoughts.
It can look something like this:
" I must defrost something for dinner. Oops, there is a thought, let it go. Dinner... right. What do I have in the freezer? I have chicken breasts, pork, fish fillets...hum... Oh, no! Here I am thinking again. Let's get back to the breath. Breathe in, breath out... it's getting cold in the room, I should have brought a blanket. My feet are freezing. OOPS. Breathe in. Breathe out. I must get going, kids have to go to bed earlier tonight and I still haven't decided what to cook for dinner. Crap, back to the breathing!"
You get the drill! Thoughts come and go and it can be hard to not engage. That's why it is important to choose a time of day when you know you won't be disturbed or that you don't have to rush. We are not used to just be in the present moment and we certainly forget to pay attention to our breathing because we breathe involuntarily since the day we were born. We don't have to think we need to breathe- that's why all meditations ask us to pay attention to the breathing: to the air entering our lungs, to our body when we inhale and exhale and even count our breathing so we know what to focus on.
Another way to practice mindfulness is to journal.
When we write, the left part of the brain is activated- this is the part of the brain that focuses on words, and thoughts. This frees up the right side of the brain ( the creative side) to access the negative emotions related to those thoughts, converging the two parts of the brain. As we get deeper and more involved in our writing, we tend to enter a meditative state (mindfulness). We are in the present moment, attentive to the thoughts and emotions that come out, aware of the pen in our hands, and, more fascinating, our brain gets into a Theta waves state: it slows down. Creative ideas, breakthrough moments, and new perspectives show up, helping to find solutions to our worries and problems.
More so, whilst we are journaling, we are actually using our senses too! It utilizes our:
- Sight - we see what’s on the page and we see the events we are writing about in our mind
- Hearing- We hear our own voice narrating the events and feelings in our head
- Touch- We feel the paper as we grab our journal, we feel the pen in our hand, we feel sensations in our bodies depending on what we are writing about.
And if like me, you like to scent a candle or incense to make the experience more relaxing we are adding an extra sense: smell!
These are just two of the coping skills I found to work for me. From time to time, I also love to indulge myself in creative crafts, especially painting as, again, it's a way of being in the moment and free my brain of compulsive thoughts. Other people enjoy exercising or walk in nature.
Whatever you decide to do, make it a practice you will commit to doing regularly, in order to feel the benefits and quiet the overthinking ego in your brain.