Overthinking – such an innocuous word that can lead to sleepless nights, mental and physical exhaustion, fatigued relationships, and analysis paralysis!
What do you do when you face a problem? Do you keep thinking about the problem? Or, do you look for a solution? If you do the latter, you have a problem-solving attitude, which is great. If you dwell on the problem instead, you have an overthinking problem.
You need to distinguish overthinking from self-reflection. Self-reflection is purposeful, healthy and it helps one improve and grow as a person. You could also call it a personal analysis. During self-reflection, you understand who you are, what your ideologies are, and how you tend to think.
Overthinking is when you keep thinking about situations, incidents, or problems that you cannot control. A simple example would be worrying about an asteroid passing too close to the earth. It is an incident we have no control over, but we may worry about an inevitable apocalypse that the cosmic object might bring!
In situations such as these, no good comes out of worrying. Yet, some of us cannot stop thinking. We fret, we worry and it takes a toll on your cognitive abilities, problem analysis, memory and, even, physical health.
Am I overthinking?
Here’s how I know when I am overthinking. Maybe remembering these signs will help you distinguish productive thinking from overthinking as well –
I cannot stop worrying
I am losing sleep by thinking about past incidents or embarrassing moments
I keep replaying real conversations in my head and wonder what different things I could have said
I never let myself off the hook for mistakes I have made
When I am not doing anything I tend to spend time thinking about the hidden meaning of things people may have said
I worry too much about the past and the future
I miss out on the present because I’m too busy thinking about past events
How do I stop myself from overthinking?
Now comes the most important question "How do I stop overthinking?" More than once I have had to forcefully calm my thoughts and silence the worries so that I could fall asleep at night. Over the last couple of weeks, with the lockdowns and quarantines, the thoughts have assumed new power thanks to all the updates from across the world.
What I have learned from the experiences is that if you let your thoughts wander, your brain will go into a state of overdrive in a matter of seconds and that is somehow superbly easy especially when you are trying to catch a good night's sleep before another workday.
So here’s what I do before hitting the sack –
Have a separate thinking time
It might sound weird because as long as we are awake and not doing anything that requires our complete attention we think. Right? Well, I have found out that if you allow yourself some good and mindless thinking time may be an hour to half an hour before bed, those pesky annoying thoughts won't bother you right before you are dozing off.
Finish work and allow your mind to wander. Stop all serious and thought-provoking work at least an hour and a half before bedtime. It will allow your brain to calm down by the time you crawl into bed. You may not need 90-minutes. You may initially require 120-minutes, either way, you will find falling asleep much easier.
Begin listing your worries and thoughts
I have found that writing the worries and thoughts down seems to relieve my mind. Giving them a physical form seems to take my mind off the “what ifs…” that typically used to keep me up at night.
Once you write your problems down you can work on them in a constructive manner. Even if they are things you cannot control, you can collect more data on them that might alleviate your worries to some extent. If you are worried about privacy, you can use a journaling app with security codes as I do.
Interestingly, when you put your ideas down in writing, your mind automatically begins to calm down since it doesn’t have the burden to actively remember them or think about them over and over again.
Revisit your past
If the past is haunting you, there may be too many ghosts in your closet and they are just waiting to come out! Instead of fighting them just let the thoughts flow. Sit down with old journals, old albums, and playlists. Take in the vibe. We have the tendency to remember the bad stuff more prominently than the good incidents.
There is a good chance that while revisiting your past, you will open the doors to old friends, family members, and positive incidents that will rest your worries. No one can change the past. Thankfully most of our mistakes lie in the past, so we make fewer gaffes in the present and the future.
Once you begin to realize that on your own, your whirlwind of memories from the past will come to a rest. You will stop overthinking about the past.
Enjoy the present
There's nothing more rewarding than being able to live in the moment. Yes. Initially, it will be very challenging for you to live in the present. It's not like flipping a switch! You can begin by journaling in the morning before your day starts. List the things you are grateful for and whatever you are looking forward to.
You can engage in daily rituals like 20-minutes of easy yoga and 5-minutes of mindfulness meditation to engage your senses. Always think about priming your mind to your 5 senses right at the beginning of your day. There is nothing more enjoyable than living in the moment.
Explore your tendency to overthink
Some of us are chronic overthinkers and we have been doing it for decades. It has become a part of us and we don't even realize when we are doing it. However, no one else should tell you if you are overthinking unless they are a psychological counselor or behavior analyst.
It is very easy for a friend, family member, or significant other to mistake self-reflection or analysis for overthinking. So, you need to begin exploring the reasons for your overthinking. Try to find answers to questions like "why do I overthink?", "How can I pause overthinking?" "how is overthinking harming my life and relations?” and “is overthinking holding me back?”.
Finding answers to these critical questions, whether alone or with the help of a cognitive-behavioral therapist, will help your mind get the rest it deserves. Once you find these answers, your life will change for the better!
Overthinking is not a cardinal sin, but it is a habit we need to break. Overthinking has cost us our present, precious sleep and, sometimes, taken a toll on our health. Before it starts interfering with the quality of our lives we need to ensure that we have complete control over our minds and thoughts.
Following the 5 easy steps listed above has helped me tremendously in preserving my mental peace and getting a good night's sleep in recent weeks. Try these techniques and let us know if they work for you as well.