If your brain is anything like mine, it likes doing brain things — as in, thinking. And if your brain is anything further like mine, it likes doing its brain things in excess — as in, overthinking.
Overthinking is when you put an excessive amount of mental effort, analysis, and thinking into something, be it the question of what to eat for lunch or whom to marry. While excessiveness is difficult to define as it depends on the person and situation, you’re likely overthinking if your thoughts are circular, you can’t stop pondering the same thing, and you feel anxious. At that point, your brain is doing you no favours. And you need to outsmart it.
Why would you want to stop overthinking? Some people consider their tendency to overthink as a strange sort of badge of honour. They see themselves as conscientious, careful in making decisions, planning contingencies, and/or having the intellectual depth to think something through thoroughly. While all of that may or may not be true, overthinking has many downsides.
For one, it prevents you from acting. You get stuck endless thinking and so don’t actually do anything. It also robs you of your peace of mind because you can’t stop thinking about whatever’s on your mind. As another bonus, it can make you seem tiresome to those around you.
Yeah, not so good.
How to stop the cycle of overthinking then? How can you outsmart your overthinking brain? Here are five ways you can get yourself out of thinking too much, based on science, the principles of meditation, and what I’ve discovered works for me.
1. Observe your thoughts and don’t necessarily believe them.
Your thoughts are not you. So when you find yourself bombarded with thoughts that lead you into anxious overthinking, give yourself permission to take a step back and observe them objectively. You don’t have to indulge them and you don’t have to believe them.
Acknowledge the thoughts but then let them move on. Just because your brain is methodically conjuring up all the worst case scenarios about attending a party doesn’t mean you need to accept those scenarios as viable fact. Reassure your brain and move on.
2. Talk it out.
Overthinking means you’re stuck in your head. While sometimes a fun place, it isn’t as fun when you’re thinking way too much about an email you sent and how it will be taken. To talk it out, find a conveniently located human and say hi.
Then, either talk about what is troubling you or about something completely unrelated — whichever you think would be most helpful. Ensure that it’s a conversation though, and not a rant or a whining monologue. The point is to positively engage with someone else in order to pull yourself out of your confused, anxious thinking.
3. Have an imaginary conversation.
Sounds weird, I know, but it works. When you find yourself stuck in a pattern of overthinking, and want to talk to someone but either no one’s around or you don’t want to reach out to anyone, use your imagination. Imagine that a family member, friend, or mentor is with you.
Think of someone who could talk you through whatever you’re overthinking, someone comforting, someone whom you know well enough to intuitively supply their responses. Yes, you are supplying both sides of the conversation. This may take practice, but it can be surprisingly enlightening once you develop the knack for it.
To have a productive imaginary conversation, mentally conjure up someone with as much detail as you can and then start talking (in your head). Have them ask you questions, dig into yourself for the answers, get their advice, and explain what’s going on in your mind.
Don’t think too hard though. The point is to let the conversation flow intuitively. If all that seems too strange, try talking to yourself instead. Or invent an imaginary friend like Anne of Green Gables did. The point is to pull yourself out of your current pattern of (over)thinking and into a more proactive, deeper one.
4. Engage the right side of your body.
The left side of the brain in where the drive to go forward manifests. That’s the side that pushes people to advance, conquer, reach, and simply move forward physically without too much thought. In order to tap into that side of your brain though, you need to engage the right side of your body.
While somewhat counter intuitive, it is thoroughly explained in The Stress Test by Ian Robertson, Ph.D, if you want to read more. Simply put though, right side of the body=left side of the brain and vice versa. Knowing that then, try squeezing a ball with your right hand or tapping your right foot to stop ruminating. Science says that should stimulate the left side of your brain and your desire to get going instead of sitting back, overthinking.
5. Stop thinking and just act.
While easier said than done, sometimes you need to simply shut your brain off and take action. Make the decision that you will stop thinking and then push yourself to do something productive. If you think you can’t manage that, remember what it’s like to jump off of something high.
If you think too much about the jump, the height, and the impact, you’ll be standing there forever. The only way to make the leap is to shut your brain off and JUMP. You can apply that mental challenge to other situations in which you find yourself overthinking. Imagine how relieved and proud you’ll feel once you take the proverbial leap, stop thinking, and go for it.
Overthinking can be draining and hard to control, but with these five tactics, you should be well on your way to outmanoeuvring your brain.