Thoughts are an integral part of our existence. Our thoughts influence our lives, they drive our actions, and often determine how we react to the outcome of those actions. Thoughts are carriers of our experiences and perspectives. Thinking is an important and inevitable function of human life. It brings balance. But when overdone, it can hamper the very purpose of itself—decision making. Overthinking, an irrational and compulsive habit, can be self-defeating when it gets out of hand. It can make a problem seem much bigger than it really is. It may feel impossible to stop overthinking at times, but we can help. First, let’s understand what actually transpires when you overthink and what can you tangibly do to slow down the habit of overthinking and over analyzing every little action and event in life.
What is overthinking?
Overthinking is when there are continuous and recurring thoughts about an incident, person, relationship or an experience. The chain of thoughts seems to never relent and the mind never ceases to chatter. The mind ruminates over the same thing over and over again—usually either a past event or a future uncertainty or worry. People experience regret, sadness, remorse, or nostalgia from thinking about the past or they worry, get anxious about the future. Overthinking becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with your day-to-day activities, job, relationships, or other life situations.
Overthinking differs from thinking while planning. When there is a thought process involved in planning something, then it is easier to put a stop to the process once the task is accomplished. In overthinking, there is less control over thoughts.
Here’s a list of 10 signs of an overthinker:
- Constantly second guessing.
- Expecting the worst or what is called catastrophizing every event in life.
- Take worries to bed.
- Always trying to read between the lines or what people are not explicitly saying.
- Rerun conversations or moments of the past in the mind over and over again.
- Relive embarrassing mistakes from the past.
- Keep going back to rude or mean remarks or unpalatable behaviors of people from the past.
- Generally worry a lot without good reason.
- Feel disconnected from own surroundings because the mind is occupied in thinking about the past or future.
- Self-critical, over-analytical, and find it hard to let things go.
Why is it not good for the body and mind?
Many associate over thinking as a personality trait of those who are thoughtful and sensitive. And while it may serve some limited purpose, it can actually tire your mind, sap your productive energies and leave you restless and frazzled with multiple physiological symptoms that can potentially lead to lifestyle or mood disorders. Here’s why it is not healthy—the unconscious aspect of our brain function cannot tell between the real event and the overthought, and so the body receives this information as an actual threat and releases the hormones associated to threat situations—activating the sympathetic nervous system. An overactive sympathetic system can lead to chronic stress, high blood pressure, faster heart rate—much like an overheated machine whose engine hasn’t stopped whirring.
Ways overthinking hampers both body and mind:
- It triggers mood disorders like anxiety and depression
- Causes fears and insecurities
- Affects sleep, the sleep is usually disturbed
- Mind is clogged
- Irrational thinking starts affecting the quality of life
- Leads to fluctuations in blood pressure
- Overthinkers often feel a sense of doom
- Headaches become a regular occurrence
- Disturbs digestion
What does the research say?
Occasional overthinking helps to reflect over past mistakes and plan better for the future. But if it is sustained, it affects the body and especially brain function. Dr. Linda Mah, clinical scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute shares that anxiety caused by overthinking is associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (the interaction of both these regions of the brain play an important role in various cognitive and behavioral functions including memory related functions) which can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders including dementia and depression.
The scientists also noticed, as a result of anxiety triggered by overthinking, an overactive amygdala, a part which is associated with emotional responses, and an under-active prefrontal cortex which is a thinking region of the brain. They observed that these changes aren’t completely irreversible, could be managed with medication, meditation, and physical activity.
Researchers from the University of California Berkeley revealed that a buildup of such stress over time becomes a catalyst for changes in the brain’s structure. The brain has neurons, grey matter and white matter. Grey matter is responsible for decision making and problem solving. White matter is made up of axons which are responsible for communication with other regions of the brain. Axons are covered with myelin which aids the electrical signals required for relaying information inside the brain. Stress related to over thinking causes excessive production of myelin which in the long run changes the brain structure.
Researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science discovered that one stressful event could kill new neurons in the hippocampus of the brain. Overthinking induces stress and depression, which in turn affect the digestive system, compromises the immune system, memory, and cognitive learning.
Is overthinking ever okay?
Now we know the negative effects of overthinking. After all, it is unpleasant to keep thinking about what went wrong, what could have gone right and what will happen next. It is equally unpleasant to keep struggling with negative thoughts, fear, insecurity and stress.
But overthinking is not always the villain. Some philosophers support its role in thinking through difficult situations. Some situations may call for thinking continuously and repeatedly to move forward. Some overthinking pushes our limits. It increases the capacity of the brain to move beyond the comfort zone and get trained to accommodate some stress. Overthinking, one might say, makes one cautious, anticipates threats, and prepares one to handle challenges.
The Antidote to Overthinking—Meditation
A popular adage that rings true is, “too much analysis leads to paralysis.” Overthinking, especially about the past which cannot be changed and future which is completely unknown, is not very fruitful. Those who overthink as a habit feel helpless to stop.
The Monkey Mind
The mind that is not cultured in peaceful awareness has been compared to a monkey. It is restless, jumpy, and unwilling to listen to instructions unless there is an external gratification involved. For example, if we were to ask you to think about everything but a purple baby elephant. What does your mind tend to do? It will only think about a purple baby elephant. But why are talking about a monkey mind here?
“A mind cannot be handled from the level of the mind,” says the global meditation teacher and Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
It is nearly impossible to stop an obsessive habit like overthinking by self-instructing because our mind is a monkey mind. Here’s where practices like meditation and breath really come in handy in trying to reduce compulsive patterns like self-criticism and negativity.
An overthinking mind is not relaxed. The skill to relax the mind can be cultivated through meditation, the most time tested tool to handle the mind. Meditation is about being a witness to the mind, just letting everything be. It is like watching the mind as an outsider without any analysis or judgment. This helps drop all the worries and relaxes the mind. The stream of thoughts in the mind eventually begins to settle down.
A few minutes of meditation everyday gradually puts the mind back to its naturally happy state. It keeps the mind in the present moment for the rest of the day. But you must practice it daily like bathing and brushing. Everyday the mind is exposed to many diverse experiences. Regular meditation does not let these experiences influence the mind negatively.
The introduction of these small lifestyle changes in your daily routine day by day pays big dividends in eliminating unproductive habits like over thinking.
Meditation Practices for People Who Overthink
It is often difficult for an overthinker to let go. Non-stop thoughts are like endless traffic, so guided or light instructional meditations are a good starting point for the uninitiated.
- Panchakosha or Five Sheath Meditation
The Five Sheath meditation is a guided meditation where you take your attention through five layers of existence-environment, breath, body, mind, memory /intellect, to the self.
- Meditation for Transforming Emotions
This 20-minute meditation led in the soothing, meditative voice of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, transforms a restless mind with countless thoughts and heightened emotions, to an emotionally stable, clear mind that is peaceful and has incrementally fewer thoughts.
- Yoga Nidra or Yogic Sleep
A structured power nap and a meditative way of giving yourself deeper rest, where you take restful awareness through different parts of the body.
- Sahaj Samadhi meditation
‘Sahaj’ translates to effortless and ‘Samadhi’ is an equanimous mind. An effortless technique to lead your mind into an equanimous state with the help of a personalized sacred sound or mantra. The mantra is a powerful tool to counter the onslaught of endlessly streaming thoughts and worries with zero effort.
Why You Need an Instructor
Just reading about the different types of meditations may not be enough. Meditation is best learned under the guided supervision of a meditation teacher or instructor. This is because, in the beginning, an instructor can remind you to become aware of the mind again and again. You may also undergo experiences that an instructor can help you make sense of. Once you have a few hours of practice behind you, you may not need this nudge from the instructor. To learn about languages or sciences, you need a teacher. Similarly, the subject of the mind is a deeply complex one, where you will need a teacher to guide you through the uncharted territory of your inner life.
Tips to Handle a Mind That Likes to Overthink
One’s company, routine, profession, habits, inclination, ability to distance oneself from the external reality, among other factors, play a part in why or under what circumstances does one overthink, and if these can be changed or adapted to.
Keep Yourself Busy Keeping oneself busy makes sure that the monkey mind has no time to think or brood over the spilt milk.
Plan your day and tasks in a way that is not too stressful. Take up one task at a time. This not only stops overthinking, but also makes one a better manager.
Set Small Goals Set daily or weekly goals to do things which you like or need to be done. This may include responsibilities to be fulfilled and hobbies as well. Setting goals gives a direction to our mind and engage it constructively. But stick to short term goals which are doable and don’t seem too difficult to accomplish.
Walk, Jog, or Do Yoga Physical activity puts the mind in the zone where it is focused and aware. It rejuvenates you and releases neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and GABA that make one happy and content. Yogasanas have been found to be especially helpful in relaxing the mind. The uniqueness of yogasanas is in its synchronization with the breath. Every posture in yoga is done with awareness on the breath. This cleanses the body and calms the chattering mind.
Look at the Bigger Picture Often when we reflect back on the fears we had in our childhood or as teenagers—fretting over exams, grades, fights with friends, and relationships—they seem inconsequential and silly in the context of time. So the realization that each event is a blip in time and unreal helps you look at the bigger picture—the transience of the material world. Once you wake up to this simple reality, you gain enough awareness to be able to discern what situation calls for analysis and which ones are futile to put any thought into. This awareness brings tranquility and helps you get rid of worries.
Keep Good Company “The people and events you are associated with do influence your mind. In the company of some people, things and events appear very bright and positive. In the company of some other people, the whole world seems like a nasty place and everything seems negative. One is being part of the solution and the other is magnifying the problem,” says Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This is even more relevant for people who are prone to overthinking. The company you keep can make it better or worse for you. Gurudev gives us a simple test of what makes good company—when you meet a friend, do you leave the place feeling lighter, hopeful, and that your problem is totally solvable? That’s good company, or Satsang (company of the truth). If instead you feel burdened, pessimistic, and more worried than the situation deserves, then it might not be the best company for you.
Sing and Dance Engaging in spontaneous activity like singing, dancing or laughing help balance both the right and left hemisphere of the brain. When we overthink too much, we also tend to take life a little too seriously. Here certain lightness of being helps us see the two important truths:
- Everything is changing.
- Life is full of opposites and these opposites are complementary to each other.
This understanding immediately calms down the mind, slows down the number of thoughts that bombard the mind and provide the Viveka or discretion that is full of awareness.