Do you know what I hate? Overthinking. It’s surprise to anyone who knows me, but I overthink everything. I can’t help it, really. Engaging in self-reflection and expressing my findings is kind of what I do as a hobby. But there is a substantial line between insightful introspection and being consumed by overthinking.
The latter has serious negative consequences. Studies have shown that over-rumination leads to depression, anxiety, binge drinking, binge eating, inability to sleep, and self-harm. Though I have experienced each of these symptoms, I can’t quite kick the habit. Even when it’s silly, like analysing the punctuation of a text message.
When I’m caught in a loop of overthinking I end up repeatedly questioning myself over and over throughout the day. “Uh is it okay that I said that last night?” “I shouldn't have said that.” “Am I being difficult?”… it just goes on and on, sometimes spiralling out of control.
But one line from a study really helped shape how I consider overthinking now (Robinson, Smith, and Segal, 2023). The study said that your psychological response to an event can actually be more important than the event itself. So, if you can't train your brain to stop overthinking, you're directly causing your own mental health issues. I don't know about you, but I already have plenty to deal with as it is.
What can we do about it? Well, number one, practice mindfulness. I know saying things like: ‘therapy and meditation will fix everything’ are cliché, but it's kind of true. The past year has been kind of rough and now seasonal depression seems like it might be the cherry on top, so I’ve been trying to be diligent about 10-20 minutes of mindful practice every day. You can’t train your mind without putting the work in, so find whatever works for you, whether it’s Headspace, YouTube guided meditations, or your phone’s timer. Learn to have your brain acknowledge and then let go of your thoughts. The more practice you put in, the easier you can disassociate yourself from your negative ones.
Two: Be active! The only reason we have time to overthink is because we have the time. So be physical! Be creative! Be busy! Last week, I was occupied with term papers, presentations, quizzes, and assignments and didn't have time to ponder my woes. Whether it’s learning to paint, going for walks, reading books, or getting hella jacked at the gym, don't give your mind the luxury of chewing on something longer than it should.
And three, if you absolutely have to deliberate on something, practice compassionate problem-solving. If you feel really bad that you hurt someone's feelings, instead of beating yourself up about it over and over you should ask - what I can do about it? How I can learn from this experience? And how can I prevent it from happening again? This way, instead of dwelling on thoughts that reiterate negative feelings like “I suck” and “I’m an awful person”, you focus on rectifying my mistakes, correcting my behaviour, and encouraging myself to be better.
Overthinking can lead you down dark paths that end in bad outcomes. Stop yourself before you start.
Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, and Jeanne Segal. Emotional and psychological trauma. HelpGuide.org. Jun 6, 2023.