It’s 3 a.m., and you’re tossing and turning, going over every single word in a conversation that you had with a friend, family member, coworker, spouse, or significant other. Did I say something wrong? Why hasn’t he responded? Is she mad at me? Should I have done things differently? On and on it goes, the endless loop of “what ifs,” should haves,” and “whys” on the reel in your brain.
Everyone overthinks a conversation or a decision from time to time, but for some people, overthinking in their relationships can become a real problem. According to Dani Frank, an ERYT 500 Yoga for Mental Health teacher in Seattle, Washington, the true root of overthinking is self-protection.
“We do not overthink on purpose,” she explains. “It is habitual and can stem from a variety of factors including the type of household we grew up in, our previous relationships or workplaces, our lived traumas or neurodiversity, and our mental health.”
People with ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, and depression are more likely to default to overthinking mode in a situation, as are those who grew up in a home where people pleasing was the name of the game. The results of a study conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that women are not only significantly more likely than men to fall into overthinking, but they are also more likely to become immobilized by it. This can negatively impact a woman’s problem-solving skills and may contribute to anxiety and depression.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” defines Frank. “When a person habitually overthinks, it can result in anxiety and depression, and people struggling with anxiety and depression are more likely to overthink. It can be a vicious cycle.”
Everyone worries. You can’t live in today’s world with its 24/7 access to information and not find yourself worrying over things like gas prices or women’s rights. Overthinking is more than the occasional worry. “Rumination” is the type of overthinking that plays out in most of our relationships and personal interactions.
“Rumination is when we think about something over and over again,” she describes. “When you ruminate, you may be looking for something you missed the first time, or you could be thinking of all the things you wish you had, or hadn’t, said.”
While rumination is an attempt to solve a real or perceived problem, it is generally unproductive, as anyone who’s ever lain awake for hours mulling it over can tell you.
“It does not typically produce any breakthroughs that aid in problem-solving,” explains Frank. “The conversation or event is in the past, so it cannot be changed.”
Manifestation is a big buzzword in today’s world. Focus on the good, and the good will follow. Conversely, when you focus on the negatives, you run the risk of attracting more negativity. Overthinkers tend to see the potential pitfalls and negatives of a situation, which over time could change the structure of the way the mind works. In other words, we become what we think.
“Whatever we spend the majority of our time thinking about physically shapes our minds and influences how we perceive the world,” says Frank. “The more we have a thought, the deeper and stronger the neural pathway of that thought becomes, and the easier it is for that thought to occur.”
It’s like creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you are constantly overthinking about your partner breaking up with or cheating on you, you may just drive them to it. How? By focusing on those thoughts and replaying scenarios in your mind, you could unconsciously create an environment that makes your partner want to leave or seek something outside your relationship.
Before you start overthinking all the ways your overthinking is sabotaging your relationships and goals, take a deep breath. In the words of pop group En Vogue, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.” According to Frank, you can break your overthinking habits thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change through growth and recognition. It’s never too late to train your brain to find the positives, or at least not spend so much time drowning in the “worst case scenarios.” She offers five steps to help you learn to control your thoughts rather than let them control your life.
Because overthinking is not an intentional habit, it is important to start paying close attention to when and where it happens. Noticing a habit is the first step to addressing and ultimately correcting it. The next time you find yourself ruminating over a real or perceived problem, notice when it started and where you were at that time. Was there a person or an act that triggered the rumination?
Sometimes, in lieu of all the information, the overthinker will fill in the blanks. For example, your best friend doesn’t reply to your text right away. Immediately, you convince yourself that she is angry at you rather than simply acknowledge the more likely cause: she’s just busy. “Thoughts are not facts,” cautions Frank. “You do not need to believe every thought you have.”
Dwelling on all the ways something went wrong is not a productive way to move forward. Instead, try a solution-based approach. Frank recommends asking yourself, “how can I solve this,” and then acting on your answer.
Problems and situations are going to arise every day. Rather than let your mind wander and drift over all the possible outcomes, Frank suggests scheduling a block of time in your day for reflecting on the issue. “During this scheduled time, allow yourself to overthink and ruminate,” she advises. “This exercise can be even more effective when you write it all down, similar to a brain dump. When the time is up, move on with your day.”
Overthinking is the result of thinking about something that happened in the past or worrying about something that might happen in the future. Meditation is about training your brain to say in the present. “Having a meditation practice not only gives your mind something to do, but it also encourages you to live more intentionally,” says Frank, who recommends the mediation tool Insight Timer, an app with thousands of meditations to stream. “Intention makes it harder to overthink.”
Changing the way you think, or overthink, isn’t easy, and, like anything else worth doing, it takes time. However, once you master your thoughts, you can master your life and deal with the inevitable issues that arise. Try putting one or all of the above tools into practice. Be patient with yourself, and accept that it doesn’t happen overnight. Above all, trust that overthinking a problem never solves a problem and, in fact, may very well make it worse. In the words of the Dali Lama, “If there is no solution to the problem, don’t waste time worrying about it. If there IS a solution to the problem, don’t waste time worrying about it.” Excellent advice!
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