If you’re anything like me, and many others for that matter, you tend to overthink. It’s amazing just how much time we spend ‘up in our heads’ rather than living our lives mindfully. Have you ever driven to work and then wondered how you got there? if that’s the case – it’s because you were lost in your thoughts. It’s a common human affilction. We get so hooked into what’s going on in our minds that we pay less attention to the important stuff – real life going on around us.
So how do you stop overthinking everything? It’s what our brains naturally want to do but it can lead us to experience increased anxiety and/or depression. It can also cause all sorts of emotional and mental health issues when many of the thoughts aren’t even accurate or based in reality.
Two different realities – internal and external
One way to stop overthinking everything is to realise that you exist in two different realities: the reality in your mind (internal) and the physical (external)reality around you. It is the ‘reality’ in your mind that creates all the emotional problems and upset in your life. This may seem an odd statement but it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you think about it that makes all the difference.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we talk about how thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to behaviour. All three interact. So your thoughts, even if they aren’t accurate will cause emtoions and ensuing behaviour in line with those thoughts.
Imagine that you are in bed at night and you hear a loud noise downstairs – that’s the exact external reality. Your internal reality interprets this noise. While one person may think, “The alarm is on, I am safe” another person might think, “I think a stranger has broken in to my house!”. Those to different reactions will result in two different emotions and very different behaviours. It’s the same for everything in life. What we choose to think and believe will shape our reality as well as our quality of life.
Learning to separate your external reality and internal reality is a good way to remind yourself that your internal reality is merely a PERCEPTION of the external reality and as such, is prone to influence by errors in thinking.
Errors in thinking
We all do them – we think in ways that ar erroneous. There is no evidence and these thoughts are based on our insecurities and assumptions.
Common errors in thinking:
Catastrophising – thinking up the worst case scenario. Example: your boss criticies a piece of work you’ve completed. You immediately start thinking you might get fired.
Mind reading – assuming you know what others are thinking. Example: you say hello to a colleague and they ignore you. You think: “They ignored me. I must have done something to upset them”. There may be another explanation for them ignoring you and unless they actually tell you that you have annoyed them (evidence), you are mind reading.
Predicting the future – “what if” type thinking. Example: what if I never get my degree? Or – what if I fail my exam and then I won’t get a decent job. No one can predict the future – stop it.
Black and white thinking – seeing yourself as a success or a failure is an example of this type of error in thinking. Life is full of grey. It’s never back and white. When we think in a black and white manner we place pressure on ourselves and our rigid thinking is an inaccurate reflection of life which is full of exceptions to the rule. Perfectionists often use black and white thinking. Too rigid!
Overgeneralising – drawing a larger conclusion from one small example. Imagine you have a bad relationship and then tell yourself that all men, or all women are bad. Wrong! This is unnecessary negative thinking and it will cause you problems. This is an internal reality not the real external reality – it’s impossible for all men or all women to be bad.
Compare and despair – this is when you compare yourself to others. This is like comparing your ‘behind the scenes footage’ (all your bad bits and stuff that others don’t know) with another person’s highlight reel – it’s a false comparison as you don’t know the full picture of the other person’s life. People hide a LOT! Believe me – I am therapist. I see what’s really going on and then watch the same people show the world how perfect their lives are. We are all under pressure to show our best side. Don’t compare!
Self criticism – this is when you see yourself in a negative way but this doesn’t mean the rest of the world sees you the same way. Your internal reality and external reality won’t match up. It never can – rmind yourself of the more objective external reality!
Dismiss your thoughts
You can’t stop thoughts coming. We have something like 80 000 thoughts every day. What you can learn to do is dismiss the thoughts. Be more aware of your “mental diet” – what you are feeding yourself with in terms of your thoughts. You don’t have to ‘buy into’ every thought you have – that’s a definite path to insanity.
Learn to say, “There I go again..catastrophising or comparing” etc. When you catch yourself thinking negatively (this is apparently our default as we are wired to look out for threat), Ask yourself where the evidence is for such thinking. Usually there won’t be. Also ask yourself what you would tell a friend in the same situation.
Watch your focus
Be more aware of what you focus on. We are all affected by ‘Cognitive bias”. This is when we focus more on things in the external reality that confirm our internal reality. If we believe dogs are dangerous, we are far more likely to notice a news story on dangerous dogs than we are on dogs that are king and loving. Again, it’s how we are wired. Work actively against your typical focus and make an effort to be more broad minded in what you notice. If you find you are particularly negative about a certain subject, set out to see if you can find evidence to the contrary.
One great antidote to overthinking everything is to keep busy and distract yourself. This isn;t the same as avoiding a problem. When you distract yourself, you realise the thinking isn’t working for you and often it is something beyond your control. Play a game on your phone, phone a friend, get creative but don’t stay up in your head – a wandering mind is a dangerous one.
This is a brilliant way to help you stay in the external reality around you rather than in your mind. Use your senses and focus on your surroundings. What can you see, what can you hear, touch, smell and taste? Immerse yourself in the external reality. Think of your pets – they are so in the moment. They don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, they think about NOW. There are some great apps such as Headspace or Calm that help you to be more mindful.
Overthinking everything is dangerous. Get external and be wary of your internal reality – it’s where many of the problems start!