Updated: Feb 17, 2020
I have an overactive imagination. I can create scenarios for scenarios within scenarios of scenarios…..yes, it’s as exhausting as it sounds. There are times when I can manage it but there are days when it borders on pathological and becomes a force onto itself and I can spend hours, days, weeks, months ruminating and analysing to death scenarios that not only do not exist, but probably never will. I can also spend an equal amount of time obsessively over-analysing past events and re-writing them in different ways to find a better outcome from how it actually turned out, while beating myself up for not knowing better at the time. Needless to say, chronic anxiety has been a part of my daily life. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with frightful panic attacks. I’ve obsessed about events and situations until I’ve given myself a migraine. Insomnia is a way of life for me. Left unchecked, it’s not fun.
I’ve read many books and articles trying to find tips and tricks to stop overthinking. However, the more I tried to stop it, the worse it became. It was almost like an addiction. My brain hates gaps and if there is a space of any kind, it is going to fill it. Over the years, I’ve learnt that my overthinking mind is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there have been times when it has been quite useful especially in my career. I’ve had many phone calls from colleagues and friends asking to pick my brain by brainstorming strategies and potential outcomes. What I’ve discovered underneath that overthinking mind, is a highly creative mind that just needs to be channelled in the right direction. If you leave it to its own devices it will bring havoc into your life, but if you focus it and allow it to run freely in a productive way, it can help you navigate a very complicated world in your own unique way.
So how do we leverage our overthinking minds?
Appreciate - The first step is to recognize and value your brain’s ability to create and expand all these complex scenarios in your head. It is amazing what the mind can conceive! If you are like me, you see them in technicolour and it is as alive in your mind as it is in real life. You are creating thoughts, patterns, scenarios, outcomes and if the saying that your thoughts are so powerful that they create your life is true, then you have in them, the ability to create an extraordinary life! Instead of berating your brain appreciate it, nurture it and take care of it. Your brain’s sole purpose is to keep you alive and thriving. Instead of seeing it as your enemy, see it as a friend who is always there to support you.
Nurture - Our brain is geared towards protecting us first and foremost, so it looks at negatives first as a self-defense mechanism. As overthinkers, we also tend to lean towards the negative and all the things that can go wrong. And as if that was not bad enough, we live in a world that is saturated with the negative. Technology has brought it to the palm of our hands. If you fill your mind with only the negatives, then you will only see negatives. The world however, is a much more beautiful place than the media will lead us to believe. As you fill your mind with positives, your mind calms down and moves from a state of stress to a state of bliss. I’m not saying to become a Pollyanna and never face the bad. What I am saying is that life is about balance. A healthy mind can navigate the two states seamlessly. Nurture your brain, become aware of how you feed it: What are you reading? What types of shows are you watching? Are the people you surrounded by uplifting you or bringing you down? What new skills or hobbies can you learn? Imagine your brain is a garden, and what you plant in it determines the type of garden you design. Think of those thoughts as the elements of that garden, plants, soil, irrigation, butterflies etc. Ask yourself, what kind of garden do you want to grow? Then go about planting that garden. You are the caretaker; if you cultivate and nourish it, then it will blossom. If you neglect it or fill it with malnourished soil and stones, then it will be a desert.
Awareness: Many of us lose time before we realize that we are in a looping thought. Our overthinking minds take over and we have become so use to it that we do not realize until something or someone brings it to our attention. One of the habits I had to develop is every now and again coming into awareness of what is running through my mind. When I started I downloaded a mindful bell on my phone that rang every hour. I would stop and try to recall what thoughts were running through my head. It can be annoying at first since the brain wants what it wants, and it will protest by making you ignore it or telling you that you don’t need it. Trust me, you do. Try it. Building awareness is always the first step to creating change.
Channel it: Now that you’ve become aware of your ruminating thoughts and what those thoughts consist of, you can now find ways to channel them so that they become productive and not destructive. Are there any repeating themes? How do you feel after a particular thought? Is there a deeper belief that this thought is tied to? Are there any repeating triggers that send you spiralling? Write them down and examine them. You can use any number of tools such as journaling or mind-mapping. Depending on the nature of the thoughts, I allocate a specific time to do this. I set a timer and I allow my mind to wander where ever it needs to go. When the time is up, I must have at least one action step to take with a deadline. This is the critical difference between leveraging your thoughts and just allowing them to steal time. There is a foundation belief, situation, fear, value, hope, dream, desire to those ruminating thoughts and the only way to bring them to stillness is to take steps towards mitigating them.
Breathe: In yoga, prana means life force energy and in humans the key to that life force is our breath. Without breath there is no life. It is therefore no coincidence that when we feel overwhelmed we hold our breath. When we feel anxious and panicked, we disconnect from our breath and find ourselves gasping for air. Becoming aware of my breath has become a vital tool in my health and wellness practice, especially when it comes to exhaling. When we lengthen our exhales, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which sends a message to the brain that everything is calm and peaceful. The brain then sends a message to the heart to slow down, moving the body from a flight, fight or freeze response to a state of rest. Before I go to bed at night I practice one of the breathing techniques I’ve learnt over the years to help me empty my mind and get a good night’s sleep.
Ask for help: There are times, when even for the best of us, these thoughts become too much for us and we are overwhelmed. It can be in the form of a friend with a listening ear, who understands and supports you. It can be a professional to help you sift through the thought patterns and find the underlying thought that is driving it. It is important to say that asking for help does not diminish you in any way. As a matter of fact, another perspective can help you make that quantum jump from sitting in your couch obsessively ruminating to achieving your goal or releasing a debilitating fear.
Give it time: Overactive thinking is a pattern developed over a lifetime, so you are not going to develop a new pattern of channelling your mind by just willing it to happen one day. You need to give yourself time and be patient with yourself.