Growing up, many people learned that they could think and plan their way out of any problem. It gave them a sense of control and convinced them they could protect themselves from failure or pain. And in some ways, this talent for rational analysis had benefits. But what happens when you can’t stop thinking and just “be”? If you have trouble sleeping or relaxing or having fun, you may be an overthinker.
The Trouble With Overthinking
What’s wrong with a mind on overdrive? “The main problem with being stuck in your head is it just doesn’t work,” says Christine Bates, LPC, a program director and mindfulness specialist at The Ranch treatment center in Tennessee. “Emotions are body-based, but many of us make the mistake of trying to run logic through an emotional system. There can be stress-relieving benefits to having a good cry. We don’t know why it makes us feel better and we can try to evaluate it logically, but sometimes we just need to listen to the body’s wisdom or we won’t get the outcome we hoped for.”
When thinking becomes obsessive, a problem that research shows disproportionately plagues 25- to 35-year-olds and women, it can have serious mental health consequences:
Depression and Anxiety.
Research shows overthinkers are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety. Although they think they’re working on solving a problem, studies show rumination (past-focused thinking) actually makes it tougher to make healthy decisions and to find the motivation to follow through on a solution. It also exacerbates the problem since it zaps time and energy that could’ve been used finding a workable resolution. You pay the price of exhaustion with no benefit.
When you’re stuck in your mind, you’re withdrawn from reality. You’re in the universe inside your head, which is often a highly pessimistic place, rather than engaging with people around you or focusing on the present moment. This constant analyzing without action to enact positive change can strain relationships with friends and family, leading to further isolation.
“When we try to skip over our bodies and just work things out in our heads, we add to our problems instead of resolving them,” says Bates. “Our minds want the hit of satisfaction that comes with figuring something out, so we make up stories to explain our feelings to ourselves. But our feelings don’t require explanation, and any logical answer we assign them won’t be based in reality.”
Destructive Attempts to Cope.
Some people quiet the constant chatter in their minds with alcohol, drugs or other destructive behaviors like overeating. It helps for a time, but the chatter comes back, often accompanied by new troubles that go along with destructive behaviors like problems with relationships, health, finances or career.
“Being stuck in our heads is usually a sign we’re trying to maintain control of what’s happening,” says Bates. “We’re locked into seeing things a certain way, which doesn’t usually lead to a good solution.” Bates frequently sees this pattern in people who have perceived their body as an unsafe place to be, often because of past abuse or perhaps life got worse for them if they cried or showed emotion.
“If people allow their body to process what it needs to process, the old story that tells them they can’t trust others or they don’t deserve good things gets challenged,” she explains. “As a result, coping behaviors like substance abuse and compulsive behaviors may become threatened. Although this can feel unsettling, it’s an important part of the healing process.”
A Negative Cycle.
Obsessive thinking can feed on itself, essentially teaching the circuits in the brain to continue with what has become an automatic behavior. The more we fixate on scenes in our minds, the more upset we get, which leads to more obsessing. It’s a destructive cycle.
6 Strategies to Get Out of Your Head
Although it may feel like thoughts “pop in your mind” without you having any say in the matter, you do have a choice. Here are a few ways to shift obsessive thinking into something more productive:
#1 Assess the value. Not all thinking is counterproductive, of course. If you’re thinking through a problem and coming up with concrete ideas or solutions relatively quickly, it’s a useful exercise. However, if you’re going over the same issues again and again (often problems from the past that can’t be changed) in hopes of gaining clarity or some final answer that doesn’t seem to come, you’re getting yourself stuck. No amount of thinking can guarantee good decisions or positive results, and tough situations happen regardless of whether you’ve anticipated and thought through them or not. In these cases, the time spent ruminating would be far better spent taking action. Ask yourself: Is this within my power to change? If not, let it go and move on to the next challenge.
#2 Challenge your thinking. Allow yourself a moment to let your fears go wild. Assume the worst-case scenario becomes reality, and think for just a few minutes about how you’d manage that situation. Another helpful question: Will this matter in a few months? If so, could you use what you’ve learned to change and grow as a person? Usually the result of these lines of thinking makes clear that the issue isn’t worth dwelling on.
#3 Practice mindfulness. Studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. It also has a host of other benefits such as stress and anxiety reduction, improved focus and memory, and better quality of life. “Mindfulness allows you to let your mind be full enough of the present moment through all of your senses that you aren’t so hijacked by thinking,” Bates explains. “When we’re aware of what’s actually happening, it’s harder for our thoughts to confuse us about reality.”
#4 Get grounded. Trying to force thoughts out of your mind usually backfires. Instead, suggests Bates, “When you feel disconnected from your body and stuck in your head, try something to get grounded that’s enjoyable to you.” Some options to consider: exercise, volunteering, molding with clay, dancing, getting a massage, playing with a pet, cooking or yoga — whatever brings your focus to the present moment.
#5 Give yourself the gift of compassion. Since criticizing yourself breeds more negativity and prevents processing emotions, practice forgiving yourself instead. In one study, people who wrote about a negative experience with a focus on compassion for themselves felt their mood lift whereas those who simply expressed their feelings in writing ended up more depressed. So treat yourself with the same kindness and acceptance you’d give a good friend going through a tough time.
#6 Find support. “If it’s scary or challenging getting out of your head, you may need the support of a recovery group or therapist,” says Bates. Through approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, people can interrupt negative thoughts and feelings and limit the attention they give to obsessive thoughts rather than being controlled by them. They find more effective ways to get their emotional needs met.
Tired of going through life as a giant mind, divorced from your body and spirit, observing and analyzing rather than participating in life? Life is better when mind and body work together, each playing its intended role. By taking steps to stay engaged in the present moment, your mind can take a load off — and you may find your problems actually become easier to solve.
By Meghan Vivo