Are you cursed by being an avowed overthinker? Help is at hand
JOANNE SAVAGE laments her propensity to rumination and asks what can be done to mitigate against such behaviour
I am a massive overthinker. Yes, I have spent entire evenings sitting ostensibly staring into space, thinking about everything from the nature of reality, the possible existence of God, the definition of the ‘good’ or ethical life, but also about the fact that 17 divided by three equals Pi which is an irrational number stretching on to infinity, the possibility of life on Mars, how I could have interjected with more acuity during a board meeting, whether chicken chow mein is a superior dish to spag bol, when and if the apocalypse is at hand, why I once paid a Moroccan goatherd 50 Euro for a purely ornamental teapot, and what the proper etiquette is for eating a five course meal with the excessive attendant cutlery. I have also spent entire evenings ruminating over past relationships, what I should have done differently, why I have never yet owned a cat or a car or moped, whether cerulean is a better shade of paint colour for a garden shed than indigo, why western ‘casino’ capitalism has not yet been supplanted by a socialist utopia, why Piers Morgan seems prouder than Lucifer and how I will never, ever be a ‘top lobster’ situated within a dominance hierarchy based on a patriarchal notion of competency by the very public intellectual Jordan Peterson.
Then there is excessive thinking about finances, unpaid bills, flatpack furniture, the threat of redundancy, Covid infection, the moral rectitude of the Falklands war, whether Thatcher was an actual witch and a concatenation of see-sawing philosophising on the nature of romantic love and the inevitability of death, the likelihood of being involved in a road traffic accident, the sheer volume of things that can go wrong on any given day as morning stretches to evening and on into the night, when anxiety-ridden thought is especially liable to take hold. If there’s a way to think your way to a massive panic attack I have done so far too many times to list.
I cannot stop overthinking, often to the point of insomnia, and as an esteemed 2013 study in the Journal of Abnormal Pyschology makes clear, rumination, or stewing over past events, especially negative or traumatic ones, is a well-established risk factor for the onset of major depression and anxiety in both adolescents and adults.
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Apparently stressful life events make individuals more prone to rumination, and I, like many others, have had no shortage of these. (Indeed you are in a gilded minority if you have never suffered a stressful life event that has not had you treading the boards into the small hours, pulling your hair out, gnashing your teeth and/or tossing and turning in grief and/or horror).
So how do us overthinkers learn to regain control of our ruminative grey matter and think in moderation in order to promote better health, wellbeing and psychological equilibrium?
If you are an overthinker are you simply doomed to overthinking in perpetuity, your mind an endless loop of fruitless rumination, or is there a way to reprogramme your brain so that you have time for analytical thinking and reflection without becoming so paralysed by the multiplicities of thought or procrastination that go nowhere and are never translated into affirmative action?
(I think, therefore I am, as Descartes said, but if endless thought does not precipitate action, and actions speak louder than words, what will you ever achieve sitting in your ivory tower musing over a past that cannot be changed and never actually embarking on the realisation of the manifold pipe dreams you harbour that could make your life profoundly changed in all the ways you want it to be?)
The good news is that according to authors such as psychiatrist Norman Doidge, whose book The Brain That Changes Itself, argues that neuroplasticity means you can alter your neurochemistry and thought patterns and actually change the very structure of your brain and neural pathways simply by thinking differently and ruminating less, change is entirely possible if you commit to a new set of learned behaviours. And such new, revised behaviours change the structure of the brain, which again makes it more likely that you will stick to the new adopted behaviours as your cognitive structures metamorphosise.
So what might this entail?
A good place to begin is by identifying the problem and becoming aware of the patterns of rumination over things you have no control over. Dwelling on problems isn’t helpful - but finding pragmatic solutions is. ‘But, you might interject, someone could push me off a cliff tomorrow, how can I control this?’ Well, you can’t but chances are if you avoid cliff edges and encounters with strangers the chances of such a tragedy occurring become ever more limited. Think about and focus on what it is in your gift to change.
Make plans on how to change the things that are causing you the most anxiety-inducing cognition or better yet, limit your rumination into a scheduled half-hour window of “thinking time”. Outside of this allotted time distract yourself with other activities that will focus the mind elsewhere. If you want to ruminate, remind yourself that you can come back to such thoughts during your next “thinking time” window. Outside of that, keep rumination firmly at bay.
Psychoanalyst Susanna Abse, says on the subject: “There’s a difference between perseverating and reflecting,” she said. “It’s about whether you are going over and over something in your mind [without a resolution] or whether you are able to sit back, replay something and learn something useful from it.” Abse also said that “in an action-focused world, being a thinker isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But ruminating in a way that doesn’t lead anywhere may be a sign of anxiety.”
Mindfulness or learning to live in the moment instead of incessantly rehashing the past is another useful tool and there are all manner of classes, books, apps, courses and videos available to help you learn such skills.
Another useful tip is to change the channel in your brain by engaging in another activity that distracts you from the beehive of frenetic activity that is the over-wrought mind. It might be doing a jigsaw, gardening or kick-boxing, whatever takes you away from the imbroglio of thoughts will help safeguard your psychological equilibrium.
Self-confessed overthinker, Annalisa Barbieri, an agony aunt for the Guardian, recommends yoga as a way out of the ‘money mind’. Yes, it hurts and is hell at first, but if you persist there is joy and cathartic release to be had in that rigorous stretching and perfecting your downward-facing dog so that you are rooted in your physicality rather than the velocity of intellect. Next is learning how to challenge your brain in a soft-focus way, such as counting back in threes from 100 or staring out of the window of a car (if you’re not driving) or train, which is incredibly soothing and as close as many can come to clearing the overloaded, cluttered mind. Then remember that repetitive tasks are the firm friend of the overthinker - this is why hobbies such as running or knitting or sewing are ideal, fairly mindless enterprises, but absorbing nonetheless. Rhythmic music (maybe even 1990s trance?) can be immensely relaxing, adding some much-needed tranquillity to the acid bath of overwrought brain stew.
“If you start to get overwhelmed, shorten your focus to the next five minutes and no more, and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” and then just concentrate on that. Grounding is also really useful, such as feeling the ground beneath your feet or thinking, “What can I hear right now? What can I see?” to take you out of your busy head and into the outside world,” adds Barbieri.“My final top tip is: cold showers. Start slow but try to build up to two to three minutes in less than 15C water. Cold showers have all sorts of other health benefits, but in those three minutes, I think of nothing else. Heaven.”