“Don’t get too deep, it leads to overthinking, and overthinking leads to problems that don’t even exist in the first place”
Jayson Engay, poet.
I know I’ve written about it before, but I seem to be hearing about overthinking more and more in my sessions and I thought a little top-up might be helpful. You know, often in CBT we ask clients to write things down and challenge negative thoughts, but with chronic overthinking I’m going to suggest that you don’t do that and that you practise NOT engaging with the stories and hypotheticals that are floating about in your head.
Those of us that are working from home at the moment will have more time to ruminate and get absorbed in their thoughts. The rub is that overthinking is quite a good way to avoid problem solving. What I mean is that rather than identifying the situation for what it is and dealing with any issue, we spend too much time and energy on the actual process of thinking and mentally exploring every single, possible eventuality. We become adept at conjuring up multiple outcomes and predicting the future!
Let’s take an example: You’ve had a bit of a ‘narky’ email from someone (maybe it’s someone you work with or a friend). Because you’ve got really good at overthinking, rather than seeing it for what it is, you let your mind go into overdrive and spend the next 7 days playing it over in a loop. Sound familiar?
Let’s take the case of the email…
First step: (healthy response) Acknowledge what’s going on. Not your narrative of what’s happened but what has actually happened: maybe someone is annoyed at you and rather than being direct, they’re being passive aggressive? Maybe you have misinterpreted what is actually being said? In the case of an email…read it again without your negative filter. Perhaps get someone else to read it. Move on.
Step two: (healthy response) Ask whoever sent it if they are ok? Do they need to speak to you about something? Or just accept they are having a bad morning and it has nothing to do with you. Move on.
Step three: The thoughts just keep popping back into your head, although now you’ve imagined a few more scenarios and are quite frankly going to town with this.
If you’ve hit step three, then a really good strategy is to practise mundane task focusing.
Sounds unappealing? The basic premise of task focusing (or attention training) is to train your mind to absorb itself in some boring or a simple-to-do-at home task. I don’t mean colouring or something mentally taxing by the way, this is something mundane and easy to do. You want to pick something where you mind will wander so you can work on bringing it back to the present: vacuuming, dusting, washing the dishes, sorting out the cupboards, doing some weights, painting a wall, folding the washing. I would choose the ironing and kill two birds with one stone!
So, we are going to set about this task and every time the mind wanders to the problem or starts to overthink, bring it straight back to the (mundane) task in hand. Use your senses: What can you hear? Steam of the iron. What can you smell? Laundry detergent. What can you see? Really look at what you’re ironing. What do the clothes feel like? Rough, silky, comforting? It’s unlikely that you’re going to be tasting your ironing so I will leave this one off the list!
The more you practise this, the better you will become. Remember, overthinking isn’t problem solving – it’s just creating more problems. Imagine what your life could be like if you didn’t choose to overthink things. If you are struggling to keep overthinking in check then Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help.