One of the biggest enemies to happiness is overthinking. If you want to have a chance at happiness, then you will have to learn how to stop overthinking. What am I talking about? Am I saying that we need to stop using our brains and just go be dummies who act entirely on emotion and instinct? Of course not. I’m also not saying that it’s easy to stop overthinking. If it were as easy as someone telling you to stop, then this article would be unnecessary.
In fact, I used to get incredibly annoyed at articles that would say things like “stop overthinking” without actually telling you HOW. In this article, I want to talk about the source of overthinking and then talk about a few ways to train your brain to think more efficiently. The problem isn’t that you’re thinking, it’s that your thinking has driven you to a state of paralysis. This paralysis can be perceived as being “safe,” when what is actually happening is fear. You’re afraid of something.
So let’s talk about the sources of overthinking and how to mitigate them.
Source #1: Fear and the Freeze Response
This type of overthinking can happen in situations that make us anxious. From an evolutionary perspective, we tend to react to these types of situations in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. (Scientists have even centered in on the part of the brain that gets activated during this process.) Obviously, those responses are in reaction to a real or perceived threat that is currently happening to us.
However, in many cases we train our brains to have that same response to what we perceive as a predicted threat. For example, the most common case of this is with younger boys who like a girl and want to talk to her. If the boy is shy or insecure, the thought of that can be a source of major anxiety. When I was young, the thought of approaching a girl to ask her out was horrifying to me. I would shake and sweat and bumble all over my words. So, instead of approaching, I would AVOID AVOID AVOID.
Fear trains us to avoid situations that we perceive as threatening to our well-being. In our modern society this reaction is mostly outmoded and useless.
Solution 1: Exposure Therapy
For a fear-based type of overthinking (i.e. approaching new people, social interaction, making new friends, public speaking, etc.), the best solution is the one you don’t want to hear. You have to expose yourself to the thing you fear enough times that you begin to make new pathways in your brain that allow you to move beyond this conditioned response.
When I was thinking of becoming a teacher, I had a huge fear of public speaking. I knew that I wanted to teach, but I also knew that overcoming that fear of being in front of people was looming in front of me. It wasn’t until I was in my 3rd year of teaching that I began to realize that I wasn’t afraid to get in front of the students anymore. Do you know how many lessons that meant that I taught before I reached that place? Two years at 180 days each, plus 100 day internship = 460 days of teaching. At 6 periods per day, that meant that I had to get in front of students at least 2,760 times in order to get over my fear of public speaking. I still get the occasional stage fright every now and then (especially at the beginning of the year when I don’t know them), and I am in my 6th year of teaching.
My point is that you won’t overcome your fear until you decide to face your fear. And it’s not enough to just face your fear once. You have to keep facing your fear until you no longer fear the thing you face.
Source #2: General Anxiety and Worry
This one is a little more complicated. People have written entire books about anxiety and how to face it. (Here is my favorite: Triumph Over Fear). But let’s focus just on the concept of worrying. Worrying can cause us to overthink situations, to play it safe when we should be taking risks, and keep us from living the life we truly want. It can cause us to hold onto people too tight and, thus, push them further away.
The source of worry is a form of general anxiety. Anxiety has many roots. The biggest source of anxiety in my own personal experience comes from insecurity and negative internal beliefs about yourself.
Solution 2: Examine Your Internal Beliefs and Change Them
This is a process that is best done with your therapist. Basically you spend some time analyzing your negative self talk (write it down if you need to). Look at the beliefs you have about yourself. Single out the ones that begin with “I am ____.” A biggie for me was “I am bad.” When I landed on that one it hit me like a ton of bricks, and I could see how most of my actions flowed out of that one belief.
When you land on the ones that create emotion, think about the first time you had that belief. Trust me, as soon as you think about it a situation that happened to you (most likely in your childhood) will immediately surface. This can be an emotional process, and it will take time. But the result is cathartic and you will see a major difference in your life.
After you look at the situation, you need to realize that the belief is nonsense. It was a way to protect yourself against trauma in your childhood. You make these beliefs about yourself and they hold you back from repeating the same “mistake” again. Byron Katie has a wonderful process for deconstructing these beliefs. It consists of asking the following four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
I love that line of questioning because it forces you to face the thought, to examine how the thought is affecting your life, and imagine what your life could be like if you stopped believing that thought. This process is extremely cathartic and will be well worth the time you spend doing it.
Source #3: External Influences and Negativity
Is there an extremely negative person in your life? This goes back to the leaky boat example I’ve used in previous blog posts. You can spend so much time removing water from a leaking boat to keep it afloat, but it’s much more effective to fix the hole first. We can exhaust ourselves trying to remove negative thoughts from our lives when we live with someone who is constantly negative.
I’m not saying that you can remove that person from your life, but I am saying that it’s time to address it. Call it out. Even if the person doesn’t change, the act of calling it out sends a message to yourself that you do not accept the negativity.
I’m also not advocating that you avoid negative thoughts entirely. Negative thoughts have a purpose in our lives. I’m just saying that if you want to stop overthinking and start living, then you will want to learn how to be more optimistic. This doesn’t mean putting a positive spin on everything. If you do that, you’re going to be that annoying person that everybody avoids. What I’m saying is that you have to have a generally optimistic view of the world. You have to understand that when things get bad, there is hope that good things will return.
I’m also advocating that you learn to see your circumstance from multiple perspectives. Understand that we are generally ignorant and that we don’t know everything about how the world works. This keeps you in a state of perpetual curiosity and openness to new things. Your ability to adapt to new circumstances is fundamental to your happiness.