I don’t remember where I first ran into the concept of overthinking, but it appealed to me. Both Debbie and I understand the limitations of the parts of the brain that underlie thinking. We also are aware of the often unrecognized strengths of the “emotional brain”, which is commonly regarded as a giving birth to mere “fluff”.
Emotion is certainly not “fluff”. Antonio and Hannah Da Massio have shown that we need cooperation between the emotional brain and the thinking brain in order to deal with the real world. They showed that people with brain injuries that left both their thinking and their emotional brains intact, but blocked them from cooperating with each other resulted in smart people with extremely poor judgment.
These people could do very well on IQ tests, and even give intelligent answers to questions like “How many giraffes are there in the United States” that require creative and complicated thinking strategies.
So, when I ran into several articles about overthinking, I already knew that placing too much emphasis on thinking and too little on feeling and emotions would lead to poor outcomes. So the word “overthinking” grabbed my attention.
The go-to book on overthinking is one called “Women Who Think Too Much” by Prof. Susan Noel-Hoeksema. (Why just women? She pointed out that women are more likely than men to overthink. That is true, but actually, the few available research sources indicate a small, though statistically significant difference. So the book is also useful for guys).
As I began working my way through the book, I was impressed, and I recommended it to Debbie.
But, eventually I saw that reading the book is like taking a ride on a roller coaster, with the excitement and fun of learning alternating with pages of tedium. (This was my experience, not necessarily the objective truth.)
The best thing about the book is that it is full of methods for reducing overthinking.
So, here is my take:
What is overthinking? Professor Noel-Hoeksema describes it as “going over and over your negative thoughts and feelings, kneading them like dough. She applies the term the “yeast effect”. “Just as yeasty bread dough will double in size after it’s been kneaded, our negative thoughts expand, grow, and begin to take up all the space around them in our minds.”
We have always emphasized the damaging effects of stress amplification in limiting resilience. That last thing you should do when times are harsh is to alienate your supporters, tear yourself down, exaggerate your hopelessness… You get the idea- when you are in a distressing situation, you need someone who is on your side, but also smart about what helps and what hurts.
Clearly it doesn’t sound like a good thing to overthink. Research has linked it to depression. “When sadness is amplified instead of managed, it can take you down paths to hopelessness, self-hate, and immobility.”
It also increases anxiety, which can lead to a nasty physiological and psychological avalanche, ending in chronic arousal that “wears down the body” and eventually makes it hard for you to deal with even mildly challenging situations. All we can say is “Amen”.
So what can you do about overthinking? Here is a mix of examples from her book and some others that we think are also useful:
- Look for interpretations of distressing events that are not as damning as the ones that first come to mind. Could nasty, critical comments about you be wrong, even silly and more about the critic than about you?
- You should accept and attend to your negative feelings. But don’t be ruled by them. This is possibly the most important thing you can learn about scary feelings; you can have them and just keep going with what you judge to be in your best interest.
- Don’t wait for someone else to rescue you; get going on ways to take care of yourself. Focus on what you can do for yourself, and if someone else helps, be thankful for their caring, but realize that it is the delicious frosting on the cake.
- Brainstorm for possible ways to change your situation. The first few solutions you come up with are probably a tiny fraction of what you can discover if you unleash your creativity.
- Start with something small. Small change adds up.
- Don’t let uncertainly stop you from acting. Move forward even though you are uncertain about whether your solution will work. Doing something at the very least gives you dignity.
- When you are having catastrophic thoughts about yourself, ask if these thoughts are merely echoing the unsupportive words of others who spoke without looking out for your interests.
- Focus on your feelings, attend to what you are feeling in your body. This is usually the best source of what you really need to know in order to find an answer that can help you.
- Don’t forget to exercise, even if it is for only a few minutes per day. Exercise improves
- Stress-related aspects of your physiology.
- The positivity and clarity of your thoughts.
- Your level of calmness.