Opinion: Defeating overthinking

Slow down to embrace a healthy relationship with your mind, the surest way to ensure you do what you want

Published Date – 26 May 2024, 11:59 PM


Today’s world involves limitless exposure to stimuli, while human beings tend to be more isolated than ever before. The spirit of individualism has taken over in a big way and with the digital revolution, most people are left in their own intellectual company for most of their time. This phenomenon can lead us to immerse ourselves in thinking counterproductively. In fact, several popular polls have found an overwhelming majority of their respondents accepting that they are overthinkers. Despite the seeming innocuity of this, overthinking, in the same polls and popular culture, has been declared to be a hurdle to productivity, detriment to mental health and one’s autonomy and control over oneself and a killjoy, in general. How do we understand these happenings? Is overthinking all that it seems to be? Can we opt out of it, if it is indeed bad for us? These questions merit detailed engagement with the subject matter.

Counterproductive Thought

To answer all of these questions, we begin by trying to respond to two fundamental queries— what is overthinking and why do we overthink? Overthinking, unlike, sustained mindful thinking, is about repetitive, unproductive and oftentimes, counterproductive thought. For example, thinking about your career at length will involve planning while overthinking about it will lead you to continuously think of its potential highs and lows, benefits and dangers and get mesmerised or terrified by them into a state of inactivity.

Several studies have shown that it is a habit that can be bad for your physical health, besides causing immense mental fatigue, giving rise to a host of other problems, including generalised anxiety, stress and paranoia. To think of why we overthink, on the other hand, we need to acknowledge that it is a complex psychological phenomenon that arises from a combination of cognitive, emotional and environmental factors.

One primary factor contributing to overthinking is the human brain’s natural inclination to think, problem-solve and make sense of things. When faced with uncertainties or difficulties, the mind tends to engage in repetitive thought patterns as a way to find solutions or gain a sense of control over nebulous things. However, this adaptive function can become maladaptive when it spirals into prolonged and unproductive rumination. Emotional factors also play a crucial role in creating and consolidating the process of overthinking. Anxiety, fear, and self-doubt can amplify the tendency to dwell on negative scenarios or potential pitfalls. The mind can become trapped in a loop of endless “what if” scenarios, feeding a cycle of overanalysis that hinders decision- making and problem-solving.

Furthermore, societal and cultural pressures contribute to overthinking. Expectations, comparisons and the fear of judgment can create a constant stream of self-evaluation, intensifying the need to carefully consider every option and potential outcome. The modern world’s information overload and constant connectivity also fuel overthinking, bombarding individuals with an overwhelming amount of data that demands relentless processing and assessment.

Way Out

Now that we understand what overthinking is and why we overthink, it is crucial to find ways out of it. Needless to say, the possibility of overthinking will exist as long as the human mind is able to think and, therefore, there is no simple way to opt out of it. However, it is possible to play along with your thinking and attain mastery over the ways in which you think. This can be done in some powerful ways. The first way is to become mindful of what you are doing, or, stay in a state of awareness regarding how your brain is working and try to stay in control of it. Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment without judgment.

One technique in this regard is meditation whereby you can set aside a few minutes regularly to sit comfortably, focus on your breath and observe your thought patterns without attachment. When overthinking arises, consciously and cautiously, you gently guide your attention back to the present. With practice of doing this, you will find greater ease in controlling the ways in which you think. For instance, suppose you are replaying a social interaction in your mind, worrying about what others might have thought of you in a particular episode. With mindfulness, you can acknowledge those thoughts and be in touch with your feelings, but then, redirect your focus to your immediate surroundings before these thoughts overwhelm you into a repetitive loop, such as the sensation of your breath or the sounds around you.

Cognitive Restructuring

The other prominent way to deal with overthinking is called Cognitive Restructuring in the domain of psychology. Cognitive restructuring, as the name suggests, involves challenging and changing negative thought patterns. Instead of asking your mind not to think, this approach seeks to change how you think. You can start by identifying distorted thinking, like regular catastrophising or overgeneralising. Once you recognise these processes, you can try to actively replace these thoughts with more realistic and positive ones.

For example, imagine that you made a minor mistake at work and immediately start thinking that you will be fired. Challenge this by evaluating evidence to the contrary — have you received positive feedback recently? Are there previous instances where mistakes were forgiven? This rational analysis helps in reevaluating and mitigating overblown concerns and enables you to think in ways that affirm, not inhibit you.

On the whole, self-mastery today can be attained by dealing decisively with the phenomenon of overthinking. An approach of mindfulness and cognitive restructuring suggests adopting a mindset and creating a lifestyle where you avoid excessive analysis and trust your intuition. It involves finding a balance between thoughtful consideration and preventing unnecessary stress by letting go of overanalysing every aspect of life. This approach encourages living in the present, making decisions more efficiently and appreciating the simplicity in various aspects of daily experiences.

While modern life often involves information overload, constant connectivity and societal expectations creating a fertile ground for overthinking, slowing down to embrace a healthy relationship with your mind is the surest way to ensure that you do what you want and fulfil yourself. So, embrace the moment and release your mind from the shackles of unproductive thinking!

Viiveck Verma

(The author is Founder and CEO of Upsurge Global, Adjunct Professor and Adviser, EThames College, and Venture partner, Silverneedle Ventures)

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