“Overthinking is my best friend. Always fills my brain with delight and sits by my side. It never leaves me alone.”
― Suyasha Subedi
Fellow over-thinkers, only you will understand this post to its full extent. We are a special kind, a strange kind; a type of person who is often misunderstood. I’m not talking about general overthinking, or anxiety; which many people suffer from in the Western culture. I’m talking about those of us who are natural over-thinkers, who love to think a lot, who philosophise and analyse everything to its full extend, and often beyond. Those of us who live in our head and get lost there for hours.
I used to believe that the way my mind worked was abnormal. Other people don’t think, question and analyse every little detail. But of course, I had to analyse and think about this. I had to work out how to stop my overactive mind and chill out. But now I’m overthinking why I overthink, then overthinking why I need to think about why I overthink. Ok I see the problem.
The inner world of an over-thinker can be filled with self-doubt and constant uncertainty. This sounds pretty negative, but it’s not always the case. Psychologists state that there are benefits to the overactive mind, or “Nervous Nellie”. Those of us who are lucky enough to possess this trait often worry and over-analyse issues far more than the average person. This can lead to stress, anxiety and many health issues including digestive problems and hypertension. Taking control is the key. Embrace your monkey mind while giving it bananas when it’s time to shut up!
So, what causes someone to be an over-thinker? One paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences states that there is an area in the brain which controls self-created thoughts (thoughts associated with overthinking). This area may be more active in over-thinkers. This may lead to excessive thinking. However this also leads to breakthrough theories, research ideas, creativity and solutions to problems.
When compared to “normal thinkers”, i.e. those who often look on the bright side of life, over-thinkers are more likely to create solutions to the problems that they obsess over. Some research has even indicated that over-thinkers, or anxious people generally have higher IQ's compared to more relaxed individuals.
However, research also shows that over-thinkers are prone to many health problems, lower immunity and chronic health conditions. This shows that overthinking can be both a blessing and a curse. Overthinking to the point of chronic stress is not good for you, and may even cause health problems. However, using your monkey mind to your advantage can be one of your best assets.
Over-thinker isn’t a bad thing unless you let it become a bad thing. Overthinking can lead to stress, anxiety and depression when you allow it to control you. But when you take control, overthinking can be used to your advantage, leading to the most brilliant ideas, insights and breakthroughs. This is the major problem for the overactive mind, trying to take control and use it for good. Over-thinkers are prone to anxiety and it’s very easy for an over-thinker's mind to lose control. Once that happens, getting out isn’t easy. But not impossible.
Some of the common problems over-thinkers face include:
Ok, so there are a lot of problems that come along with having an overactive mind. But have you ever considered how much of a blessing it is to be an over-thinker? Many creative people are over-thinkers. Over-thinkers are never short on ideas. All of those ideas that pop into your head while your monkey mind is chattering have the potential to be amazing. Often, we start questioning whether the idea is good enough, maybe it’s stupid etc. Then we talk ourselves out of even trying.
This is where taking control is important, before that blessing turns into a curse. This is where you need to learn to recognise what you’re doing. Your amazing overthinking mind has given you an idea, so take it. If you allow yourself to analyse this idea your will talk yourself out of it. There’s a fine line between the advantages and disadvantages of the overactive mind, and recognising when that line appears is bloody hard!
This line applies to everything that triggers your monkey mind. The line will appear at different points, but understanding when your mind is working for you and when it’s sabotaging you is something that you have to practice for yourself. I certainly haven’t got it under control yet. Often you will recognise that your mind is taking control, but can’t get yourself out of it. This is when support can save you.
Why is support important? Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re so involved in your thinking situation, which is turning into anxiety and you cannot see the situation as a whole. I don’t know if it’s just me, but as an over-thinker I tend to keep my overthinking to myself. This is a bad idea if you don’t always have control.
Find someone who you trust, someone who won’t judge you, who will always be there. Ask this person if you can turn to them when your mind gets out of control, and tell them what you’re thinking, or overthinking. They will see your situation from a whole new perspective and help you to calm down. This is important for those who struggle often, it will save you a lot of stress and anxiety. Rather than spending hours or days obsessing over something, you could have it resolved in minutes. If you have no one to turn to, consider a counsellor.
Overthinking can definitely be a positive trait, and you should embrace it. However most, if not all over-thinkers are all too familiar with the negative side of this gift. You can learn to take control of your monkey mind and use it to your advantage. However, you will probably slip up on more than one occasion, so make sure you have support if you need it. But don’t forget that the way your mind works is unique and is a blessing. Just think about some of history’s greatest thinkers!
I tend to plan almost everything. I like to know what’s going to happen and how I will get from point A to point B. Yet more often than not, my plans are interrupted and this makes me uneasy. I don’t like not being in control. If I make a plan, no matter how small, I like to stick to it. And when something comes along and changes my plan, and it will, anxiety will jump in and sing ner ner ner your world is crumbling.
A certain smarty pants has managed to bring this to my attention on and off for the last eleven months. Whether this person is aware of this or not, it has helped me to change my way of thinking. You can make as many plans as you like about your future, short or long term, but you also need to realise that something will very likely come along and change what you “thought” was the best outcome for you and usually give you an even better outcome.
Unfortunately, when you’re lost in that freak out, “no no no, it was meant to go THIS way, not that way”, then you fail to see that you're being given something much better. It’s the whole ‘can’t see the forest for the tress’ expression.
Trying to control every aspect of your life only makes life a struggle. Controlling things or people only pushes those things or people away. The tighter you hold onto something, the more it pulls away. However, the thought of letting go of control is a very scary idea, especially for control freaks. It feels like allowing chaos in to run rampant through your "very well-managed life".
I think the root of the problem is down to one word, ‘trust’. Letting go of control means that you need to trust that everything will be ok. You need to trust that life will flow naturally without your constant micromanagement. That’s bloody scary.
Bad things will happen and you will deal with them as they do. Let go rather than trying to control and prevent what you fear. This only makes things worse while creating a lot of stress and worry along the way.
Trusting and letting go doesn’t mean becoming passive. It means flowing with life naturally and doing what you need to do, or can do ONLY when you need to do it. Not thinking about what you could do or should do when you can't do anything at all. That's called worrying. Or did I just confuse you, I think I confused myself.
I’ll always be a planner; I’ll make lists and plan how I will get from A to B. There’s nothing wrong with being organised. How satisfying is it to cross things off a list as they get done, or is that just me?
The problem arises when you can’t embrace change, when you fall apart because your well intentioned plans have fallen apart. Learning to accept and go with the flow of life does take a lot of stress out of the entire process. I probably should be listening to my own advice.
I do know however, that putting this into practice is a lot harder than simply writing it down. But just recognising when your control freakiness rears its ugly head is the first step to changing your attitude for the better.
“Live every day as it comes” – Sir Smarty Pants.
We all experience stress at some point, many on a daily basis. Some researchers suggest that occasional short term stress can be good for the body, however chronic stress causes many health problems.
The stress response, or “fight or flight” response evolved as survival skill which allowed people to immediately react to life threatening situations. This response was valuable during the times when humans were presented with these situations often, such as being attacked by a wild animal. However now the stress response is usually activated by non-life threatening events every day, such as work, relationship and traffic problems.
When someone perceives a stressful situation the amygdala (a part of the brain which processes emotions), instantly sends a danger signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary functions such as respiratory rate, digestion, heart rate, etc.
Once the distress signal has been sent to the hypothalamus it activates the fight or flight response. As a result the body prepares to either fight the danger, or run away. This is done by diverting blood away from where it’s not needed (such as the digestive system) and towards where it is needed (such as the muscles in the arms and legs). Adrenaline is release causing the heart rate and breathing rate to increase. Digestion slows and the liver releases glucose for energy. These changes happen so fast that we’re barely aware of them.
The fight or flight response is extremely effective when there is an actual threat. Unfortunately many people experience stress daily, and in situations which are not life threatening. Many of us have experienced the effect stress can have on digestion when it causes indigestion or heartburn. Stress can slow the digestive system which may only cause mild problems initially, but when stress becomes ongoing (chronic) it can have more serious effects on your health.
Chronic stress is associated with diabetes, heart problems, digestive issues, hypertension and much more. However it’s not all bad news: recent studies indicate that some acute stress may actually be good for the body. Moderate stress that is overcome can make the body stronger and more able to manage stress in the future. This supports Richard Dienstbier’s theory of mental toughness (1989), which states that acute stress can make you mentally stronger when it’s manageable, and there’s recovery time in between.
Like anything, it’s about moderation. When stress becomes ongoing, it may have negative effects on your health. Stress is unavoidable for most people, but we can do many things to manage stress in a healthier way.
I was having a casual conversation with a group of people the other day. One of the ladies in the group started to talk about how she works twelve-hour days with no breaks, studies at night, looks after her kids and needs to be up at 5.30am tomorrow for another twelve-hour shift. She was then praised for her dedication and her strength while being cheered on with “wow’s” and “how do you do it’s”.
While this might be a more extreme example, it’s become the norm in Western society. Being constantly busy is seen as good. You will be praised and rewarded for working yourself into the ground.
I learnt my lesson the hard way. I took on too much in my final year of my undergraduate degree. I had just become a single mum to a toddler so I needed to find work to support us, which I did. But instead of cutting down on my uni subjects I continued as I was so I could still finish as planned. Between parenting, working and uni I couldn’t handle it. I had no time to rest. I was eating in my car on the run, shovelling the food in as fast as I could.
I was proud that I was working so hard because that’s what you’re meant to do, right? And that’s what I though until my body said “enough!” I became ill, so ill that I was unable to work and it took me 5 years to recover.
I can now look back and see how being sick has changed the way I live. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and I don’t want others to go through something similar; or worse.
The overworked culture isn’t just happening in the Western world, in Japan they have a word for this, “karoshi” - meaning job related exhaustion or death from overwork. According to the Heart Foundation Australia, more heart attacks occur on Monday mornings, most likely due to the stress and anticipation of the upcoming working week.
It’s not only work that can cause major stress on the body in modern society. In fact, many of us love our careers and balance them very well with life. However there are many other stressors that prevent us from slowing down, such as technology, television, phones, advertising, news and gadgets. Our senses are constantly bombarded, never given a break.
I find it interesting when I'm out in public, almost everyone will be staring at their phone. Even when they sit down on a lovely park bench in front of a nice view; out comes the phone. Why not take ten minutes to relax and look at the view? But don’t take out the phone to take a photo, just enjoy. People feel like they MUST be “doing” something even when they're doing nothing.
It’s definitely not easy to relearn your way of living. I say relearn because we instinctively knew how to live when we were kids. Maybe we need to look at how kids live life to remember how we should be living. We don’t need to “act” like a child. We can maintain maturity while living in the moment and taking care of ourselves.
Yet as an adult we can't avoid those responsibilities which are often the source of our stress. But we do have the power to simplify life as much as possible to reduce stress. You can do this by taking on some, or all of the following ideas: