“Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life….My precept is, do something, my sister, do good if you can; but at any rate, do something.” ~Elizabeth Gaskell
Problems. We all face them.
Some are frivolous; some are life changing. Some force us to draw from within us our greatest mental potential. Many cause nothing more than stress.
Whatever issues life presents us, whether small or big, we think about them.
We think about what to do, what not to do, and what would be “best” for us and for everyone around us.
But how often do we think about our thinking? When do we stop to question why we over-think, whether it’s productive, and how to overcome it?
The first time a true bout of over-thinking grappled me was when I graduated from college.
For many, this time comes as a quarter-life crisis, and the event often repeats itself later in life. It’s the time to decide what we will do with our lives, and what careers we will pursue.
We want to make a true difference, help society, and live well. Although acquiring a comfortable desk job may be easier, it doesn’t have such a gripping appeal.
And so begins a rare human trait that we would surely benefit from evolving out of: rumination.
Sleepless nights came more regularly than I ever could have predicted. Confusion was my norm. Indecisiveness became expected. Uncertainty was my only certainty.
Fortunately, however, I didn’t drive myself nuts (or so I believe). Underlying the distress was an organic curiosity, and this led me to question my approach. What I came to learn truly changed my life.
I managed to collate a number of strategies for effectively reducing over-thinking. Below are some of my favorite simple and easy-to-implement insights and strategies:
1. Remember that over-thinking does not lead to insight.
You want an understanding of which decision will be best. For this, you need a level of insight into what each decision will lead to. Thinking this through, however, is futile.
Why? Because you never, ever know what something will be like until you experience it.
School, college, moving home, getting married, ending a relationship, changing career paths. However much you imagine what these change will be like, you will be surprised by what you discover when you actually engage in these activities.
Knowing this, you can move forward with a true understanding of what would be best. Acting, therefore, leads to clarity. Thought doesn’t.
2. Know that your decision will never be final.
Over-thinking often comes from the notion that you will make a grand finale decision that will never change and must be correct.
It won’t happen. And that’s a good thing. If you could predict with complete accuracy the entirety of your future, would you want to experience it?
To me, that removes all the spice of life. You must be aware that however much critical thinking you apply to a decision, you may be wrong.
Being comfortable with being wrong, and knowing that your opinions and knowledge of a situation will change with time, brings a sense of true inner freedom and peace.
3. Learn the reasons why over-thinking is harmful and let it motivate you.
Studies have shown rumination to be strongly linked to depression, anxiety, binge eating, binge drinking, and self-harm.
In one study, 32,827 people from 172 countries showed that life events were the largest predictors of stress, followed by family history, income and education, relationship status, and social inclusion.
However, the study also showed that stress only occurred if the individual engaged in negative over-thinking about the events, and it showed that people who did not do this did not become as stressed or depressed, “even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives.”
So, worry about your problems if you wish. But don’t say no one warned you!
4. Keep active throughout the day and tire the body out.
Do you want to know one of the main reasons you over-think?
It’s because you have the time to.
Not one day can be fruitful if more time than necessary is allowed for aimless thinking. A mind rests well at night knowing its day has been directed toward worthy goals.
So consider daily exercise—any physical activity that raises heart rate and improves health.
Walking is exercise. Sports, Pilates, and playing with the dog are too. It doesn’t have to be training for the next Olympics. Just get moving, and get tired.
5. Become the ultimate skeptic.
If you think about what causes thinking to be so stressful and tiring, it’s often our personal convictions that our thoughts are actually true.
Let’s look at an example.
If someone you know does something you consider hurtful, but you don’t discuss the issue with the person, negativity can arise with certain thoughts about why the person acted that way.
But once you can pinpoint which thoughts are causing the upset, one golden question will release all negativity:
“Can I be 100% sure this is true?”
By seeing the inherent lack of truth in your beliefs, you will naturally find yourself much more relaxed in all situations, and you won’t over-think things that are based on predictions and assumptions.
6. Seek social support, but don’t vent.
Better than confining your decisions to your own biases, perspectives, and mental filters, commit to seeking support from loved ones.
Research has long shown the powerful impact of social support in the reduction of stress.
But even better than that is getting a fresh, new angle on the topic.
For me, this has always—on every occasion—led me to learn something I had never considered before. This is how you grow, emotionally and spiritually.
7. Develop the skill of forgiveness.
It’s no surprise that having the misfortune of being treated undesirably leads people to suppress and repress anger toward other people.
Forgiveness is of the highest of human virtues. Not because it is morally correct, spiritually mature, or deemed a commendable personality trait.
It’s special because it, single-handedly, can induce the ultimate peace in people.
Forgiveness has also been shown on many occasions to help develop positive self-esteem, improve mood, and dramatically improve health. It’s a predictor of relationship well-being and marital length, and it has even been shown to increase longevity.
8. Plan for conscious distraction.
When do you ruminate the most? Have you ever thought about it? For me, I ruminated at night.
When you know the time of day rumination will begin, you can plan to remove that spare time with an activity that engages your full faculties.
It could be Sudoku, a board game with family, a meal out, yoga, or writing letters of gratitude to long-unseen friends.
A note of warning: there is some research to suggest that doing this with negatively reinforcing behaviors, such as toxic eating patterns, can lead to harmful long-term results.
Therefore, be picky about what you distract yourself with, and make sure it fosters positive emotion and psychological wellbeing.
9. Solve another person’s problem first, and get perspective.
“Serve first, seek second” should be the motto for anyone currently distressed by their perceived problems.
Your issue at hand can become so consuming that others may look at you like you’re living in your own mental world. And it takes something to break you out of it.
Helping others puts your issues in order by reminding you that we all go through tough times, some much more than you ever will.
That’s not to discount the struggles you’re going through, but helping others will restore balance and harmony in your life.
10. Remember that a perfect decision is never a bold one, so get started.
When your final years are approaching, you will not worry about how well you thought through your decisions, or how thoroughly and accurately you approached life’s forks in the road.
You will rest happily knowing you lived true to yourself, acted with confidence, and stood up for what you believed in.
So don’t worry about the perfection of your decisions. Be swift to move forward, even if it is in the wrong direction. Boldness is respectable; carefulness has never changed the world.