Our ability to think and reflect on our experiences is a trait that distinguishes us from most other animals. It allows us to anticipate problems and plan for the future. It also allows to make sense of and giving meaning to the past.
The problem that arises for many of us is when we can’t turn off our thinking mind. It’s as if part of us believes that by ruminating on a problem we can solve it and get free of it. Yet, in fact our mind can turn a problem or experience over and over again without ever solving anything or without seeing things more clearly.
We all have problems; adversity is part of life. But a tendency to ruminate about our problems can set us up for anxiety and/or depression. We can get so stuck in our heads that we miss the beauty or joy of life or the calm clarity that can come from noticing what is happening in the present moment — the smile of a friend, the drops of rain hitting the leaves outside the window, the way the setting sun sets the clouds on fire.
Just as it took some time to develop the habit of overthinking, it will take some effort to overcome it. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- The next time you are ruminating, stop and ask yourself: what do I need right now? Do you need to eat something? Do you need to move around a bit or go outside? Or get in touch with a good friend? The practice of noticing that you are ruminating and redirecting your focus retrains your mind to loosen up and not get pulled into the vortex of your thoughts.
- Snap out of it. Place a rubber band around your wrist. When you notice yourself ruminating, snap the rubber band and refocus on something else.
- Get into a comfortable position and follow these breathing instructions. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four. Repeat this for at least five minutes. Breathing replenishes the body and gives the mind something else to focus on.
- Pull Over: This method came from Therese J. Borchard who wrote an online guide to overcoming obsessions. Imagine you are driving a car. Whenever you notice yourself obsessing, imagine pulling over to the side of the road. Then ask yourself: Is there anything I need to fix? Is there anything I need to change? Is there anything else I need to do to find peace with the situation I’m ruminating about? If the answer is “no,” then let go of the obsession and get back on the road. This is a way to teach yourself to focus on things you can actually change and let go of the rest.
- Get out of your mind and into your senses. When we are in our heads, we tend to overthink things. Activities that get you out of your mind and into the physical world can help break the cycle. For instance, take a walk and notice everything that is the color blue or green. Ride your bike along the river trail and feel the wind in your face. Get out a recipe and prepare a dish that you’ve never made before. Light a stick of incense and put on some good music. You get the idea.
- Learn and practice meditation. One simple practice is to follow the stream of sounds as they rise and fall moment by moment. When distracting thoughts arise, let the thoughts go and return to the stream of sounds. When we are obsessing about a problem or the past, it can feel like we’re in the grip of a force more powerful than us. But developing a well-established practice of systematically letting go of your thoughts will allow you to enter a more spacious state of mind, even in the face of challenging circumstances.
Thinking is a wonderful tool that allows us to plan for the future, anticipate and solve problems. But in order to live a balanced life and not waste our time worrying, we need to learn how to set the tool down, breathe and take in the world around us. Sometimes the greatest inspirations come when we stop thinking and open our minds to a deeper stream of experience.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.