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Putting the Brakes on Overthinking

How to climb out of the rabbit hole: Unsticking from toxic thinking loops.

Key points

  • Many people get stuck in negative thinking loops because they believe thinking about a problem will make it better.
  • To stop overthinking, it can help to make a commitment to transition from “thinker” to “listener.”
  • Remember that your thoughts are not you, and you can decide which thoughts you want to engage with.

I talk and write a lot about why we overthink and ruminate so much, and keep thinking about all the worst parts of our lives, all the things that bring us pain. At the most basic level, we stay hooked on our thoughts because thinking gives us a sense of control. It makes us feel like we’re doing something for ourselves, working on our own behalf.

Why we get stuck in negative thinking loops

Thinking gives us a sense of agency, makes us feel less vulnerable and afraid, less at the mercy of change and what we can’t control. We don’t know another way, don’t know how to let go of what we see as our lifeboat. We are so heavily invested and reliant upon thinking as the way to keep ourselves safe that we don’t stop for long enough to get a glimpse of a way of living that doesn’t necessitate constant thinking.

We hold the deep conviction that thinking will make whatever we’re thinking about better. It’s ingrained in us from the time we’re born: Thinking is the solution—to every problem and non-problem. But what if it’s not? What if the premise at the center of everything we believe and do is faulty? What if thinking, the way we do it, is actually the problem, not the solution?

People often ask me if it’s possible to recover from chronic overthinking. The answer is yes, it’s possible. But in order to recover, you have to be ready to fall out of love with your thoughts and with your thinking process. You have to stop believing that your thoughts are the most important thing on Earth and, of course, the absolute truth.

Furthermore, you have to hit rock bottom—your bottom. You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired, anxious, frightened, stressed, distracted, unhappy, and all the rest of the states of mind that your thoughts inflict upon you. In short, you have to get fed up with your thinking process and what the voice in your head is shouting or whispering at you. You have to find a new way of responding to your thoughts when they arise and a new way of thinking about thinking.

How to stop overthinking

The first step in breaking free from overthinking is making a commitment to listen to your own mind. In other words, to make the leap from being the one doing the thinking, the thinker, to the one the thoughts are talking to, the listener (or, if you choose, non-listener). When you’re caught in a thought loop of any kind, what you’ve lost is space … the space between the one listening to the thoughts and the thoughts themselves. When you’re caught, your thoughts don’t appear separate from who you are. Thoughts are you, and you are thoughts.

But the moment you recognize what’s happening inside your mind is the moment you start to feel relief. Acknowledging the presence of thoughts, ironically, allows you to feel disentangled from the thoughts and the whole thought tsunami. With awareness and acknowledgment, suddenly, there’s a separate shore from which to observe the thoughts without being drowned by them.

It is helpful in this acknowledgment, too, to give a name to your negative thinker or thinkers. When you label this voice of negativity inside you, it lightens and further separates you from the negative messages. Naming creates space.

You can use different names, too: one for your catastrophizer, the one who reminds you of everything that could (and will) go wrong (I call her Aunt Mathilda); one for your self-critic, the one who reminds you of everything wrong with you; one for your grievance keeper, who reminds you of every injustice anyone has ever done to you, right down to how the bus purposefully splashed you this morning. If you like, you can match the kind of thoughts to the names of people you’ve known who remind you of such sentiments. What’s paramount is that when the thoughts arise, you take a moment to acknowledge the voice with its proper name: Oh look, it’s Aunt Mathilda, here to tell me that I’m going to fail and that it will all end in disaster. Thank you for sharing, Mathilda. Now you can go!

When you recognize that the negative thoughts have (or are trying to) seize your current reality and that your present moment is being injected with this toxic content, you can name this truth as well. You might take a moment to pause and consciously offer yourself a dose of compassion right there, at the center of the storm. You can acknowledge that you are really trapped in the thoughts, down the rabbit hole, and suffering, wishing you could get out but not knowing how to do it. This compassionate pause, stepping back and acknowledging your own experience at that moment, is, in fact, critical in the process of breaking free from your self-inflicted unkindness.

The most important discovery in freeing yourself from excessive thinking is recognizing that your thoughts are not you. You, and all of us, have what is essentially an out-of-order computer firing all day and all night inside your head. Sometimes, that out-of-order computer tells you interesting things or maybe helps you put together a grocery list, but for much of the time, it’s spewing out contents that are not particularly helpful and often harmful to you. That said, it behooves all of us to expand our awareness when it comes to our own thinking and start deciding for ourselves which thoughts we want to engage with and how we want to be treated inside our own minds.

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