Do you overthink everything?
Do you sometimes suffer from nonstop anxious thoughts?
A lot of people overthink – bright, accomplished professionals, executives, and leaders who look like they have it all together. Most people actually don’t know how to stop overthinking.
Even high achievers feel today’s perfect storm of unremitting urgency and unhealthy expectations.
Their sharp (but overworked) minds wind up circling in self-doubt. They hang themselves up on the simplest decisions and proceed to overthink everything.
You know the feeling. You’re tired, overwhelmed, or emotionally triggered, and your inner critic takes over the mic. You repeat old stories, rework past choices, or replay “the problem with that” track until you’d rather pull the plug on thinking.
Try as you might, you’re unable to calm your mind. And unfortunately, attempting to go to sleep might not even help.
These thought tracks tend to play off a common theme: Somehow you are not “enough” to deal with the challenge or decision in front of you.
Your brain pulls the shame trigger, and you feel powerless to come to any conclusion. You can’t take back control of your own thoughts and calm your mind.
And it’s not like you’re dumb. You know there’s a better way to use your precious brainpower than to overthink, especially if your brain needs to sleep, relax, or play.
You’ll need to learn how to use your wisdom and find the clarity you need. It’s helpful to look at why you feel stuck by asking yourself these three questions:
1. Are my brakes working?
The number one reason you start overthinking is that your brain has a “brake problem.” Your frontal lobe (the executive center of your brain) should apply the brakes to non-productive, worrisome thinking.
But when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely, or sad, it just doesn’t do its job that well. You’ve seen your children melt down when they’re hungry or tired. You have that same brain, and while you have some self-control, your brain is still not capable of full mental and emotional regulation unless it has fuel and rest.
You’re going to have to do a “H.A.L.T.” check-in: “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Thirsty?”
Before you can calm your mind, explore these basic needs and do a full-body scan to see what you need to attend to first.
2. Have I been hijacked?
Whenever your brilliant brain senses danger, it sends the frontal lobe “offline” to deal with the “threat.” This means it directs the blood from your frontal lobe to your legs so you can run. Less blood = you being less cognitively effective.
Safety is your brain’s first job — one that trumps all other functions, like constructive thought. Therefore, hijacking can occur whenever your stress load adds up or you’re dealing with a big trigger.
In order to slow down, breathe! Take few long slow deep breaths. Linger on the exhale and ask yourself, “What is my current stress level?”
Keep breathing slowly and see if you can lower your body’s stress response. This will help ramp up your brainpower to deal with the threat.
Ask these questions to find clarity about what you need now. This will build your coping confidence and help power up your brakes.
- “What is the real data?”
- “Which stories or assumptions am I adding?”
- “What do I need now?”
- “Who do I want to be?”
3. Am I in quicksand?
Everyone has his or her own emotional quicksand areas. In hindsight, you probably know some of yours. These are places where you’ve stepped, pulled, or pushed that triggered strong emotional reactions, despite your best efforts to be “rational.”
But in the moment, or when you’re worn down physically, emotionally, or mentally, that self-awareness (another frontal lobe function) is MIA.
So this frontal lobe fail often occurs subconsciously. You’re on edge about something else, and it affects your ability to think clearly about what’s right in front of you. Your emotions have a far stronger hook on your mind than a cognitive challenge does.
And unfortunately, you can’t just “stuff” your emotions. So how do you climb out?
- Notice how emotionally charged you feel. Put a hand on your heart or gut and breathe deeply again. Ask, “What emotion am I tapping into?” Are you feeling vulnerable, betrayed, scared, or angry? Why? Is it an old pattern? Honor your feelings with a little self-compassion, and then find your strength.
- Decide who you would like to be in this situation. Is there another conversation you need to have with someone else or yourself? This way, you can take back control.
Overthinking, like many stress-induced patterns, is a great metric. It forces you you to check in to see how you’re really doing. What do you need? How can you more proactively get it?
So next time you overthink, follow these steps to help keep yourself cool under stress and pressure.
Cynthia Ackrill, MD helps clients and organizations find “real life” strategies to take control of stress. If you would like help conquering your OTD and lowering your stress, email today or sign up for a class to take control of your life!