After the two tragedies I went through in my life, I had days when I felt overwhelmed with thoughts. I was so bothered and restless that I would return home drained. In my quiet moments when the evening was coming down, I’d ask myself: “What have I already done today that made me feel so tired? …” To be honest, I didn’t have any justified answers because I wasn’t really tired because of whatever activities I had that day. What made me so exhausted were simply my thoughts. Thoughts on how my life could have been different had it not been for what happened to me. I actually experienced something called – OVERTHINKING.
What is overthinking?
As Merriam Webster’s simple dictionary definition puts it:
“to think too much about (something): to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful”
My complementary definition provides another angle to the term Overthinking. Overthinking occurs when one thought – often negative – that we engage in more and more, from different angles and perspectives, and even mentally regurgitating, to a point where as a thought it loses proportion of the percentage of time in the day we invest in it. Thus, this situation changes our perception of the subject we are thinking about and even disconnects our grip on reality.
How much do we spend thinking per tense?
Studies show where our thoughts wander in the context of times – past, present and future.
- Past – 12% of the time
- Present – 28% of the time
- Future – 48% of the time
- Past + Present = 40%
- Future > Past & Present
“Our mind wanders to think about the future more than the past and the present combined. Whenever our mind is wondering we think about the future 48% of the time” (Chris Bailey, Ted Talk).
How to stop overthinking?
Recognize you are overthinking
This is the part that was the hardest for me – to understand that I’m overthinking. I was flooded with all those thoughts that I would probably never know the answers for: “Why did these terrible things happen to such good and pure people? Why did God take people who gave their whole hearts to other people? Could I have done anything that might have saved them? Is there a connection between these cases? “
To be honest, no one can answer these questions. Then I realized I was spending so much time on the same thoughts over and over, literally regurgitating my thoughts. I realized that I was investing so much time in repetitive and bothersome thoughts that it made me tired, left me powerless and drained.
But I realized something else… I realized that I was in the process of processing the trauma I’ve experienced (another article I wrote about secondary trauma). I realized I was overthinking and that led me nowhere vital or healthy. This understanding was crucial for me because for the first time in my life taught me that a cognitive process of overthinking can be identified.
It’s a kind of moment where I began to identify overthinking, to understand the disproportion in the amount of time I invest in one idea and develop it into an infinitely possible and impossible directions. This was a Satori moment for me, or a kind of Aha moment, where “all the tokens fell on the floor” (Hebrew Saying) and at that point, I began to understand the essence of overthinking.
In fact, I tried to find a connection between two traumatic events, which had no logical or chronological connection between them. I tried to answer the question – why did this happen to me?
The real truth is that there was no connection between the two traumas I’ve experienced; There was no connection between the times. Furthermore, this idea of seeking explanations is also backed up by research, which shows that human beings are always looking for explanations for events that happen to them, even when there is no logical connection between them. This is inherent in the structure of our brain. Some scholars claim that this is how certain beliefs developed over time. That is people who seek to have an explanation for everything and weave around it theories that will explain the unknown and unexplained reason.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp argues in his book, “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions“, argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. As Panksepp claims, all mammals have this seeking system, wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This implies that humans, a developed animals, are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information that will help them survive.
So my advice to you is first and foremost to make sure you recognize that you are experiencing overthinking.
2. To be compassionate towards ourselves
Once I realized I was in a state of overthinking, once I internalized that I was ruminating too much – it was time for self-compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff defines the term self-compassion as treating ourselves with the same amount of good-heartedness, caring, and concern we would have treated the people who are important to us. It is different from self-esteem, which is the belief in your capabilities, your containment ability, your judgment, and the confidence that you can manage challenges successfully. While self-confidence makes you feel better about your abilities, it can also lead you to vastly overestimate those abilities. Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view. Both have merits, but many experts believe that self-compassion includes the advantages of self-confidence without the drawbacks it has, such as narcissism, social comparison, and ego-defensive anger.
Self-compassion is not a way of positively self-evaluating ourselves, but rather it is a way of treating ourselves kindly- accept ourselves for what we are and who we are, with all our advantages and disadvantages, strengths and faults- all at once. As Dr. Kristin explains in her research, self-compassion has 3 main components:
- Self-kindness- treat ourselves empathetically, caringly, good-heartedly, encouragingly, softly, and patiently.
- Common humanity- trying to find the similarity between ourselves and other human beings. Trying to find the inherent imperfection we have as human beings. It’s the part of the human experience we share with all humans- none of us is perfect. We share this human experience as part of the fact that all of us experience failures in life, and therefore we are never alone in our feelings. Failures and challenges are simply something that happens to all of us.
- Mindfulness- acknowledge what’s happening as it’s happening. We must recognize, confirm, and accept the fact of our suffering, to enable ourselves to be compassionate towards ourselves. Often, we are very judgmental towards ourselves, and without even being aware, this self-judgment brings us to “self-inflict” ourselves and disables us from having compassion towards ourselves.
All those thoughts that ran through my mind and distracted me, suddenly became sentences of compassion that I repeated like positive mantras or affirmations:
- “Everything is fine, this flood of thought is natural”
- “Accept yourself as you are, this is who you are, this is what you are”
- “I love myself”
- “Everything is calm now, everything is good”
- “Things will work out, you are whole and perfect”
Repeating these mantras was very similar to the principle on which meditation is based – the focus is only on one thing. Repeating the mantras reassured me greatly, flooding me anew with feelings of self-love, self-forgiveness, peace of mind and compassion.
This is also my tip to you: once you understand that you are overthinking, move slowly and with the required gentleness to repeat the same mantras. Everyone has his very own mantras. The mantras above are the ones that reassured me back then, and they are the ones I use to this day in case such a situation repeats itself.
3. Change our flow of thoughts to gratitude
Practicing self-compassion has greatly helped me dilute the endless flow of thoughts, self-criticism, and negative energy from my mind. Next, gratitude helped me enlighten my mind with a positive vibe.
One study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly students, were asked to write letters expressing gratitude to others, versus those who were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences. When the researchers compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.
But what can I even thank for following such severe traumas I’ve experienced?…
The answer is simply to be thankful for what I have. To be thankful for my the ability to find the good, to be thankful for the light I see, to be thankful for the ability to breathe, the ability to feel, the ability to get excited, to be thankful for the touch of a green leaf, for being able to help others, for listening to birds chirp. To be thankful for everything.
At first I wasn’t able to find even 3 things that can be thanked at all. At the same time, as I practiced gratitude, I was all able to find more and more things in this world to be thankful for.
Once you learn to move from a state of compassion to a state of gratitude – you will be grateful for it. Practice gratitude as much as possible, every day.
In this article I’ve tried to show how to stop overthinking. This process goes through 3 steps for which they have been very helpful: A. Identifying a state of overthinking; B. Self-compassion; C. Regulating the flow of thoughts towards gratitude. Stopping overthinking involves rewiring the mind and this is performed by practicing mantras. I sincerely hope that you will find in this process an essential tool out of the toolbox of positive thinking.