How to defeat over-thinking

The American writer Jonathan Safran Foer is best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), neither of which I can claim to have read. But I do love this take of his on thinking:

‘I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.’

Of course so long as they’re the right kinds of thoughts, thinking isn’t necessarily bad for you. But do too much of it, so much that you tip into over-thinking, and you’re at danger of entering a downward spiral.

Research at the University of Michigan in 2003 showed that over-thinking can lead to depression, an inability to move forward and damaged emotional health. Although it can affect anyone, the university’s psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested that women are significantly more likely than men to fall into over-thinking and to be immobilised by it. Her findings showed that 57 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men are over-thinkers.

So how do you define over-thinking? Well it generally takes the form of endless torrents of negative thoughts and emotions often triggered by something as fleeting as a sarcastic remark from a friend, relative or co-worker. It’s that feeling you get when you have thoughts which keep going round and round in your head, getting you nowhere and becoming worse with every circuit.

It’s a habit that’s a really challenging one to break, but among several ways of tackling over-thinking, I’m a fan of setting yourself a time limit. Instead of trying to stop, do the very opposite. Give yourself, say, fifteen minutes – and set a timer if it helps (there may be one on your phone) – during which you make yourself over-think even harder.

This time, though, take a piece of paper and write down every possible aspect of whatever it is you’re thinking about. Don’t stop to correct anything, simply get as many thoughts as you can down on paper.

Then, when the timer sounds, stop.

Finally take the piece of paper, which by now should be completely covered in writing, screw it up into a tight ball and throw it in the trash. Or if you prefer, burn it (safely).

I think you might be surprised by the amount of negative over-thinking you can get through in fifteen minutes, then you should be pleasantly relieved by the simple act of being able to throw it all away.

Which is really all it’s good for.

6 thoughts on “How to defeat over-thinking

  1. Oh this is so true – and a great idea for overcoming it. Maybe with this and my new mindfulness practice I can move forward. ..

  2. This is so helpful. Many years ago someone mocked me, saying ‘you think too much’. I never really understood what he meant; how could anyone ‘think too much’? Isn’t that what the brain is for, I thought? But I have never forgotten it: it’s been going round in my head ever since. Over-thinking it, I suppose! Having read your blog I totally identify the issue you’re talking about. But as I do a lot of writing, thinking over the issues I am writing about is a necessary part of my writing craft. So when is thinking over-thinking? And when isn’t it? When it is unwanted, like weeds, I guess. I think I am over-thinking. But I will certainly try what you suggest. Thanks Jon.

  3. This is a great strategy to use when overthinking becomes problematic-thanks for that Jon.

    It also reminded me of another strategy for when one or more negative thoughts keep dominating the mind often generated by overthinking, which was shared with me by a psychologist.

    He told me to set a time in the future say a week or a fortnight-write it in my diary- when I could return to it, but until then I had to agree to put it away and not give it any more airtime.

    I have tried this and I’ve found that when the time comes the issue is no longer urgent or in need of any more thinking. On the rare occasion I have wanted to revisit the issue I have a much more rounded view and can usually deal with it positively and let it go.

    1. Great tip, Christine! I tried a similar thing that was suggested to me by a psychologist – scheduling “worry time.” He saw that I was anxious about an upcoming speech, and he said, “Could you set a time to worry about that and get yourself prepared? Then you can rest easy before and after that time, knowing that you will be/are prepared.” It actually helped a lot!

  4. Often, I don’t realize that I am over-thinking until I am way deep in. I wish I can detect the signs that I am about to be sucked in but I can’t. However I can usually snap out of it when interrupted (eg noise from phone, doorbell, dog).

    The time limit tip is giving me an idea. Perhaps a timer set to beep every 15 minutes all day can providing the interruptions.

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