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.