Overthinking comes in two flavors: ruminating on the past and worrying about the future. Both offer endless avenues to create a downward spiral of negative thoughts, but, at the end of the day, they resemble two simple fears we all have: a fear of regret and a fear of uncertainty.
Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid regret and uncertainty in our lives. Therefore, the overthinking outbreaks that result from us being afraid of them are, generally, our most unproductive.
We can’t change what we could have, would have, should have done better, slower, faster, not at all, or not quite the way we did it. We can’t assess the flaws, success, or even likelihood of countless scenarios and eventualities that will never come to pass.
All thoughts in either direction are a waste of mental and physical energy. As soon as reality knocks on our senses or we snap out of our thought bubble and return to it, they go up in flames, having cost us dearly, but gained us little.
There is, however, a third kind of overthinking: Obsessing over solutions to present-day problems.
We source these problems from our recent past or immediate future, then frantically assess options to combat them. If you find yourself musing about 17 different strategies to mellow your explosive temper after lashing out at someone or flicking through book after book to find the best business model for the startup you want to launch, that’s present-day overthinking.
This type of compulsive thinking can often be productive, which is why it’s the hardest to get rid of, to diagnose, and to accept as a problem in the first place.
In fact, as a society, we often celebrate people for performing mental ultra-marathons. We call them successful entrepreneurs. We shower them with money and status and tell them to never stop.
Ask the world’s richest man what his worst fear is, and he’ll say he doesn’t want his brain to stop working. That’s how embedded overthinking is in our culture. But it’s still overthinking, still eating away at our peace of mind and happiness.
To some extent, our problem-solving nature is just that — nature. Our brains are wired for survival and, for the better part of 200,000 years, surviving meant being creative.
Not just in the literal sense of procreating and producing food and shelter from our surroundings, but also in being crafty in planning our next move. How can we cross this field without being exposed? What’s the best way to avoid being seen by the tiger? Those are creative problems. They require immediate thought, strategy selection, and subsequent action.
For better or for worse, however, the world no longer presents us with a single, constant survival problem, framed in a great variety of differing challenges. For the most part, we’ve got that covered.
Instead, we’re now tasked with moderating an entity that’s much harder to maintain than the human body and that we know next to nothing about despite decades of research: the human mind.
Rather than run down the simple 3-item checklist of “food, sleep, exercise,” we now face vast, open-ended questions, like “How do I find meaning?”, “What makes me happy?”, and “How can I best manage my emotions and attention?”
These aren’t simple problems. There are no clear-cut answers. They’re lifetime projects, and we slowly craft their outcomes through the habits and behaviors we choose every day. That’s the thing. We choose. We get to. There’s no pressure to think-pick-act. Only freedom in near-limitless quantities.
As a result, our problem-seeking, survivalistic simulation machine turns on itself. In lack of real, pressing issues to tackle, it finds some where none exist or crafts one from its own imagination. That’s overthinking type I and II. The dwelling on regrets and anxiety about the future.
Or — and this is the brain’s ultimate self-deception — it latches on to a tangible, relatable, available challenge and goes into brainstorm overdrive.
How can I go from zero running experience to completing a marathon in nine months? What podcast are people dying to listen to that doesn’t exist? Is there a way to improve or replace the umbrella? Questions like these make our synapses light up, but whether they find graspable answers or not, it’s easy for them to become self-perpetuating.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting meaningful work and finding happiness through self-improvement, but when these endeavors and the productive thoughts that go into them become ends instead of tools, we quickly drift into self-loathing and misery. So how can we stop at the right moment?
There is no shortage of tactics from science to help us address our past- and future-oriented overclocking. Most of them involve replacing the negative thought with a more positive one, for example by looking at different angles of a situation to make the bad scenario less believable or reframing problems as challenges.
Instead of blaming your soggy shoes on bad luck, you could look to the rainy weather or inattentive driver who splashed you as he went by. Similarly, you could focus on wanting to feel fitter rather than lamenting that you’re out of shape.
There’s also the idea of simply writing down your thoughts for a sense of relief, distracting yourself, and learning to stay present so you can focus on whatever’s right in front of you.
From personal experience, I can say that last one is particularly powerful. Meditation helps me stay aware throughout my day, not just of the negative consequences of overthinking, but of individual thoughts themselves and whether I want to further pursue them or not.
None of us can turn off our inner monologue for extended periods of time. It runs right through each of the 16 or so hours we’re awake each day. But we can decide which thoughts deserve to be chased and which ones don’t. We can learn to let go and return to whatever we we’re doing.
But what do we do when our positive and well-intended thoughts spiral? How do we deal with our entrepreneurial, creative energy when it runs wild?
That, I think, requires one more step: Knowing you are valuable even when you don’t do anything. When I meditate, I constantly remind myself that, “I don’t have to think about this right now.” Lately, I even tell myself: “You don’t have to think at all.”
For me, this realization gets to the heart of the problem: Even when you don’t think, you’re still a valuable, lovable human being.
In a world that guarantees the survival of many but provides existential guidance to none, doing, thinking, solving problems, it all matters little in comparison to us being here in the first place. Right here, right now. It’s a wonderful, rare thing to have been born and be alive today. Enough to be grateful and more than that to be enough.
Type III overthinkers define themselves by how much they think. How many problems they solve, how useful and busy they are, and how many of their own faults they can erase. But even when you don’t think — can’t think, as nature sometimes reminds all of us — you’re still a valuable person.
You might be afraid that people will laugh at you, isolate you, throw you out into the cold. That won’t happen and it’s something you should take comfort in again and again.
Mindfulness is an excellent tool to combat all kinds of overthinking. What allows you to exercise it in the first place, however, is remembering we’ll still love you, even if your mind doesn’t always run like a perfect, well-oiled machine.