An astute reader commented that thinking can become an addiction. We spend so much thinking, we forget to really experience our lives. Here are some tips to break out of that cycle.
1) Recognize that you’re in it.
As in, when you’re not in the moment, realize that you’re not. Acknowledge that your thoughts are getting in the way of being fully present and commit to doing something about that.
2) Know that just because you have a thought, you don’t have to buy into it.
There’s a great mindfulness exercise where you visualize your thoughts going by like leaves on a stream. You don’t need to reach out and grab them, you can just let them pass on by. Some thoughts are better carried away on the current.
3) Distinguish between productive thoughts and obsessive ones.
A productive thought is one that can lead to positive action. By having the thought, you create opportunities to do something.
Doing something doesn’t necessarily mean an outward behavior. It might mean the act of acceptance. Sometimes that really is all we can do. But it’s an incredibly important thing to do. Acceptance is not a passive activity at all. I know that for me, it’s much easier to act to change than it is to accept. So I have to really work on this one. But when I achieve it, it’s so worth it.
Obsessive thoughts are ones that you gain nothing by thinking. What I mean is, you ruminate over a situation that you either can’t or won’t change, or over something that may or may not happen. And you are no further along 10 minutes or an hour later than you were when you started. You might even be further behind because you feel like crap about yourself for not being able to do something. You might be alternating your obsessive thoughts with hopelessness and self-abuse (“This is my fault”, “It’ll always be this way”, “I’m such a loser.”)
Obsessive thoughts might provoke actions but those actions are only momentarily satisfying (think obsessive-compulsive disorder, where an obsession with safety might lead to compulsively checking door locks again and again. You’re not actually creating a sense of safety but the fleeting illusion of safety.)
4) Turn your obsessive thoughts into proactive, productive ones where possible. Think, “So what can I do about it right now?” If the answer is “nothing”, then focus on distraction.
You might try something completely new and out of your comfort zone. You could do something absorbingly physical (like cleaning the house top to bottom.) Whatever it is, it should have no relationship to the origin of your overthinking. If you call a friend, talk about something completely different.
5) Immerse yourself in other people.
Overthinking can be incredibly self-involved. Be more engaged in the world–specifically, other people’s worlds. You can start with your friends, or you can volunteer.
Gratitude is a great antidote to overthinking. Awareness that you have things to appreciate (and then spending some time appreciating them) can interrupt the cycle in a really great way.