Interrupting the Overthinking Mind

I’m very picky about what kind of T-shirts I wear. Probably more so than I am with formal clothing. Any graphics or words on it need to truly reflect who I am. So naturally, I don’t buy them often. Too much thinking involved. But several months ago I bought one that read: Hang on. Let me overthink this. Yes, I think this represents me (to a tee. Hehe. I had to say it).

Sometimes overthinking is comforting. Maybe addictive. How could any problem possibly get past me if I overthink? Isn’t adding more options to my mind’s catalog of possibilities going to eventually lead me to The Answer? Even if I’m not physically able to attend to any problem in the moment, at least overthinking is getting me somewhere, isn’t it?

Apparently these beliefs are sorely flawed, and even harmful. Looking at overthinking as necessary or helpful soothes one corner of anxiety (‘Okay, it seems like I’m getting somewhere by overthinking’), but adds a mountain of new anxiety (‘OMG EVERTHING I’M THINKING ABOUT IS FREAKING ME OUT AND IT WON’T STOP’). It can become so intense it paralyzes us and prevents any actual good ideas from turning into action. It even stops me from buying more T-shirts.

If any of this sounds familiar, prepare to feel suspicious as I tell you that the greatest tool you can use to interrupt the overthinking mind can be summed up in one (yes, one) word: Mindfulness.

I like Dr. Shauna Shapiro’s definition: Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention with kindness. Overthinking and rumination propels us into a world outside of our present moment. We’re sucked into an unpleasant past or future. Not only that, our analytical mind spends time in the past/future finding reasons to judge, blame, pressure, and shame ourselves for something. The negative emotions we swim in lead to more intense rumination. As usual, this is the brain’s misguided effort to be helpful. Oh, feeling some discomfort? You must have a problem to solve. Let me help you solve it by sifting through your memory to find everywhere you went wrong. I’ll even present you with visions of worst-case-scenarios so you can spot all your current weaknesses as a person, and flaws in your decisions. No, don’t try to sleep yet, I’ve got a lot of material to go over with you. You’re welcome by the way.

Brain keeps overthinker awake at night by ruminating over past mistakes and future catastrophes

So, the key to reversing the overthinking and rumination is to draw attention to the present moment, and to practice converting self judgement into kindness in the process.

How to draw attention to the present moment

You don’t need to sit still or go into a full-swing quiet meditation in order to do this. All you need to practice mindfulness is the here-and-now, which is always available to you, whether you’re eating, walking, or even multitasking. Start out by trying to spend 3 minutes focusing on one of the following while you’re doing whatever you’re doing in the moment:

  1. Body Sensations. Scan your body from head to toe. What do you notice? Any extra tension or relaxation in certain muscles? What is your heart rate like? What is your breathing like? Tingling, pain, pressure, or itchiness? What’s the temperature like on your skin?
  2. The Five Senses. Give each sense a turn to take the spotlight. What do you see around you? Any details you notice that you didn’t before? What do you notice about any colors or movement around you? What sounds stand out to you? If you’re touching something, what is the texture like? If you’re eating/drinking something, what does it taste like? Does the flavor change as you eat/drink, or leave an aftertaste? Is there a scent or odor in the air, or to any items around you?
  3. Movement and Posture. What are your movements like right now? Is there a quickness or slowness to your movement? What do you notice about your posture? Experiment with changing up your movement/posture, and just take notice of what that change feels like for a moment.
  4. Thoughts/feelings. What emotion(s) do you feel in this very moment? Does it change over time as you observe it? Any additional, conflicting, or underlying feelings going on at the same time? What is your inner dialogue telling you? What is it trying to tell you about your experience, yourself, or the past/present? Do you have an urge to do or say something?

How to redirect self judgement

During your 3 minutes of directing attention to the here-and-now, the style of your inner dialogue matters. There is an art to the way you answer the above questions, and how you respond to yourself when you get distracted:

  1. Use neutral language in your inner dialogue. You can think of your mind as having two personalities: The Thinking Mind and the Observing Mind. The Thinking Mind likes to judge and interpret (‘This meal is pretty good.’). The Observing Mind likes to make objective comments (‘I’m noticing my body relax and a feeling of joy as I eat this meal’). Anyone can debate what the Thinking Mind says, but not what the Observing Mind says. Channel the Observing Mind’s language when focusing on the here-and-now. Even if you start judging yourself (‘I’m noticing the feeling of frustration with myself that I got distracted’). Speaking of getting distracted…
  2. Stop believing you should be able to concentrate without distraction. Our brains naturally wander, and the whole point of practicing mindfulness is to exercise the mental muscle of gently redirecting its attention back to where you want it to go. There’s no point to practicing mindfulness if you’re not getting constantly distracted. Whenever you get distracted, name what it is that took your attention away, and then gently refocus your attention. If your mind gets distracted a million times, gently redirect it a million times.

Practicing mindfulness is like practicing the piano; it takes repetition over time in order for it to start feeling second-nature. One day of practice won’t do it, but improvement is possible. Again, 3 minutes a day is enough.

I am personally obsessed with this skill. It’s one of my favorites to share with clients I work with, and I have visions of endless posts I want to write on this topic (another opportunity for me to overthink). So keep stopping by the blog or simply follow for email updates to see more on mindfulness in the near future, including additional tips for practice, common mistakes and myths about it, the brain science behind it, and my thoughts on meditation.