It’s often the over thinking that leads to mental health conditions. We all tend to overthink, especially when we ruminate, worry, plan something important, or are anxious about the future. This is a widespread problem…
By Balvinder Kumar
The research carried out by the University of Michigan, USA, found that 73% of adults between the age of 25 and 35 over think. It’s a substantial proportion of that population. Likewise, people in the age group of 45 to 55 years do overthink about 52%. Interestingly, the study has found that many people who over think believe they are doing the right thing by keep on thinking the same set of thoughts.
However, over thinking can harm our mental health, especially with negative and distressing thoughts. Sometimes, we don’t even realize that the impact of overthinking on our health can be more than the problem itself. Invariably, all of us get trapped in the mind’s tendency to overthink and keep repeating the same thoughts. As we are generally identified with our minds, we don’t know when we overthink. We are unaware and conscious that we are doing an unnecessary and mostly harmful exercise of overthinking.
When we do, it’s generally the stream of harmful and distressing thoughts that fill our minds. We hardly overthink positive matters. Ashley Carroll, a psychologist with Parkland Memorial Hospital, says when we ruminate on specific thoughts, it can snowball into bigger, more extreme negative thinking. It is not just thinking too much about something — it is obsessing about something so much that it affects one’s ability to function in their life.
Many of us, especially youngsters and women, think excessively about our personal traits relating to our looks/appearance, height, and other physical attributes. We need to keep in mind that no one is perfect. We all come into this world with our unique set of features. Invariably, we have some deficiency or other imperfection in our personality, behavior, physical looks, and other features. Yet most of us pay great attention to such real or imagined shortcomings.
Most of our pain comes from how we churn the negativity over and over again in our minds. The anxious brain is hypervigilant; always on the lookout for anything that it perceives to be dangerous or worrisome. So, when we are depressed and anxious, we overthink. When we keep on thinking most of the waking time, it may lead to mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. These disorders, in turn, reinforce overthinking. Under both situations, we are deeply mired in distressing thoughts.
Studies have shown that overthinking leads to severe emotional distress. When people can’t escape from this condition, they often resort to unhealthy methods to cope with it. Many start abusing alcohol, some indulge in smoking, while others overeat or some may even go to the extent of taking drugs. Further, it becomes challenging to enjoy sound sleep when our mind is disturbed. Research studies further confirm this, finding that rumination and worry lead to fewer hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality.
A recent UK study of more than 30,000 people showed that focusing on adverse events (particularly rumination and self-blame) can be the most significant predictor of some of today’s most common mental health problems. When a negative thought arises in the mind, it tends to attract more associated distressing thoughts. When we think about harmful, fearful, or destructive thoughts, we are fuelling negative energy, which remains for a far longer time as memory – thus keeping the vicious cycle of overthinking alive. Whenever the same set of thoughts is triggered, we get involved in the same loop of overthinking.
We, therefore, need to allow time to release the negative energy, and for that, we must fully face what arises in our minds. This is achieved by a simple but very effective exercise of “relaxed awareness.” We are required to watch the mind and observe the feelings in a non-judgmental, nonreactive, and, in a sense, detached way. Just sitting in a relaxed manner and acknowledging whatever arises in mind is all it takes. After a few moments, the negative energy, not given its usual fuel, will begin dissipating, and we will see the pattern of negative thoughts start to break. As we stay in this space of relaxed awareness, the intensity and frequency of negative thoughts will diminish.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is indeed an effective technique for controlling overthinking. Sages have often noted that the mind is like a monkey. It jumps from one group of thoughts to another, restless and sometimes even uncontrollable. On such occasions, we must exercise greater awareness in our observation of whatever thoughts are arising in consciousness. Once we become aware that such thoughts disturb our minds, we can better identify the basic reasons and causes of overthinking. When we do this, from that moment on, the intensity and frequency of distressing thoughts will start to decline.
Most of the time, the main problem is that we need to be made aware that we are in overthinking mode due to strong identification with our minds. Unfortunately, we fail to realize that it’s the mind that overthinks. Sometimes we get trapped in the cycle of negativethinking. Negative and distressing thoughts tend to stick in our heads anddon’t quickly leave. Even if we try to divert our attention or getbusy with other things, the ‘stickiness of thoughts’ doesn’t allowthose thoughts to loosen their grip on the mind. We then fall intooverthinking mode. We go on repeating the same set of thoughts. The frequencyand intensity of those repeated thoughts will not automatically decrease.
We can, however, break this cycle through awareness. If we only become aware of those negative thoughts that we are repeating and are part of our inner voice, we can limit the recurrence of those thoughts. The best way to overcome overthinking is to learn the art of mindfulness. Our mind oscillates from pure awareness to complete mindlessness or absent-mindedness.
We experience the highest state of attention when we focus on the moments at hand. This state is known as mindfulness. We often become mindless, impulsive, and reactive when we are not mindful. We become prone to miss valuable experiences because we are, in a sense, not awake during those times. As a result, we are not able to exercise complete control over our inner world, i.e., mind.
Surprisingly, there is a very simple and easy mental exercise through which we can learn and cultivate mindfulness. This mental exercise is meditation. When we are mindful, conscious, and fully awake, we can effectively control the tendency to overthink. We invariably overthink when we are off the present moment. Mindfulness-based meditation is currently one of the most potent wellness trends in the world. It’s growing exponentially across many nations, including the USA and India. Since scientific studies have validated the benefits of meditation globally, many people have started adopting this practice. In many countries like the USA, the mindfulness movement has begun as more and more people have started realizing its potential for their physical and mental well-being. Hopefully, India will also witness such an awareness movement about mindfulness.
(The author is retired IAS)