Here’s a thing that has happened to me approximately every single week for as long as I can remember. It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m feeling good, motivated, excited about a new week. A little extra sleep paired with a second cup of coffee is giving me a lot of false confidence as I sit down with my planner.
I’m going to get so much done this week, I think. Really. New week, new me. I’m going to get ahead on all my deadlines and catch up on all the laundry and deep-clean the house and workout every single day and reflect in my journal and read instead of scrolling on Instagram and send birthday cards on time… and on and on.
By Friday, roughly 25 percent of the things I optimistically planned to do on Sunday will have materialized in real life. The laundry is never one of them. Disappointed, I will look around our first floor and think, I feel like I did so much more than this.
The truth is, I did do a lot — mostly in my head. I know this because I will tell my husband for the 325th time that I am exhausted. I feel worn out physically, but even more tired mentally — I am mentally exhausted.
Does this constant barrage of ideas and tasks and reminders sound familiar to you? Are you overwhelmed by the number of decisions there are to be made, the onslaught of logistics to plan, the constant low hum of anxiety as we look around and see how much there is to do? Overthinking is a phenomenon that has a seriously negative impact on so many of us.
I asked a number of friends to describe how overthinking holds them back, and here’s what they told me:
- “Overthinking prevents me from enjoying the present moment.”
- “Overthinking keeps me from enjoying the good moments in life because I’m worried about what’s coming.”
- “I don’t do some things I might enjoy because I overthink it.”
- “It leads to crippling negative self-talk.”
- “Overthinking sucks up all my creative energy.”
- “Overthinking pulls me out of touch with reality and makes me anxious about ‘what if’”
Not only is overthinking keeping us from accomplishing our goals, it is stealing our joy and robbing us of the wonders right in front of us. It drains all of our creativity and energy. It keeps us from gratitude and getting the most out of our days. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say overthinking is ruining our lives.
There are some common ways overthinking shows up in our minds. When we name what’s happening and draw our attention to it, we can choose to move in a new direction.
Analysis paralysis is what happens when you have an unexpected free afternoon and instead of doing something you enjoy or cleaning out your closet or working ahead, you spend the whole time thinking about the possibilities and trying to decide what the best option is. Suddenly, you realize you’re basically out of time, so better luck next time.
You know exactly when you’re going to work out and what meals you’re making this week. It’s July and you’re thinking about the holidays and where you’re going to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas. You’re designing your Christmas card in August. You buy birthday cards in bulk and address and stamp them six months in advance. Your bag is packed meticulously with anything you could possibly need on any given day and weighs more than a toddler. You have a backup plan for your back up plan’s backup plan.
Sometimes overthinking serves as a way to keep us from taking a risk. It keeps us insulated from vulnerability and the potential for struggle and failure. It’s easier to think about writing than it is to face potential rejection. It’s easier to think about trying something new than to risk looking like a beginner. It’s easier to think about clearing out your closet than it is to sort through what no longer fits.
Writing or cleaning or trying a new hobby in your head is like trying to solve a puzzle while it’s still in the box — it’s impossible. We have to open the box and lay out the pieces in order to see how they fit in the big picture. It may be safer and easier to keep the pieces in the box, but that’s not what puzzles are for.
Here are three things we can do to get unstuck when overthinking takes hold.
Grounding is simply a fancy word for bringing our attention to our physical body in our physical world in this moment right now. When our minds are spinning out of control, one of the simplest ways to take control is to ground ourselves in the sensual world. Here are two ways to get started:
- Take your shoes off and close your eyes. Stand on the floor and imagine roots anchoring you to the earth. Feel the ground holding you up. Wiggle your toes. How does it feel? Warm? Cold? Soft?
- Name five things you see, four things you physically feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, one thing you taste.
A brain dump is a great way to get all of that junk inside of your head out. It’s like cleaning out your closet. The best way to start is by pulling everything out and then putting back only what you want to keep. I suggest finding a quiet spot, making a cup of tea, lighting a candle, and sitting down with an actual pen and paper. Give yourself a three-page minimum and let it flow. Write down everything that comes to mind even if it simply to say, “This is stupid. I have nothing to say.” Once you get that stuff out of the way, you’ll be amazed at what comes up. Making this a regular habit is a way to start your day with a clear head.
I don’t love the idea of surrender. When it comes to overthinking, most of us are trying to predict and control what’s unpredictable and out of our control. Surrender requires that we release our white knuckle grip and embrace uncertainty.
It sounds terrifying, but when we surrender, amazing things happen. The overturned birthday cake that was once a catastrophe is now a funny story. The spontaneous trip to the library leads to a conversation with a stranger who becomes a new friend. When your priorities are in order, and you live from the reality that you are a beloved child of God, then everything else is just details. You remember that the world won’t stop turning if you don’t get that last load of laundry in, or if dinner isn’t perfect enough for an IG story.
When you’re feeling the telltale symptoms of overthinking, take a deep breath and say “Jesus, I trust in you” 10 times. Many times in my life that prayer came out more like “Jesus, I don’t trust you, but I want to.” That works, just as well. Jesus can take it.
Add these practices to your daily routine as tried-and-true tools to recover when overthinking leaves you burned out and frayed at the edges. Practicing them consistently will also help to keep the destructive thoughts at bay. Overthinking doesn’t have to ruin your life. Peace and joy are within reach.