What You Should Know About Overthinking

A recent meme I saw in an introvert group got a conversation going about overthinking.  Amazingly, a lot of people identified as being overthinkers.

Highly Sensitive Introvert - What You Should Know About Overthinking - Eva Rubin

I relate to these aspects of overthinking, too, so there’s some camaraderie in laughing with and relating to other introverts and sensitives around memes like this one.

But, really, overthinking is a symptom of a greater imbalance.

About a year ago, I finished a program called the altMBA.  It was a high-powered, short-term intense online educational opportunity with intelligent and creative movers and shakers in business.

I pushed myself very hard to keep up.  It was amazing and hard.  It kicked my behind.

Afterward, I was physically and emotionally exhausted from the push to publish blog articles 3-4 times per week, work with team members, and keep up with the reading (and work).

I had pushed myself beyond my limits–and had done more than I thought I could do.

I had taken the risk to write from my own experience, share from my heart, and critically examine my thinking.  I made myself vulnerable with the intention to connect better with readers.

But I pushed myself too hard.  Made myself too vulnerable.  So, for a couple of months after altMBA, I was overthinking everything.  My mind was going a mile a minute, and not stopping.

I also had the added bonus of being acutely conscious of the insecure, judging and envious chatter in my head that mostly stays just outside of conscious awareness.

Things were never going to get better.  How could I think I’d ever figure things out?  How stupid could I really be?  How is he/she doing so well and how come I can’t get it together?

All the good, juicy stuff.

These thoughts revved in my mind from morning until night.  They wouldn’t let me sleep.

I still remember saying to good friends at the time “I feel like I’m living inside the head of an abusive person!”

It was a pretty rough period, but it was also a window into my own overthinking process.

More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to understand my overthinking better so that I could start experimenting with how to do it less often.

I hope what I learned (and am learning) is helpful to you.

Imagine a circle with one small section missing.  Your brain has to (it can’t help itself) figure out how to “close the loop.”

It’s like a dog with a bone.  And a dog chasing its tail.  At the same time.

Your brain can’t let go of trying to close the loop, and it just goes around and around endlessly with no resolution.

It’s a season finale TV episode cliffhanger.  A really good movie trailer.  You can’t help but want to know how it resolves.  Your brain won’t stop wanting to know what happens.

But once you know “what happens,” the loop in your brain closes, and you can move on.  You can let go of your bone.

But while the loop is still open, your brain wants to “fill in” or “figure out” what’s missing, so you keep thinking about the episode, the movie trailer (or an issue), over and over again.

Even if there’s nothing you can do about it.

Even if all the gazillion possibilities that go through your brain are pointless.  You can’t stop chasing your tail–can’t stop going around and around.

Let’s say you have a less than pleasant exchange with someone in the morning.  And by the afternoon, you’ve thought about thirty different things you could’ve said in the moment, but didn’t.

There’s an “open loop” in your thinking somewhere that’s causing your brain to go around and around trying to fill in an explanation for what happened or how you could’ve responded in a “better” way.

And that’s with just one exchange during the day.  The same thing happens when you see that email from someone you’ve been meaning to write back, but you don’t know what to say.

When you see the pile of papers on your desk you just don’t have the energy to go through and file away.

Or see the bag of clothes you need to return to the store, but haven’t had the time to actually return.

Each of these tasks and all the feelings you have associated with them all create “open loops” in your thinking.

Even if you’re not aware of it, your mind is constantly thinking about them.

And, then, of course you remember right before you go to sleep or when you’re in the car and can’t do anything about them.

The question is how do you close an open loop?

How do you find ways of helping your mind move on when there’s nothing to be gained by going around and around?

If I had the solution, of course, I’d be a trillionaire.

But, I have the next best thing: three good places for you to start.  If you’ve spent years overthinking, it doesn’t change overnight.  Mine didn’t.

But I started to overthink less as I did three things:

  1. Recognize that overthinking is a habit I could change
  2. Find tools to help me recognize I had a “bone” and that I was “chasing my tail”
  3. Begin to “close open loops” in my environment (at home and work)

Overthinking is a habit you can change

I created a practice around recognizing my overthinking.  At first I didn’t try to do anything.  I just observed myself doing it.

Literally, I would say to myself “here I am thinking about this situation that happened this morning again.”  And then I’d do something to shift my thinking.

Listen to a song, read an article, watch some TV, or go for a walk.

If I noticed that I had any strong feelings around the issue I might reflect that back to myself as “Wow. I’m really hurt by what she said to me earlier today.”

The key thing is that the observation is neutral.  I’m not “catching” myself doing something “bad.”  I’m just recognizing and observing that I’m overthinking.

At first, it was repetitive and I had to do it a lot.  I just stayed with it.  Each time.

Tools to recognize you have a bone and are chasing your tail

  • Meditation

Meditation is probably the single most helpful tool for me to lessen my overthinking.  I’d tried to start meditating for many years, but had only been successful in fits and starts.

The difference was that this time I started with planning to meditate only 1 minute per day.  As crazy as it sounds, it actually made a difference to start so small.

Now, I meditate at least 1 minute per day, but at this point, I end up meditating between 20-30 minutes at least 4-5 times a week.

There are many ways to meditate.  I use TM or Transcendental Meditation, but I think that another non-directive meditation approach with a mantra could be as effective.

I think non-directive is important because it allows the body and the mind to settle into a natural and peaceful state.  A non-directive meditation is a practice of non-judgment and observation.

The research (TED talk and Stanford) is pretty interesting.

I started using the free app called Coach.me to track the habits I want to develop.  I’ve found it to be very helpful in making progress.

I am working at writing 750 words every day, but again, I started small.  My initial goal was to do it once per week.  This is a technique that Julia Cameron wrote about in The Artist’s Way.

You don’t aim to write in complete sentences or express any gorgeous prose.  You just write exactly what goes through your head.  No matter how chaotic it might seem.

It seems to pull the garbage off the top of my thinking, and with it, the thoughts that loop around in my noggin.

Close the “open loops” at home and at work

In his productivity book, Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about processing open loops.  In fact, that’s actually where I got the idea of open loops.

Closing these open loops is a “work in progress,” for sure.  It’s meant creating systems for things.  Having a place for everything.  Having a flow to my activities and to my day.

It doesn’t mean that you get everything done perfectly all the time.

It just means that you have a reliable way of making sure you remember things, and a reliable way of getting the things done that matter to you.

Overthinking is stressful.  But it’s a habit.  And habits can change.

It wears you down and keeps you from feeling peace and being centered.  By recognizing your open loops, and finding ways to close them, you start to lessen your overthinking.

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Eva Rubin, MPH/LCSW

Hi! I'm Eva Rubin, LCSW. I study the psychology and the art of how to live well as an introvert and sensitive person so that I can learn and share it with you.
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