Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thinking, Re-thinking, and Over Thinking

by Gabi Pinto-Coelho

As a lifelong overachiever and over-doer, I am all too familiar with thinking, thinking about my thinking, rethinking it all. Lather, rinse, repeat. Especially, when there is a big decision to be made, I tend to find myself in a seemingly endless vortex of thought. Now you might be thinking (get it?) - what is wrong with thinking? Isn’t the power of our intellect a wonderful thing? Can’t we solve a lot of problems by brilliant thoughts?

Yes, and no. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking. In fact, thinking is what separates us as superior biological beings and sets us comfortably at the top of the food chain. You don’t see orangutans going to college or whales inventing the iPhone. However, I would argue that thinking too much actually devolves us as humans. Before you immediately think that I must be off my rocker, I want you to remember a time when you were overwhelmed with thoughts about something in your life. Perhaps it was a big life decision; maybe it was something at work. Most people, when plagued with over thinking, experience any or all of these problems:
  • ·         Anxiety
  • ·         Depression
  • ·         Insomnia
  • ·         Fear
  • ·         Indecision “paralysis”
  • ·         Withdrawal or feeling a disconnect from relationships
  • ·         Taking out your emotions on others

Really, the list could keep going, but I’ll stop there. Chances are, at least one of those “symptoms” of over thinking have rung true for you at some point in your life. Experiencing any of these symptoms actually dampens the ability of your true intellect. You might have deluded yourself into believing that all this extra brain chatter is helpful, but in reality, it clouds your ability to think clearly. Furthermore, over thinking clouds another, often neglected part of your intellect: your intuition. There is no point in making any kind of decisions from the foggy, overworked mind.

But, if we can solve a lot of problems with brilliant ideas, what is wrong with thinking a lot about something? The answer comes to us from neuroscience. You may have heard of the “shower principle” - that when you are not thinking about a problem (as when you are showering), the answer will come to you on its own (light bulb moments). Well, guess what? The shower principle is proven by science. Over and over again, research has shown that we cannot force sparks of inspiration, brilliant ideas, or a well thought-out decision. It just so happens that we delude ourselves into believing that we can over think our way out of our problems. 

With this mindset, we feed the beast of over thinking, justifying it as “necessary” to our end goals. While it can be true that thinking leads us to solutions, this is true if and only if we are thinking clearly. Thinking clearly comes from a place where overall brain activity is relatively quiet, and from there you can allow both your intellect and intuition to run on full power. Let’s be honest: under that definition, most of us rarely think clearly in our daily lives. Now, before you become outraged with incredulity, allow me to share: this is also a fact proven by neuroscience.

As my high school science teacher would say, “If science proves it, your opinion is irrelevant.” So, if science has proven that over thinking does not work, your views on it don’t really make a difference. This is not depressing. Au contraire, this is actually liberating - you no longer have to tell yourself that you “have to” keep thinking, rethinking, and over thinking. In fact, it is detrimental to your problem-solving process to give in to the beast of over thinking.

So, what do you do if you feel like you are starting to go back into those old habits? It’s actually quite intuitive:
  1. First and foremost, just notice that you’re starting to go back to old patterns. Don’t beat yourself up over it, don’t freak out, just recognize that you are heading down that unhelpful, but habitual path. When trying to change a habit, you have to acknowledge where you are starting. Start where you are.
  2. Try a slow-paced physical activity - go for a walk, swim some slow laps, take a leisurely bike ride, practice yoga or tai chi. Whatever works for you. It is very hard (almost impossible) for the mind to go from being overworked to being calm without some kind of transition. This slow-paced physical activity gets you out of your head and rooted back in reality.
  3. Sit quietly for a few minutes and just focus on your breathing. You don’t need to change or control breathing in any way, just focus. Each time the mind wanders, gently, but precisely, bring your focus back to your breathing.
  4. Come back to whatever it is you need to do.

You might be thinking, “I don’t have time to take a walk and sit quietly - I’ve got stuff to get done!” This is the voice of the over thinking beast, and its brother, the overdoing beast. You think that if you just push a little harder for a little longer, you’ll get things done. 

But yet again, neuroscience puts us in our place: thinking clearly and being as productive as possible require a quiet brain. So, the next time you find yourself over thinking, take the risk and just step away. Move a little. Breathe deeply. Watch what happens.

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