Overthinkers, nothing is wrong with you!
You are leaning on the skill that makes us human. Overthinking feels bad, of course, so here’s a simple way to turn it off even as you feel the natural impulse to turn it on.
Tell yourself, “I’ve done enough” when you find yourself overthinking.You won’t believe this but it doesn’t matter. Just repeat without trying to prove. Do this for 45 days and you will build a new pathway in your brain. Now your electricity will have a new place to flow when your overthinking revs up. You are not born with an off-switch for your thinking but you can create one.
All through human history, people have searched for ways to turn off their overthinking. Many ways have unfortunate consequences. There were even times when people relieved their concern over drought and starvation by making human sacrifices. Turning off your thinking is hard because our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you happy all the time. If you want a break from overthinking, you have to sort of trick the survival engine that controls your brain chemicals. You have to persuade it that your survival is absolutely secure so nothing more needs to be done.
You will never believe this consciously because your human cortex can generate abstractions, so it can imagine threats that are not actually present. But the primitive part of your brain only cares about threats that are reaching your senses right now. For example, a gazelle runs when it smells a lion, but when signs of the lion are gone, the gazelle returns to filling its belly. It doesn’t obsess over the fact that the lion could re-appear at any moment.
The gazelle is not more spiritual than you– it’s just hungry. Starvation is as much of a survival threat as predators. When you are hungry, you stop worrying about predators long enough to go out and meet your needs. But when your basic needs are met, you focus on potential threats because that’s the job your brain is designed to do.
For most of history, people looked into the eyes of their grandchildren and felt the survival of some part of them. That’s hard to do today, so people are eager for alternatives. Kale smoothies are an alternative way to trigger the feeling that your survival needs are well met. But when the smoothie is over, your overthinking engine is likely to rev up again. If you try to reason with it, you will end up with the logical conclusion that your survival is indeed threatened and you better doing something about it, now!!! You will never get a break unless you learn to make peace with your inner mammal.
We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. We learn our survival responses by connecting neurons with each experience. From your moment of birth, you felt distress because you had needs you could not meet. As soon as those needs were met, neurons connected and your brain moved on to the next most pressing need. This is why babies cry when their caretaker leaves the room even if their needs are fully met.
Each child learns some self-soothing skills because crying feels bad. You have wired in many self-soothing strategies from your accumulated life experience. Most of them have a downside that you’d rather do without. That’s why it’s good to understand your power to build a new self-soothing skill, such as telling yourself “I’ve done enough.”
Imagine you are a gazelle and you see a greener pasture in the distance.You would love that juicy grass, but when you trot toward it, you get a panicky feeling. Leaving the herd triggers cortisol because an isolated mammal quickly ends up in the jaws of a predator. So you return to the herd and munch on the same trampled-over grass. Then you look up and see the greener pasture again. It triggers your dopamine and you can’t resist approaching it. But the anxiety returns because isolation deprives you of oxytocin. You return to the safety of the dried-up old grass, but you keep gazing longingly at the greener pasture. Yes, even gazelles overthink!
Fortunately, their brain is designed for just this job! It constantly updates its information to find the best opportunity available in each moment. It scans for the best trade-off between dopamine opportunities, oxytocin opportunities, and serotonin opportunities. It doesn’t expect complete happiness from the world in every moment because its brain isn’t big enough to create abstractions.
Yours is. You can imagine greener pastures that aren’t actually there, and you can trigger anxiety by imagining ways to get there. But you also have the power to give yourself a break.