Have you ever thought about what you think about on a daily basis? If I would have to guess, the thought process of a student of my age range encompasses a lot—from trying to figure out the meaning of life to thinking of funny memes seen on the internet yesterday. You could say it’s a lot: you have to think about what you’re going to eat at night, remember to study, go to work, decide if you’re going to exercise today and whether you want to hang out with friends (these are just some of the things that a student could be thinking about). But, sometimes when we aren’t expected to think a lot (for example while relaxing) we still do. It’s like our brain is still running a marathon while the race has been over an hour ago. Burnouts are physiological conditions often associated with being a problem from the 21st century. I believe that overthinking is often a big part of these conditions as they fuel an unending doubt in people. We often underestimate the huge influence that the mind can have on our physical and mental well-being.
I’d like to talk about the solutions to this problem right away, but I won’t. The first step is to recognize the problem[i] because without identifying the problem there’s no way it can be solved. For a moment I thought about whether the verb “to overthink” was an accurate representation of what I wanted to talk about. Other words like ‘brood’ or ‘worry’ are also appropriate synonyms, but they have more negative connotations to them while the concept I want to talk about is not always inherently negative; overthinking can help us analyze a situation more carefully or avoid us from making any rash decisions. It is when these thought impede us from making any decisions at all, to the point of being driven crazy, that it becomes a problem. In Buddhism, the overthought mind is called a “monkey mind” because the mind in this state is thought of as a hyperactive monkey that jumps from one thought branch to the other, often without making much sense. Think of the times you were sick and decided to Google your symptoms before going to the doctor. After 30 minutes on the internet you started fearing you had only 2 days to live while in reality all you had was a cold. This is a perfect example of how the monkey mind jumps to irrational conclusions.
I’m not entirely sure that there are solutions to the problem of overthinking. After all, overthinking is not a problem and it doesn’t necessarily need a cure. As I briefly said before, overthinking something can also be a good thing. It can allow us to make the right decisions, complete a task very well or be creative or innovative. It’s important to realize that overthinking is a human quality and therefore not at all abnormal. However, thinking too much can make a person unhappy, especially when the thoughts are about the “what ifs” of our lives or when they are negative. Recognizing these patterns in your mind is a handy way to control thoughts. Think of it as telling the hyperactive monkey that jumps from thought branch to thought branch to chill out for a while. Also, being aware of the fact that some thoughts don’t reflect your true self can help you stay sane. Referring to a monkey helps with this, as you’re not putting the blame on yourself but on someone else instead (in this case, the monkey).
Sometimes overthinking is completely useless. In the 21st century, we no longer have to worry about hunting for food. Instead, a lot of our mental energy has shifted to “luxury problems”. We are inundated with choices on a daily basis and while this can be fun for some, it can cause others to have more “what if” questions in their minds. To be able to choose between 30 pieces of clothing in the morning is a real privilege, but to suffer from questions of whether you chose the right outfit or not all day long is a pity. To alleviate this “choice problem”, organization and preparation are useful tools in my opinion. Preparing an outfit the night before to avoid 15 minutes of overthinking in the morning is useful because you can focus your mental energy on more important things throughout the day. Obviously, being very organized doesn’t solve everything. After all, your thoughts are internal and not external. I’ve been told that there are ways to control your thoughts. For example, by planning a 15 minute journaling session a day or by meditating. Thinking deeply about why you think too much is also useful—perhaps you have strict parents who expect too much of you, maybe you have an underlying fear of something fatalistic happening or maybe you’re a perfectionist. All of these things can play a role in the way that your thought process works. The important thing is that once the root cause(s) is (/ have been) identified, you realize that those problems are in the past and you move on. Overthinking happens to all of us once in a while, the important thing is to try and tame these negative thoughts as much as possible!
[i] Don’t worry, this is not an AA meeting