When Overthinking Takes Over
Overthinking, or analysis paralysis, as it’s sometimes known, is the great immobilizer. Your brain goes temporarily out of control and prevents you from making choices, doing things you need to do, or even getting out of bed in the morning. There are many ways in which it can accomplish this and ways in which you can fight it.
• Night thoughts. When you’re trying to get to sleep and your thoughts keep revolving like a small rodent on an exercise wheel, that’s what my friends and I call “Hamster Brain.” Really, the only way to stifle these thoughts is to get up and do something else. Clean, read, exercise, get your tax documents in order — anything that tires your brain and/or your body. Then try sleeping again.
• Random thoughts. Sometimes the oddest thoughts occur at the oddest times. Once it occurred to me that I didn’t know whether my passport was up to date. A friend was worried about her children’s religious education. If possible, check out whatever has popped into your head. I dug out my passport and saw that it was, indeed, up to date. My friend couldn’t get an immediate answer, but later received validation that, yes, she had done all right by her boys.
• Your every mood. Depression — and particularly bipolar depression — can make you doubt your every mood. Am I just sad, or am I teetering on the edge of a major depressive episode? Do I feel good, or am I just kidding myself? Maybe I’m trying to cover my depression with a smile. You can analyze your moods until you really don’t know what you feel. Look for clues in your life. Did a beloved pet die recently? You may be experiencing reactive depression, nor clinical depression. If you feel happy, don’t analyze — just go with it!
• Your every move. Sometimes it seems that you have a little recorder in your brain that keeps a copy of every foolish thing you’ve ever done or said, and plays them back at unexpected moments. Most people I know with depression experience this and end up beating themselves up over events long-gone. It may be a comfort to know that, with time and proper treatment, that recording machine goes away, or at least plays back your words and actions less often. If you notice that happening, it is a sign of healing.
• Decisions. Making decisions, especially important ones, is a hallmark of analysis paralysis. Weighing choices can be difficult for anyone. Depression can cloud your thoughts and make it even more difficult. Should I use what energy I have to meet friends for coffee? Should I tell my employer about my depression? Should I take a full-time job?
For life-altering decisions, careful thought, not overthinking, is needed. Make a list of pros and cons. Talk to a trusted friend about the situation. If what you can’t decide is less earth-shattering, use a simpler solution. Flip a coin. Draw a number out of a hat. Anything to make the decision for you. If you do that, you’ll quickly discover if that’s the choice you really want.
• The good and the bad. Overthinking often comes down to deciding what is good for you and what is bad for you. At times like these, focus on your mental state. Will this career decision make my depression worse? Is this spending decision really my hypomania talking? The question you need to ask may be “How do I feel about this?” rather than “What do I think?”
• Going off on a tangent. Once in a while, you may be thinking about one thing, only to have your brain flit to something else and start obsessing about it. I once heard a metaphor regarding mindfulness and meditation: When you find your thoughts wandering off-track, imagine them as a puppy that wants to wander off. Gently corral it and pull it back. Then go back to what you were originally thinking about. It may be necessary to do this several times until the “puppy” gets the idea and doesn’t wander off.
I’m often subject to analysis paralysis. It’s been said that I have a third-degree blackbelt in overthinking. I like to think, though, that I get into such traps less often now, or at least get out of them more quickly. Really, overthinking adds nothing good to your life and mental well-being — indeed, it detracts from them. For many of us, overthinking is sometimes inevitable. Developing a few techniques to deal with such thoughts can be a blessing.