The thing about depression – as with many similar conditions, or even for people without depression, is this thing called overthinking. Along with oversensitiveness, this is almost unanimously something that everyone seems to want to get rid of. “If only I could stop overthinking!” “Am I overthinking this again?”
So I want to make it my unenviable task – to reclaim overthinking from the annals of the “DO NOT TOUCH” books, and see just how depression and overthinking are linked, in a layman way, and what to do about it – if we don’t aim to get rid of it.
To start, what really is overthinking? And what is so bad about it? Quoting a Psychology Today article:
I agree with this definition. Early in recovery, the word rumination was raised to describe some of what was happening in my head. A friend of mine reminded me that this was something cows do – they regurgitate stuff from the first three stomachs – not the fourth, that’d be gross in cow terms – and chew on it, digesting it further to get more nutrients out of the original grass. In psychological terms, rumination would be the excessive repeating and thinking of an event or issue in one’s head. Overthinking and rumination go hand in hand. It takes a particular awareness of our thoughts and actions in the past, to be able to ruminate over and over again, about some thought or action we took in the past.
But rumination and overthinking usually have two things in common. They are often about events or thoughts in the past and how they will impact our future.
But before we talk about removing overthinking or changing our brains so we stop overthinking, a common refrain for most who struggle with this issue, I want to share a story about a frog.
I was going on one of my long walks, and the grasscutters were out in full force. The men wielded grasscutting machines, little gasoline packs on their backs, with a spinning disc at the end of a long metal stick. They would attach an untied zip tie or something similar to the discs, long strips of plastic that would lash out in circles, cutting the grass efficiently and cheaply, stopping every now and then to replace the plastic, or to have a sip of water on what was a hot day. Nothing really strange about them, in a much needed task in Singapore, a country which attempts to marry nature to urbanity, long stretches of asphalt for walking lined by grass patches, flowers and middling trees.
What stopped me was a little dazed frog in the middle of the path. A path not just used by walkers or joggers, but bicycles and electric scooters and even small service lorries that the workers used to carry their gear to where they needed to be. The poor thing was flat on one side, but still breathing, dazed looking, with dried leaf clippings on its skin. It looked thoroughly pathetic and I felt sad and sorry for it. I took a few more steps before I turned back. But I did turn back. If it were to die, I thought, it would be better for it not to die a mangled carcass on a road, dried and then swept off later.
So I turned back. But I was also aware that not all frogs are safe to handle. I could stop to check and Google, but that would take time for an untrained person like me, to identify what kind of frog it was, and whether I should use my hands to handle the poor guy (or girl). There wasn’t anyone around that I wanted to approach to help – as it was, I was getting unhelpful stares from some birdwatchers in the distance. What is this guy doing, they must have been thinking. But I decided that no pride saves frog lives, and walked into the grass patch to look for large leaves to carry the frog on.
A bicycle zoomed past at the point, where I was searching. For a split second, it looked like the frog would be crushed. The cyclist missed though, and went on oblivious to what he had almost done. It wouldn’t have been his fault. The frog was so small. But I hurried to find some leaves, and quickly scooped the dazed, helpless little fellow onto them.
I carried the makeshift, I wish I could do better darn it, litter onto the side of the road into the grass, on a patch which the grasscutters had evidently already worked on. Don’t want them to come zipping your body onto the road again. I found a little depression under one of the flowering plants around. Dead or alive, it would make a good resting place. I was worried that birds would come and have an easy meal of this guy so I got some dried and some green leaves to cover up the depression, and then I left. I didn’t take any photos. I wanted to give the poor guy some dignity. Maybe I’ll take a photo when I return.
Normally, my walk would take me on that way only once. That day, I made sure to pass that spot again. When I did, the spot was empty, and the leaves hadn’t been disturbed much. I could only hope he had woken up and moved on. Or she. And not get eaten by a bird. Or another animal.
So why am I talking about a froggy experience in the midst of talking about overthinking? Because I totally blame overthinking for helping me to rescue a frog even if it didn’t – and doesn’t – matter in the big scheme of things. Everything in italics above, were my thoughts at the time that made me decide how to operate, what to do. It was all done in minutes, shorter than the time it took for me to frame and type this story down, partly because I have fat fingers. And any humour you see in what I write is a result of the stray thoughts firing off, and taking on a life of their own that I’ve decided would be helpful to bring the story across. And those thoughts were a result, very much, of my usual overthinking.
Overthinking stems from anxiety and worry, and contributes to further anxiety and worry if not kept in check – psychologically speaking, this much is true, and is why many people wish they didn’t overthink. But overthinking is also necessarily, the brain using past experiences to assess a situation and then predict what can happen in the future, in more ways than sometimes necessary. For example, I could have used my hands to pick the frog up – and the bicycle would not have almost run the poor thing over. But I risked touching something with my bare hands that could harm me. In overthinking, my brain decided to highlight the last possibility and keep me safe while still doing my best. By running through more possibilities than the average person, this means that people who overthink have a unique power to speculate on scenarios, and be more creative with possible solutions and ideas. Outcomes that weren’t even thinkable can become a possibility.
But this comes at a price, when overthinking focuses on unhelpful things. Usually these include past mistakes. Or past trauma. People who struggle tend to link similar situations with past experiences which resulted in mistakes or hurt, and then become paralysed in indecision on how to proceed. Part of the brain wants to protect, by avoiding the issue. And to avoid the issue, what better way, than to keep running the scenario of pain over and over again in the brain like a faulty DVD player, or when a vinyl record has a pit that keeps the needle jumping over the same track? This means that the danger is highlighted and the brain is forcing the struggler to remember the pain even if they don’t actually remember the reason for the pain. Usually it’s an outcome – “I will be an embarassment.” “People will laugh.” “He or she will leave me.” “They will reject me.” and the spin in the brain gets fed to continue spinning down further.
And finally when a decision is made, it usually isn’t the best or the most helpful one. If I had succumbed to the fear of others staring, a real fear in my head… I don’t know what would have happened to the dear frog.
So what we need to overcome isn’t the overthinking part of our brain per se. My point is that it is still very useful, and something we should celebrate, even. (If you struggle with overthinking, you probably might want to strangle me already). Instead, I would suggest the following:
- Remember that humans make mistakes, and to err is human. Forgive ourselves for our mistakes, and keep trying not to make them again.
- Remember that what happened in the past, happened in the past. It may be something that hurt us, but if we are no longer dealing with the same people in the same environment, the outcome need not be decided or determined by the past. We no longer have to act the same way.
- Catch ourselves spinning. The worst part of overthinking is actually the paralysis due to anxiety and/or fear that comes as a result of it. When we catch ourselves doing it, we can now have a choice to stop it right there, and refocus.
- Practice mindful awareness of the present. Breathe, feel your breath, feel your surroundings, and break the momentum of the thoughts. If it’s not obvious by now, overthinking has a habit of using the past, to extrapolate the future, usually in as bad a way as possible. Being aware of the present gives us a choice – we can reassess the situation with the same overthinking skills, to be in the here and now and deal with the here and now.
Is that as easy as it sounds? Way no. I’m still learning it myself, and on good days, I just manage to catch the spins as they start. But that’s a very important step already – by recognising the overthinking spin, we now give ourselves a choice instead of following through into a compulsion. Spins cause compulsions because we are now so paralysed by the fear that we have to impulsively choose the best way out that will remove the fear. Instead, by catching ourselves at the start of an overthinking spin, we can now choose to say, this is a spin, do I HAVE to listen to it, or can I choose to focus on the here and now. Or at least maybe can I choose.
And instead of fearing overthinking and wanting to get rid of it, instead turn it into stories, ideas, art, creative things, that will help you to focus on the present. Write a song, draw an imaginary character. Write a story about a frog and a princess, and how the princess became a frog soprano. Use those alternatives in your head and expend that worry into something beautiful. Or be like me and spin a frog story to tell others about something important.
If you are Christian, I would add on, that even if you overthink, God still made us. And God still loves us the way we are, fallen as we are. Made in His image – is it possible that we overthink by design? So let us trust His purpose in making us the way we are – and let’s see how to work with or around it, and see how best to use it when the situation calls for it, to help ourselves and others make sense of a complex world in a complex time. For overthinking can be helpful in the right situation – tempered with a strong recognition of God and His sovereignty, entrusting the future into His hands, and just trying to be faithful in our circumstances, with what He has given us to work.
Be well, fellow overthinkers. Now let me go off and overthink about how many brickbats I’ll get for this.