The first time I remember someone telling me not to overthink was when I was trying to suss out breastfeeding. “Don’t overthink it,” said my friend, “just go with it.”
“Just going with it” is not something I do. I have to really understand what I’m doing and then I think through almost every possibility and eventuality, like a mind map on steroids. And I plan. When people say things like: “Who could have imagined XYZ would happen?” about some entirely predictable outcome, my most common response is “I could”. I have realised that for most people I am an overthinker, but for me, it is others who underthink. I just think.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that my overthinking, like most things, probably started in childhood. I had a loving, noisy but at times unpredictable childhood. Dinner was always on the table at the same time, and it was always delicious. My mother and father were always, physically, where they said they would be. But I grew up in a house where emotions weren’t discussed, they were bottled up, only to explode out in random unpredictable ways – or a silence would ensue for some wrongdoing I had to fathom out all by myself.
I became a natural observer, able to take the temperature of a room, able to watch people’s micro-movements, listen to their language, their tone. This all became second nature to me. Sometimes, today, my children and husband think I’m a mind reader, but of course I’m not. I’ve just observed what’s been said, what’s gone on, and I’ve overthunk what they might do, or say. So sometimes I answer a question before they ask it and they think I have a superpower.
It maybe didn’t help that, straight out of school, I joined the military, where you had to think not once, but several times about the simplest task because everything was a potential trap. “Build a [model] bridge out of these 120 bricks?” Sure. But count the bricks first because they would often not give you the number of bricks they said they would. Message: check the basics, always. While doing a written exam, someone would come in to give a message to the invigilator and afterwards you’d be told to describe that person who just flitted in while you were concentrating on something else.
The message there was never let your guard down. I once stunned my examining officer by giving a description of a person so detailed, he had to turn over the A4 page to make notes. (It helped that I had a massive crush on the person I was describing and had spent many hours staring at him. But I still sometimes take down people’s descriptions in my head in case it’s called upon.)
In my day job as the Guardian’s agony aunt overthinking is important – vital. I once had a complaint made against me and was called into the readers’ editor’s office to be asked to show my workings. Because I had anticipated a problem, out came the pages of notes, the timings of calls, the checking. “Gosh” said the editor, “I see.”
Of course, this can be exhausting. And it is. I didn’t realise just how much I thought until one day someone asked me what I was thinking (as a child I was a natural daydreamer) because I was quiet. I went through what I’d been thinking about for the past minute and it was a different thought for every second. The look of horror on their face said it all. “All that in the last 60 seconds?” “Sure,” I said, “what have you been thinking about?” I asked. “Soap,” they answered.
I do have to be super-careful to have boundaries and give myself time off because burnout is never far away. And I do have to be careful not to end up doing people’s thinking/memory storage for them, like a remote hard drive. Because, like all emotions and ways of working, there’s a plus and a minus side. Overthinking, gone wrong, can be about anxiety. I consulted Susanna Abse, a psychoanalyst to ask her what the distinction is.
“There’s a difference between perseverating and reflecting,” she said. “It’s about whether you are going over and over something in your mind [without a resolution] or whether you are able to sit back, replay something and learn something useful from it.” Abse also said that “in an action-focused world, being a thinker isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But ruminating in a way that doesn’t lead anywhere may be a sign of anxiety.”
The difference is between being preoccupied but powerless and overthinking leading to something being “put to bed”. The former is not great and if that’s you (and it has been me in the past), then you may need to look at what’s causing your anxiety. Even if you are an overthinker, working out the root cause can take time. I imagine corkscrewing down from the problem to the root, and I usually know I’ve hit it because I feel upset or defensive. You can do this by yourself or get a trusted friend to ask you “and then what” to help lead you to the issue. Another useful question to work out “root cause” is: what needs to change to make me feel better? The interesting thing is that when I am with people who overthink, I relax. I let them do the thinking for me. When I am with underthinkers this leads me to become overloaded, because I sense I am not “safe”.
My number one tip is: if you are an overthinker, try not to spend too much time with underthinkers, as you will end up thinking not just for yourself, but for them, too. I tend to prefer travelling alone and definitely try to avoid travelling with underthinkers, or else I end up feeling like I’m leading a school trip.
Anxious times can send the overthinker into overdrive. You’ve done all that thinking and planning and yet still something has gone wrong! More thinking is needed, you feel, when actually what you need to do is step back and stop. At times like these I do need to check myself (I found CBT enormously helpful with coping mechanisms).
On the whole, I love being an overthinker, it’s enormously enriching. Not least it’s who I am, so now I embrace what it brings me, which is a very rewarding mental world. I go with it now rather than fight it. But, when things do go a bit awry, the following tips are what I’ve found helpful, because, for me, focusing on just one thing is a tough call.
1) Yoga, but it takes me a good 10 minutes to settle down and get into it. Yes, I used to hate yoga, too, and anyone who suggested it. One-legged poses really show up the overthinkers. We find them almost impossible at first, but if you can do them, they do help to quieten your mind. Alternate nostril breathing works because it helps to balance out the emotional/logical sides of the brain.
2) I’ve learned to never try to “clear your mind” – it’s not going to happen. Instead, try challenging your brain in what I think of as a soft-focus way, such as counting back in threes from 100. Staring out of the window of a car (if you’re not driving) or a train is also incredibly soothing and as close as I can come to clearing my mind.
3) Repetitive tasks are your friend: this is why running is the overthinker’s friend. Knitting is another one. Fairly mindless (for the love of God avoid Fair Isle and four-needle knitting) but absorbing. Ditto sewing. If I have nothing to hand, then rhythmic music (1990s trance for me) is amazingly relaxing as it almost tunes into my brain waves and helps relax me.
4) If you start to get overwhelmed, shorten your focus to the next five minutes and no more, and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” and then just concentrate on that. Grounding is also really useful, such as feeling the ground beneath your feet or thinking, “What can I hear right now? What can I see?” to take you out of your busy head and into the outside world.
5) Overthinking can release adrenaline so it’s useful to find something safe that needs minimal planning to help release that. So not bungee jumping, which would send an overthinker into overdrive.
My final top tip is something that never fails to recalibrate me: cold showers. Start slow but try to build up to two to three minutes in less than 15C water. Cold showers have all sorts of other health and psychological benefits, but in those three minutes, I think of nothing else. Heaven.
Annalisa Barbieri’s podcast series, Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri, is out now.