Like a spider's web decorated with beads of rain, this headline worry serves as a frame for dozens of tangential thoughts that can absorb me, with increasing feelings of anxiety, for hours. These include classics such as: 'I don't even know how to build a fire, surely I would starve even if I managed to hunt a squirrel,' and 'I would need to walk to Melbourne to find my family, how long would that take from Sydney?' (187 hours, if you go down the A41.)
A hyperactive imagination means I've had a predilection for all things post-apocalyptic since I can remember. But, from when so much of what makes up our lives were exposed as candy floss delicate, this tendency went into overdrive.
In a newly released title, The Book of Overthinking: How to Stop the Cycle of Worry, New Zealand-based clinical psychologist Gwendoline Smith seeks to provide practical guidance on managing such spiralling streams – surely ever more present between a lack of fresh stimulation and a chaotic, miserable news cycle.
What is 'overthinking?'
For her, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary's definition of overthinking is the most precise, when it comes to defining the issue. This is: 'To think too much about (something): to put too much time into thinking about or analysing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful.'
She notes that it is possible to overthink about something positive (imagining how brilliant your first post-lockdown holiday is going to be) and so defines the problematic version –predicting negative catastrophic outcomes, like my 'end of the world' saga – as 'worrisome overthinking,' or just 'worry,' for brevity. This might also include 'rumination,' in which you re-hash the past, pouring over it to pinpoint the causes of your current distress.
Her work, she says in an author's note, is rooted in the theory of cognitive behavioural therapy. 'The most important emphasis of this approach is to teach people about how they think, and in doing so provide tools and strategies to better manage how they feel,' she writes.
Finding the book handy in working against my own unhelpful thoughts, I spoke to Smith about some of her nuggets of wisdom.
1. Worry can be 'superstitious'
Much like crossing yourself after walking under scaffolding or freaking out about a pair of Stan Smiths being placed on your kitchen table, worry can be understood as a superstition.
'Worry is referred to as a “superstitious behaviour” that then becomes a very stubborn habit,' Smith explains to me. 'The habit is reinforced by two very distinct mythological belief systems. [Firstly] The preventive power of worry and [secondly] the predictive power of worry. In essence, what this means is that the individual believes that if they worry they can stay on top of their environment and prevent terrible things from happening.
'Secondly, they believe that this form of vigilant overthinking will also provide them with the ability to predict and therefore be prepared for predicted negative outcomes.
'The word ‘predicted’ outcome is an essential ingredient of the recipe for worrisome overthinking, [which is] defined as “the prediction of negative catastrophic outcomes.”
Given that no one can predict the future, we can see that this is not true. Releasing yourself from the belief that worry can keep you safe, or help you to be prepared for things that go wrong, can be liberating.
2. Your thoughts or beliefs are not facts
Once your mind has sized on something to overthink, it can assume that this is a reality. But, newsflash: your beliefs are not facts (shout out to when the whole of humanity thought that you could sail off the edge of the earth.)
'It is as a result of these superstitious belief systems that people create a physical and emotional fear (your fight/flight response),' explains Smith. 'However, you can believe that you are a fortune teller – but that does not make it a fact. Hence, beliefs are not facts.'
3. And you should challenge them
'The most effective strategies for worry, in my experience, are the strategies that challenge the meaning of the thinking,' says Smith. 'Increasing awareness of the rationality of thinking is very helpful. Ensure that your thinking is grounded in fact/truth/reality and ask yourself if this type of thinking is helping you.'
In the book, Smith provides a series of 'flashcards,' which you can use to challenge unhelpful thoughts. These include: 'How is this thinking helping me?,' 'Where is this thinking taking me?' and 'Feelings are not facts - beliefs are not facts.' Confront your worries with these to try and remove some of their power.
4. Telling yourself 'I shouldn't worry' does not work
When you feel yourself sliding into thoughts that begin with 'should', catch yourself. 'The emphasis on the toxicity of the words should/must/have to comes from the school of Rational Emotive therapy,' Smith says. 'Thinking [in terms of] "should" creates all sorts of unhelpful emotional states, such as:
- I should have = guilt/ regret
- They should have = anger/frustration/disappointment
- I have to = pressure/tension/obligation
'The point that I make with worry and 'should' is that if you tell yourself you shouldn’t worry – apart from this being futile – it actually results in worrying more. If you tell the brain it “shouldn’t” worry, it will attend to the thoughts more intensely.
'Observe what happens when I say “now, just focus on what you are reading and whatever you do, don’t think about camels, red sand and pyramids and camels and so on." '
See? A better idea is to work at challenging your thoughts, as mentioned above.
5. Some people are more prone to overthinking than others
It can feel frustrating that some people seem to glide through life barely worrying at all, while others struggle to sleep for thoughts whirring. Sometimes, this creates tension in friendships or romantic relationships – when one person thinks that ‘it’ll be fine, chill out,’ the other feels that the former person doesn't care enough.
'This understanding comes from the research about the biological contributors to temperament. It is estimated that the biological predisposition for Hi Trait anxiety is between 25-40%. Hence, people are born with heightened sensitivity [to feelings of anxiety],' explains Smith.
6. Draw a line between 'overthinking' and 'concern'
When the world is burning, it would be disingenuous to imply that parking all of your worries and watching Netflix is necessarily a responsible choice. If you have the time and means, for example, volunteering for a cause that you're thinking about a lot – say, your local food bank or a climate change group – can add purpose to your days. The distinction here, Smith says, is between worry and concern.
'Worry is a spiral of thought going around and around taking you nowhere, apart from feeling more anxious,' she says. 'Concern, on the other hand, has specific destinations in mind: time frames, solutions action plans. Much more helpful and constructive.'
Work yourself away from the former and into the latter.