“It’s not a matter of letting go, you would if you could. Instead of ‘Let it go,’ we should probably say ‘Let it be.’” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
Overthinking and living in your own head can be one of the most frustrating, painful, maddening and downright depressing parts of being a human. It can feel like a tap has been turned on inside your brain and you are lying there underneath it trying to make it stop or just trying to survive until it runs out. Constantly living inside of your head, identifying with thoughts and merging your identity with what you think is without a doubt, a sure path to misery.
The sad truth is that you already know this, I already know this, and yet we are going to fall into the same trap again and again. That’s okay though, because we will never get it perfect. There are ways, however, to fall into the overthinking trap less frequently and effective methods that you can apply to accept whatever comes. Below you will find some of my favourite ideas as to how to get out of your own head…
Catch yourself at the start of the spiral
Have you ever been relaxing and minding your own business when suddenly, a thought about whether you left the oven on at home kickstarts a chain of worry for half an hour? Or have you been enjoying a peaceful time in the bath when you think about what it might be like to mess up your Best Man’s speech on your friend’s biggest day, causing you to fall into a fit of gut-wrenching anxiety?
That’s what it is like to engage with a thought and unwillingly see yourself slide down a spiral of stairs of despair and anguish. Once you start falling, it is extremely difficult to stop. That’s why it is key to catch yourself at the start of the mind spiral. Awareness and mindfulness are two tools that can help you identify when a tricky thought pops up and that can give you the freedom to decide whether you want to interact with it or not.
With a bit of practice, you can recognise when you’re likely to start brooding over the past or worrying about the future. You can realise that the thought that you are having is one that can send you on a spiral if you let it. Be brave, let it pass and catch yourself before you fall.
One of the most effective ways that I and many others have found to escape living inside of our own heads is to transfer our busy minds onto paper. Journaling has a number of incredible benefits which I have discussed previously and there are many different ways to do it.
The key to journaling in this instance is not to think and then write, it is to Write to think.
Whenever you feel the urge to think something through, to plan something or to simply exit your own head, grab a pen and paper and start thinking on that blank canvas rather than the messy canvas of your mind – it saves you trying to transfer and make sense of your confusing thoughts. Seeing things on paper is also much clearer than trying to see them in your head.
Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly only allows himself to write through problems during troublesome times, never to try and think them through. This is excellent advice for anyone to try.
Get into your body
One of the best ways to get out of your head is to change your focus to your body. Incessant thoughts and rumination can sometimes just be excess energy that doesn’t have any other place to go apart from bouncing around your mind. This is one of the main reasons why many people swear by exercise as their go-to form of therapy.
Exercise has long been known as an effective antidepressant, a blood sugar regulator, a disease deterrent as well as being the catalyst to a seemingly never-ending list of other life-enhancing factors.
Whether you are hitting the weights, the punch bag, going for a long cycle or doing an exercise class, anything that expends a good amount of energy is a gateway to a more relaxed and peaceful mind. With a lot of energy spent, you might find that you don’t have any spare energy leftover for getting involved with the mindless thoughts in your head.
Take time to investigate
Sometimes it is necessary – often with the aid of a journal – to really take an examined look at what is going on inside of your own head. If a certain feeling keeps popping up or there is something that you can’t stop fixating on, it might be time to take the necessary steps of seeing what is causing all of the problems.
Most of the time your thoughts don’t mean anything but if a certain type of thought keeps arising or a specific thought never seems to leave your mind, it is likely that you need to take the time to process what it is you are feeling, why you are feeling it and deciding if there are any steps that you can take to solve the issue.
This can be a very difficult but also very necessary step if living in your head is a constant problem. If you can’t manage to work through them yourself, try speaking to close friends or family that can help talk through and make sense of your thoughts. Better still if you think it necessary, seek out a professional psychologist. There’s no shame in taking the time and finding the appropriate source of help that you need to get to the bottom of your problems.
Realise that you are not your thoughts
One of the biggest shifts in my own life that helped me to get out of my head more often was to realise that I am not my thoughts.
Tiny Buddha has a fantastic article on this subject that within it, contains a great analogy by the author Pam Grout:
Thoughts are like a line of ants marching across your picnic blanket. You can choose to observe them as they keep on marching straight off the other side of the blanket and disappear, or you can choose to scoop them up and interact with them. Make them your focus. Fuss over them. And they’ll probably bite you too.
Neuroscientist and modern-day philosopher Sam Harris also likens thoughts to waves in the ocean. By their very nature, they come, they change and they disappear. Again and again. Accepting this repeated flow is the key to not getting involved when you don’t need to.
If you want one more analogy, thoughts in your mind can be likened to passing cars in traffic. The cars come and go. Some of them make more noise than others. We don’t have any issues by simply watching the cars by the side of the road. It is only when we jump out in front of one car or try chasing another that we cause ourselves problems and get exhausted.
One thing that I have learned recently is that you can’t stop thoughts. Many people want a solution to this problem that involves stopping negative thoughts and only allowing positive ones. This is an impossible solution that can never be in your control.
What is in your control is which thoughts you choose to interact with. Good and bad thoughts are always going to come and go but it is entirely your choice which ones you choose to take seriously and which ones you simply let pass.