You're Overthinking It! Tips to Stress Less
What's Really Happening
In slow-pitch softball I couldn't buy a hit. I would stand at bat, waiting, planning, and preparing for the ball. And that was the problem. My brain and all its relentless thinking sabotaged my instinct.
I'm hardly the only one who overthinks things. We all do it. In fact, research shows that our brains constantly try to forecast the future, to anticipate what will come next. In caveman times, that meant a fast prediction that a lion was probably following the herd of running antelopes, so stay away. Today it means mulling the healthfulness of every item on a four-page restaurant menu before picking the one that's least likely to pack on pounds, or agonizing over just the right witty words to post on Facebook in anticipation of judgment by hundreds of people.
We also fret about our past experiences and decisions. But while some self-reflection helps us survive and thrive, too much can make us feel trapped and overwhelmed. "When you're overthinking, you're going round and round in a loop instead of moving forward and problem solving," explains Lori Hilt, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.Stuck on a Feeling
Women tend to be overthinkers, research shows. For instance, we're 42 percent more likely to ruminate than men are when we're feeling down. This may be because we're more attuned to our emotions and try really hard to understand what causes them, studies suggest. Your individual tendency to overthink may also be linked to how you were raised. Having overcontrolling parents may set you up to do it, perhaps because such mothers and fathers try to suppress children's thoughts and emotions.
No matter what causes overthinking, all of us can relate. "We spend most of our time in the past or the future," Hilt says. "It's very hard to be in the present moment. Our minds are always racing."
Take my slow-pitch problem. Sian Beilock, PhD, the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, calls my failure to hit the ball "choking under pressure." When you have too much time before you have to perform, she explains, the conscious mind takes over what should be an instinctive reaction and assesses every possible action or solution until it sputters and fades. "We tend to think that having a lot of time is beneficial and that paying more attention is a good thing, but often it adds the opportunity for error and disrupts performance," Beilock says.
Similarly, processing endless little choices each day (what to tweet; which of your 100 daily e-mails to save, delete, or reply to; which of the dozens of shows on your DVR to watch) can get in the way when an important decision pops up. That's because every time you have to make a choice -- whether to go to the gym or sleep in, say, or to eat a yogurt as opposed to a doughnut -- you sap some of your willpower, which lessens your self-control. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue. "When you have it, you tend to take the default option because it's easier," says Roy Baumeister, PhD, a research psychologist at Florida State University and coauthor of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. You order a pizza because you're too overwhelmed to think about what to make for dinner, or you buy the expensive appliance because you're stressed out by comparison shopping.
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