Problems. We all have them.
Some are small, others are big.
But whatever life is throwing our way, one thing remains true:
We think about them.
We think about solutions and worries, whether it’s productive or not.
However, sometimes this thinking can become so constant that it’s impossible to stop.
But if we want to take action in our lives and live in the moment, we need to learn to stop it.
The problem that we’ve all experienced, however, is that the harder we try to stop thinking, the more intense our thinking becomes.
So, what can we do?
According to Buddhism and western psychology, it’s all about learning the art of acceptance and letting go.
Check out the below 5 strategies to stop overthinking so you can start living.
1) Practice present moment awareness using mindfulness
A 2007 study by professor Norman Farb at the University of Toronto broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.
It found that humans have two different sets of networks in the brain for dealing with the world.
The first network is for experiencing your experience. This is called “the default network”.
This network is activated when not much is happening and you begin thinking about yourself.
It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It holds together our narrative about the world.
The second network is called “direct experience network”.
When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience.
When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself.
Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting your body.
The interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated.
If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active.
You don’t feel your senses as much.
Fortunately, this works both ways.
When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
What does this mean in terms of overthinking?
Therefore, whenever you intentionally activate your direct experience network by using your senses, you’re reducing activity in your default network, which is involved in overthinking.
This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re overthinking, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe.
Your senses become more alive at that moment.
You can do this at any stage through the day.
Simply tune into your senses. Whether it’s your feet hitting the ground, or your hands touching the coffee mug.
The more you do this, the more you’ll rewire the brain to experience the present moment.
2) A Zen Master explains how to practice acceptance
If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, you’ve probably found that more thoughts seem to arise.
It’s almost like putting out fire with fire, even though it seems like it’s the most logical thing to do.
However, Zen master Shunry Suzuki says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”
The teaching is direct – we simply watch our thoughts and give them plenty of room.
We don’t try to control or shove them aside.
Instead of treating them like we were the “thought police”, we instead act like a more casual observer.
This advice is echoed from Zen master Annamalai Swami:
“If you can be continuously aware of each thought as it rises, and if you can be so indifferent to it that it doesn’t sprout or flourish, you are well on the way to escaping from the entanglements of mind.”
3) Understand that everything comes and goes
According to Zen Master Shunry Sazuki, the underlying key to calming the mind is to accept change:
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.”
Everything changes, it’s the fundamental law of the universe.
Yet, we find it hard to accept. We identify strongly with our fixed appearance, with our body and our personality.
And when it changes, we suffer.
However, Sazuki says we can overcome this by recognizing that the contents of our minds are in perpetual flux.
Everything about consciousness comes and goes.
Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anger, grasping, despair.
For example, it’s hard to stay angry when you see anger for what it is.
This is why Zen Buddhism teaches that the moment is all that exists.
Sazuki says: “Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else”
4) Learn to become an observer of the mind
If you’ve ever read wisdom from the likes of Buddha, Osho or Deepak Chopra, then you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “become an observer of your mind.”
It’s similar to the practice of ‘acceptance’ that I mentioned above.
But how do we actually go about it?
Becoming the observer simply means taking a step back from your mind and becoming aware of your thinking patterns and how you’re responding to things.
Below we’ve found a quote from spiritual master Osho that explains exactly how to go about it.
“Become an observer of the currents of thought that flow through your consciousness. Just like someone sitting by the side of a river watching the river flow by, sit by the side of your mind and watch…. Don’t do anything, don’t interfere, don’t stop them in any way. Don’t repress in any way. If there is a thought coming don’t stop it, if it is not coming don’t try to force it to come. You are simply to be an observer….
“In that simple observation you will see and experience that your thoughts and you are separate – because you can see that the one who is watching the thoughts is separate from the the thoughts, different from them…
“And if you become aware that you are not your thoughts, the life of these thoughts will begin to grow weaker, they will begin to become more and more lifeless. The power of your thoughts lies in the fact that you think they are yours.”
5) Learn the art of reframing
When overthinking gets the better of us, it largely involves negative self-talk.
Every time you allow this inner dialogue to take shape, it just becomes stronger and more limiting.
But as we all know, when these cycles begin to take shape, it can be tough to figure out how to break it.
This is where a little positive psychology can help, particularly an idea called “reframing”.
Much of these strategies are going to come down to a mindfulness technique of your observing your mind and watching your thoughts.
Here are 6 ways to reframe a negative mindset:
1) The first step is begin consciously identifying the type of inner dialogue or language you use daily. We all have one. What’s yours?
2) Starting noticing when you’re using negative words or phrases. Just make a note of them. Perhaps you can use a journal for this.
3) Now it’s time to pay attention to the times you use them again. What situations are causing you to be negative?
4) Note what you’re feeling, what time of day it is and where you are.
5) When you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought by saying “Stop!”. This alone is powerful and will make you aware of how many times you are thinking negatively.
6) Now dig deep inside yourself and ask yourself is your assumptions are true.
Are you assuming something is negative when maybe it isn’t? Is there actual evidence that back up your assumptions?
For example, if you’re telling yourself that you can’t handle something, perhaps you should ask yourself if you can handle it.
The second thought feels more hopeful and leads to more creativity.
By challenging your thoughts and generalizations – you’re helping yourself to see that they might be irrational and that it’s more useful to think optimistically.
As you can see, these mindful strategies involve similar principles. Here is a checklist to implement all of them:
Practice focusing on the present moment by focusing on your senses
Accept the thoughts you have and that you can’t forcibly change it
Understand that change is the only constant in the universe. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions and thoughts, realize that it won’t last forever.
Realize that you are not the mind and you don’t have to believe your thoughts.