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Many people believe that analyzing, anticipating, speculating, and forecasting are helpful and productive processes, but mostly, these just burn energy and create stress.

I like to group these mental processes into one activity: over-thinking. When people come to me complaining of excessive tasks, responsibilities, and stress, over-thinking is almost always part of the equation, and often the simplest source of stress to remove.

Over-thinking may motivate a person to pay greater attention to an upcoming event or situation, and then to take action. But do we really have to stress out over something to make it a priority? Besides, once we have a task securely scheduled in our calendar, what is the upside of continuing to think about it?

Preparation > Anticipation

Imagine that your boss has scheduled a meeting with you for tomorrow, but has given no details. The possible scenarios you could anticipate are unlimited–I’m going to be fired, demoted, moved to a windowless office, written up, asked to inform on a co-worker, or hundreds of other less threatening possibilities. If you start speculating about the reason for the meeting, it may take you down a painful, twisting trail of thoughts, such as “What did I do? Is somebody spreading rumors about me? Do I need a lawyer?”

Should I, or shouldn’t I? So much to consider!

To avoid this stressful anticipation, you can try asking a better question: “What can I do about this right now, if anything, to prepare for that meeting?” This could include preparation of a prioritized list of your tasks, or a report of your recent accomplishments. Perhaps the best preparation is to get good rest and have a clear head going into the sit-down–because continuing to over-think the reason for the meeting is guaranteed to undermine both rest and focus.  As it turns out, if you anticipated the worst and analyzed your situation for an entire day, you wasted your time and caused yourself needless suffering, because your boss only wanted to pick your brain for vacation ideas (and wanted to be discreet about it).

Get into the moment

People who make a habit of over-thinking sometimes have a hard time stopping it. First, they must catch themselves doing it and and realize it hurts their quality of life. At that point, many attempt to “just stop thinking about it,” but that rarely works, because empty space in the mind has to fill up with some thoughts, usually those that you’re trying to avoid. Others try to focus thoughts elsewhere, becoming absorbed in a new task, project, book, movie, etc. This can work, as long as the troubling thoughts don’t invade the mind and distract from the new area of focus.

The surest way to avoid over-thinking is to focus on the here and now. Being in the moment gets you out of your head, and 99% of the time, the here and now is not a disturbing or threatening place. All it takes to get you there is a simple question: “What is going on, right here, right now?”  You’re just reading a profoundly inspirational and entertaining blog, that’s all. To follow that initial question, ask yourself, is anything bothersome, worrisome, or deserving of deep analysis taking place in my immediate environment at present? How does my body feel? Can I identify a part of my body that feels comfortable? What sounds do I notice around me? How many items in my surroundings can I name?

This guy just can’t stop trying to figure out how his troop-mates feel about him, and the speculation is killing him.

In case you started thinking again, no, you will not get stuck in the moment and spend the day watching butterflies. On the contrary, if you get out of your head, and spend a little more time being present, you will save mental energy, reduce stress, and have more ability to focus on productive thoughts and activities with fewer distractions.

by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu

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