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This is a transcript from episode #23 of the Let the Verse Flow Podcast.

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It’s stuck like glue, warm maple sap. It clings to my clothes, the bottom of my shoe and then it seeps into my body and takes hold of my mind. Bitter thoughts that cycle through and never leave. Everything must be done right now. What if and when and how and who and where? Was it me or you or them or it or he or she or they? Is it over, just started, about to start again, on replay or rebounding? What will I do, or should you do, or should we ask them to do it, or just let it lay? Or is it a lie? Must I do it today, or is tomorrow OK, next week, a year from now, or yesterday? What if this happens, or that thing over there, or the thing I didn’t even think about? How will I live with this, or that thing that happens from this situation that I don’t understand and I can’t tell you how I feel because I don’t know how I feel exactly because I can’t think. I can’t hear myself think until these thoughts leave. Are they leaving now? Later today? Tomorrow? Will they come back? Oh, how can I stop them from coming back? Did I do something to bring it on? Should I research it, ask a friend, write it out, take action, take mindful breaths, or go for a walk? I must do that which I don’t know to do, but how will I know how to fix things when I can’t yet grasp what must be done, and anyway I’m tied in knots about not knowing what to do or what will happen. The knots are preventing me from doing what I must do. I’m exhausted and I can’t stop. I can’t breathe, I can’t see straight, I can’t think straight. Oh, I want it to stop. Please stop, turn down the lever, silence the noise, and leave me in peace. I want grace and peace and mindful breaths, and I want them now, no, I don’t want to wait. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. Oh wait, the thoughts have stopped. Oh, thank God, I made it through. My mind turned off, those thoughts went down the drain, and now I’m here on this resting place, and I can see, I can see beyond this moment, this situation. Everything has changed. I can see beyond today and this problem. I will make it through, and I know like I know myself. I’m back to me.

Overthinking can rob us of joy and peace of mind. Our patterns of thinking, usually dwelling on negative thoughts, drain our energy, and most of our thoughts are lies and what-ifs that never happen. Let’s work on overcoming overthinking and worry.

Overthinking: Worry & Rumination (Definitions)

Overthinking, especially negative thinking patterns, is closely related to worry and rumination. First, some definitions, rumination and worry are slightly different, but both relate to repetitive thinking (usually negative thoughts) that distress us. These patterns of overthinking can cause us mental pain.

Rumination usually focuses more on past negative events (when we had a loss or failure). With rumination, we may dwell on past failures or problems and get stuck in negative, depressing thoughts.

While worrying, my typical pattern of overthinking is more future-oriented (how this current situation plays out and affects my future life). Worry is often related to the anxiety that develops from getting caught up in “what if” scenarios. It’s exhausting. When we are engaged in a cycle of overthinking, these mostly negative thought patterns can stop us from taking action or moving on.

Interestingly, taking action and getting out of our heads is one effective technique for breaking out of the overthinking cycle. I’ll get into some more tools for stopping overthinking later. But what I'm talking about here isn’t thinking a problem through to make decisions. I’m not talking about when you strategize and spend a significant amount of time working toward a solution to a problem or an innovation, those are positive forms of thinking deeply.

Overthinking is nonproductive. It stops you in your tracks and will likely make you feel like you don’t have any options. In that way, overthinking is a form of lying to yourself. Just because you can’t see a way out of a problem right now doesn’t mean you are trapped forever or that you did something to bring on this struggle. Let me give you some examples from my life.

My Obsessive-Compulsive Ways

For me, there is an obsessive-compulsive component to my overthinking. This is quite common because part of the problem with overthinking is getting the thoughts to stop. There may be a compulsive element to thinking about these negative things that we feel helpless to stop. I know I tend towards obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD tendencies. There is a lot of variability in the way that OCD plays out in my life. Here are a few. See if you can relate to these examples.

  • When given a new project at work, I sometimes can’t rest until I have started it. Even if it’s just a bit of preliminary research or writing a few notes. The idea of writing a long proposal or research paper is daunting, and I cope with making it feel less daunting by starting quickly. Once I’ve started and bitten off a chunk of the project, I can breathe right again. I have satisfied the bug in my ear that wonders if I can tackle it and get it done.
  • When I have too many emails or even a positive, juicy DM on Instagram, I can get a bit anxious and wonder if something important is waiting for me. Could it be about my mother’s health condition, my daughter away at school, my partner who might have been hurt? Not always, but often my mind goes to dreadful thoughts when messages are waiting for me (these are automatic negative thoughts). Rarely do I think, “oh, how great, someone wants to tell me some good news." My mind immediately thinks too many emails signify that something is wrong. And if the news is good, why then I must do something urgently about that too. I can't rest until I have dealt with these messages; I can’t rest until I have processed them (at least a bit) and made sense of them. Only then can I enjoy the good news or feel confident in tackling the bad.
  • The worst type of worry and overthinking comes when I don’t know how my daughter is doing. When she’s sent me a sad or pensive text saying something bad has happened, and she’s in pain. If she drops a sad text on me and then moves on with her day, and doesn’t engage in more detailed texts about it, I may stew and wonder and worry about how bad it is until I get confirmation that she can handle the negative feelings. With my rational mind, I know she can handle her emotions, work through them, but with the ruminating part of my brain, I feel terribly tense, worrying about when and how my daughter will handle those bad feelings to get to a better place.

I know I’m not alone here, many of you probably get caught up in overthinking. We can get into negative overthinking loops, dwell on worst-case scenarios and feel frozen and blocked when deciding on which actions to take. Perfectionists and overachievers tend to overthink, but it’s usually rooted in their fear of failing and their desire to be perfect. I definitely have perfectionistic tendencies related to fear.

Overthinking Began in Childhood

I developed them as a child, telling myself stories that if I made a mistake, there would be hell to pay. If I got a bad grade, made a friend angry, or made a bad decision, I often catastrophized the situation and told myself that everything was ruined. Since I was an only child, I remember having periods of loneliness and playing in my bedroom. I developed these intricate imaginary play scenarios with different characters who would attend my parties and come for sleepovers. All kinds of things, but I remember that I often tried to work out problems with these imaginary friends. I worried a lot as a child, and I think one of my coping mechanisms was talking it through (and overthinking about it) in my play. I was trying to work it out for sure, but I dwelled on problem thoughts and ideas a lot too.

If you’ve heard earlier episodes of the podcast, you know that I’ve eased my worry and overthinking by overeating. This pattern started when I was very young. I’d calm down that anxiety over the uncertain future by numbing myself with food. I’ve talked about these avoidance techniques of mine and the way I use food to try to sidestep worry and shitting feelings in episode 4, so go have a listen to Sitting with Shitty Feelings to hear about some positive ways to handle negative thoughts.

This is something I actively work to correct and improve in my life because eating over stress and as a result of overthinking is completely ineffective in managing or reducing the overthinking. You may stop it temporarily while you distract yourself with food, but the pattern doesn’t stop, so you never learn to deal with the repetitive thoughts (and now you’ve added another problem, which is overeating).

Also, see episode 14 called Build a Personal Growth Practice (with Creative Self-Care),, where I discuss a variety of positive coping techniques including the use of healthy diversions.

Automatic Negative Thoughts (Writing May Help)

So, are you part of my motley crew of perfectionists, overthinkers, worriers and stressed-out overachievers? Well, welcome, you are in good company. So many of us struggle with overthinking. There’s even a term called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) for how our overthinking typically and automatically can take on a negative tone.

One of the most effective ways to reduce this automatic shift to negative thinking is to write about it. To read more on ANTs, check out this article, 14 Ways to Stop Overthinking. It outlines some steps for writing about automatic negative thought processes to help you come up with alternative ways of thinking, a sort of retraining (see technique #7 on "Tackling ANTs"). It might be a good place to start rewriting your thoughts and what-if scenarios. I’ll get to some of my favorite strategies for reducing overthinking in a bit, and yes, writing about them is effective.

One of the ways that I reduce negative, runaway thoughts is by writing poetry. And while worry can sometimes invade my creative time, I write regularly, whether I feel called to do it, inspired, or not. I put my butt in a chair regularly and write, and often poetry is where I work out problems and stop overthinking (at least for a little while). On the day I drafted this poem, I was stuck in worry, and I was telling myself some pretty nasty lies about what was happening. This poem is called A Lodger for the Night.

A Lodger for the Night

By Jill Hodge

Thoughts sift at home in the mind, like grains of sand
Packed in tight crevices, nooks, like marching ants
They swarm the corners, stake claim, a lodger for the night
Invade the brain, coerce the mind
This guest has overstayed its welcome
Thoughts pile in, till
Soft tissue has no home,
Scratched and hollowed out, it takes the blows
Another wave of thoughts, a million grains of sand
Weigh me down, the world is lost
Smothered by mindless specs
That move in patterns on their own
To make my mind unhappy and scattered, alone
A million miles deep the sand flows to the abyss
The silence is vast until at last, I hear
The grains of sand, they start to talk
Like giddy teenagers run amok
And send me here and there,
No, over there
Until I’m worn out
A million scenes replay in my head
Most of them horrors, a sandstorm of dread
I shake my head to dislodge the army
A charge released, a spark disarms me
It comes to pass
Flushing out a million specks
Of blues and brass
Oh thoughts! I’m clearing the decks.
And then they’re gone
All that remains, gold flecks like sawdust at dawn
And I can breathe, there’s freedom blowing in the breeze
The panic loosens.
The sand recedes, the mind shuts off
And hallows out my crowded loft

I feel overthinking like a living pattern these days. It’s tangible. Grains of sand swirl around my brain, impeding my ability to think peacefully. The worry takes over my mind for a while until I can shake it, a charge is released (that’s some sort of change or action that I take to shake off the overthinking), and the worry dissipates. As you can guess, I’ve thought about overthinking a lot. Makes sense, doesn’t it? What does an overthinker think about? Overthinking, of course.

The shittest thing about this worry is that the scenarios I play out in my head are a lie, most of these crappy scenarios don’t come true. I can only recall 1 or 2 times when my worst fear with part of the real-life way things worked out. Usually, my rumination scenarios are so far off that it’s laughable (if I wasn’t in so much pain). They are never right.

I’ve finally figured out the reason. You wanna know why I don’t think they are right? Because life is unpredictable and unknown. We never know what’s around the corner for us. We can try to create a comfort scenario for ourselves by sifting through the possible options, but the truth is, we don’t know what’s happening next, and whatever it is, it’s not likely to play out the way we see it in our mind’s eye.

Worry and rumination scenarios are a type of lie that we tell ourselves. These lies stir up emotions, get our hearts racing, and send us down deep rabbit holes to nowhere. Life can’t be predicted and trying to do so wastes our time. We can and should plan for our future, but negative overthinking is not the way to go about it. We should replace rumination with reasoned goal-setting, planning, and action. Just because we can’t know or control the future doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for it.

Naming Negative Thoughts Helps You Know Them

Identifying the problem, whether it is mostly automatic negative thinking, worry, or rumination, helps you know yourself. It helps to identify the problems and patterns that are making you uncomfortable. Name them and recognize them when they happen so that you can increase your awareness. “Oh yes, this is my old friend "worry"; I know that I think this when I’m afraid that something bad will happen.” Once you’ve named this and identified it, you can make sense of it by thinking more rationally about whether these thoughts are serving you. Sometimes deep thinking can help us solve problems. We can tease through different scenarios and options and make some helpful decisions. Other times, we are stuck in a negative cycle. Let’s start identifying which type of overthinking we are doing.

So if overthinking is a negative artifact of our intolerance to pain and unknowing, our fear over the unpredictability of life, how do we settle back down? How do we get back to the rational way of thinking? Let’s see if we can work toward lessening the presence of overthinking, worry and rumination in our lives, and when we do experience it, let’s use some tools to contain and process it and become aware of its negative influence on us so we can move more quickly to refuting and moving past it. Here are two techniques I use:

Journaling Clarifies Rumination & Worrisome Thinking

Sometimes I pick up my journal and write down all the shitty little worries and ruminating scenarios so that I can see them in the cold light of day and laugh at how stupid and farfetched they sound. I reason with them and think “Even if they do come true, which is highly unlikely, I can live with that. I won’t die from that.”

I’m working out what I can change and what I can’t. Finding a way to move toward actions that will help and building a sense of acceptance when they won’t. Writing helps clarify that these ruminating thoughts are like heavy sacks of bullshit. They are weighing me down, but they are nothing more than the crappy byproduct of my trying to control and make sense of the nonsensical state of certain situations or deal with my fear of not being able to handle certain life situations.

Journal writing can be very effective for shelving overthinking by pulling your thoughts out of your mind, onto paper, and out into the real world. Once you name and identify the feelings, fears, and negative scenarios you’ve dreamt up, you can reflect on how unlikely and stupid these thoughts have gotten.

You can also tell yourself that you are spending 5-10 minutes writing all about your worry to get it out of your system so you can move on to the rest of your day. You give it some attention but acknowledge that you don’t want it to take over your life. Trying to compartmentalize it this way gives you some control over when and how much overthinking and worry you want to tolerate.

Rein your mind in by giving it a specific task with rules and time limits. After your 5-10 minutes of writing, you move on from this overthinking session and take action in a different direction.

Go back to work, exercise a bit, check in with a friend, and get a great cup of coffee. Do something active that is not related to your prior worry session. That is in the past – you can go back to your journal later (and you will probably see that the worst-case scenario you envisioned did not come to pass). You will learn from that too.

Affirmation Meditation: Redirect Your Mind

The other tool is to shift the mind’s thoughts in another direction. To replace overthinking and worry with other thoughts that are more rational, more calming, and more productive. That’s when affirmation meditations can be useful. You can release the overthinking by giving your brain something else to orient to. You aren’t engaging with these negative thoughts; you are redirecting your mind to a more peaceful and rational state through meditation.

It can be a refreshing rest for the mind. You are also affirming your ability to realize that your negative thoughts are just thoughts, and they probably don’t have any basis in reality and can’t hurt you unless you let them. You slowly shift your mind away from your overthinking and, hopefully, disengage with the negative thoughts. Once you disengage, they go away or at least the intensity lessens.

I've produced some bonus episodes offering guided affirmation meditations, including one on overthinking (due out in a week). These meditations can be done in the moments just after a bout of overthinking or optimally each morning to set intentions to reduce worry and overthinking in your day. They don’t replace taking action, like writing about your worries, but they convey to your mind a new direction and way of thinking (and internally speaking) to lessen your tendency to overthink.

Over time, the overthinking can lessen as you become better able to handle it, and your mind has some armor and defense against it through the self-affirming words you're exposed to during the meditation. Subscribe to the Me-Time Mixtape to get notified when these new bonus episodes drop.

Journal Prompts to Reduce Overthinking

Here are some journal prompts as you move from overthinking to acting on thoughts through expressive writing. Please don’t judge your writing, simply answer these questions and look for patterns. You don’t need to worry about your worry. You are gathering information about yourself and your overthinking – the first step to reducing its control on your life.

If you aren’t an active journaler, you can use these prompts to guide your thinking. Find a quiet, comfortable place and give them some thought.

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Is my overthinking about past failures or challenges more typical of rumination, or is it more likely to be about fear and anxiety for the future (like worry)?
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Is there a pattern to my overthinking? What do I notice about this pattern? When and where it happens? People or activities that bring it on.
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Make a list of 5 activities or hobbies that you could use as positive distractions from your overthinking. Pick 1 or 2 and write about how you could spend 30 minutes engaged in that activity when faced with worry or overthinking.

The time we spend together pondering these ideas is a respite, an escape from worry and overthinking. I’m so grateful that you are making time for us to explore these ideas, and I hope to inspire you to try some of the techniques discussed. Check out the resources in this article and don’t forget to look for those affirmation meditations coming soon as bonus episodes. Thank you for letting me share my poetry and musical musings with you.

Until next time, I hope you stay on the bright side of the beat. 🌞


Podcast Music: My thanks to all the musicians who make incredible music and have the courage to put it out into the world. All music for my podcast is sourced and licensed for use via Soundstripe.

Songs in this podcast episode:

Goose and Lime by Ghost Beatz; Slide by GEMM; Rest by Acreage; Pyaar Kee Seemaen by Cast of Characters

Resources:
What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination and Worry

14 Ways to Stop Overthinking

LTVF Season Two Music Playlist: Check out the songs that inspire me, and connect with artists from many genres who add to our collective, human soundtrack.

Listen to Let the Verse Flow on Your Podcast Player of Choice

You can listen to LTVF on all major podcast apps like Apple, Google, and Spotify. Please rate & review to help spread the word about the podcast!! 💛💜

Check out the resources on this website (and subscribe) to get podcast episodes, poems, articles, music playlists, and journal prompts delivered to your inbox.

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Journaling Resources

30-Day Journal Challenge (Writing Prompts to Get Started)
Here’s a fun & simple 30-day journal challenge for beginners (or those who need inspiration). Use the daily prompts to rediscover yourself.

Sign up for the Let the Verse Flow Newsletter and get access to all my articles, including this free 30-Day Journal challenge (with starter writing prompts).

Journaling 101: An Inspirational Guide to Start (or Revive) a Practice
Whether you write, doodle, draw, or keep memorable quotes, journaling uncovers YOU. Let your unconscious mind speak, download my free guide.

Sign up for the Let the Verse Flow Newsletter and get access to all my articles, including this free journaling guide.


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