Has overthinking a concern ever caused you to feel more anxious, depressed, stressed, drained, or distracted? Everyone faces the daily stress of paying bills/making ends meet, dealing with difficult work situations, trying to win an argument with a spouse, making the right decisions for your kids, planning events, or playing in a big game. Take a moment to think about your overthinking. Did you stick to your original plan or solution? Or did overthinking lead to a better alternative? Did overthinking result in a better, more relaxing life or did it lead to more stress and worry?
The problem lies in our difficulty with just letting go, which is explained through rumination. The original definition of rumination is when a portion of food returns from the stomach to be chewed for a second time, as with cows. The questions is why do we “chew” over these thoughts again and again? Why is it so difficult for us to “let it go?” There are a lot of reasons for why we ruminate, but there are two explanations I encounter most frequently. First, we are able to convince ourselves that overthinking a problem or source of stress will help reveal a better approach or solution to that problem. Of course there is some truth to this, but more often than not, the first approach or solution is the one we stick with. We are inclined to stick with the first solution because we are very skilled problem solvers. We efficiently take in all the available data and quickly formulate a plan. Second, and what I feel is the core reason for our unrelenting rumination, is because overthinking provides us with momentary comfort. Allow me to clarify. We are a culture of doers. We consistently praise hard work, persistence, and determination, while devaluing inactivity and laziness. As a result, when we are faced with a problem there is an almost subconscious sense of discomfort when we are not trying to think of a better solution. It makes us feel good when we ruminate. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing something by simply ruminating. We are uncomfortable when we do not ruminate because we feel worthless because we identify ourselves as being lazy and inactive.” It’s funny how we play these head games with ourselves, even if it is out of our awareness.
The lure of being able to come up with a better solution and the discomfort experienced when not thinking about a problem are why it is so difficult to “just let go” of worry. God forbid we develop a plan for a problem and not think about it again until we have to carry out the plan. But think about how better life might be without this self-created stress.
I’m not advocating for the elimination of rumination. We have to think about our problems, relationships, and job. The ability to identify a concern, problem solve, and plan for the future is what leads to success in life. What I am advocating for is increased awareness of when we begin to ruminate and a conscious decision to determine if rumination is necessary or detrimental.
Take Ed for example. Ed has to pitch an idea at work in one month. There is a lot riding on this pitch: a promotion, increased salary, and reputation to name a few. Ed’s strength is his ability to plan ahead and complete things well in advance, therefore he is finished with the pitch two weeks in advance. He has the presentation finished, he knows exactly what to say, and he is prepared for just about any questions that might be asked. Unfortunately his weakness is rumination. During the two weeks leading up to the pitch he overthinks and second guesses his presentation, a presentation that is already excellent. The rumination causes him to lose sleep, neglect other job responsibilities, eat poorly, not exercise, and constantly argue with colleagues and friends because he is stressed and irritable. In the end, since Ed is good at what he does, the pitch goes according to planned and he gets his promotion and maintains his stellar reputation. But what if Ed learned to let it go? To be able to convince himself to refrain from ruminating for two weeks after the presentation was complete? He wouldn’t have been miserable in the time leading up to the pitch. In addition, if this is common for Ed, all that undue stress would eventually take its toll on his physical, mental, and emotional health, while destroying his interpersonal relationships.