It’s not unusual in the slightest to find yourself running in circles because of the chatter in your skull. Our inner-voice can be useful at times – like when it comes to remembering a phone number until we get a chance to jot it down – but it can become a source of fuel for anxious and negative overthinking. Fortunately we are not entirely at the whim of out inner-narrator, and calming that voice can help us resolve whatever might be getting lost in the noise or simply bring us back to a restful state.
Listen to yourself
When our thoughts are racing it’s easy to get carried away with the current; it can feel like an overwhelming force that drags you along with it. Yet you have the ability to slow down, to stop and watch from the sidelines as these thoughts race by. Bring your attention to wanting to listen as if you’re supporting a friend who you can tell is feeling overwhelmed. Notice the thoughts but don’t be too quick to react to them, and be discerning when you do.
Give them space to be expressed and to flow out. This is a good way to begin to separate the signal from the noise and gain some insight in to what you are really thinking and feeling. Writing down what thoughts are coming to mind without judgement or trying to resolve them there and then, but simply noting them one by one, is a practical mindful approach to paying attention to your inner-voice.
You don’t need all the answers
As a good listener it isn’t your job to have all the answers or to fix anything. The process of simply hearing yourself out is cathartic; realising that there isn’t necessarily an urgent need to resolve anything can have an impact. Of course there might be some things that come up which should be attended to and recognising these is important. It might be that you’re inner-voice is nagging you to get something done that you’ve been putting off.
Breaking these down in to simpler steps and working on them can also lead to a feeling of positive forward motion and can ease anxiety. However do remember that thoughts will come and go throughout the day, with varying frequency and intensity, and it isn’t possible or at all necessary to chase each of these up as if the contents of your mind are some sort of ethereal to-do list. You can let a thought simply float on by.
If you do feel like taking a more active approach you can apply a traffic light system once you’ve written your thoughts down to help you prioritise which, if any, need your attention. This might be some sort of action to be taken or simply something that came up which you’d like to contemplate. I would advise scheduling these in some way as soon as possible.
Find the right question
Quite often when our thoughts feel frantic we are trying – perhaps ineffectively – to make sense of something. Panicked thinking isn’t likely to be a great strategy to get to the bottom of something. Rather than scrambling for answers it might be worthwhile to refine the question you’re asking; you might not even realise that you’re trying to answer a question or that you have a specific concern until you do this. It might be that the constant stream of thought is an attempt to make sense of uncertain or difficult circumstances in your life or events that are going on in the world.
Accepting that things don’t make sense and that you might not have all the relevant information prevents us from grasping at narratives or explanations just because it’s easier than sitting with those unknowns. From that place of acceptance we can begin to ask better questions, to inquire in the right direction and be curious rather than fearful. Even if you don’t know what your question might be – or if there is one to begin with – you can approach from a creative angle and ask what if I did know?
Notice how your body feels
An overactive mind can be a symptom of a general state of arousal and high-activity. Is your heart racing? Tight chest? Do you find it difficult to sit still? This can be part of a general anxiety response to events in your life, or to unknowns that you encounter. When we are in that space of foreign territory our body and mind is primed to assess and explore which can be overwhelming if you’re sitting on the couch trying to watch TV rather than, as was useful for our ancestors, looking out for venomous snakes while you forage.
Practices like meditation or yoga can be useful to help you familiarise yourself with the sensations in your body and the thoughts and feelings you associate with those areas or aches and pains as you centre your awareness on them. Concentrating on the rhythm of your breath or heartbeat can divert attention from your thoughts and help to ease you in to a more present-moment awareness. Simply moving more slowly, in an exeggerated and intentional manner, can pass on the message to your body that you're in a safe environment which then alters the chemical messages being communicated through the body allowing you to feel more relaxed.
Eat, sleep, move
Ensuring that our basic needs are being met, while fundamental to our well-being, is easy to overlook. When we’re in an overactive anxious state and distracted by thoughts it’s easy to get stuck there instead of being led to address whatever this red-alert is trying to flag up. It can be something as simple as not having had regular enough sleep or your diet not being well balanced that triggers this high-arousal state.
Regulating the time that you wake up is one way to increase your emotional regulation and hopefully reduce symptoms of anxiety such as overthinking. A breakfast higher in protein and fat than it is in carbohydrates also helps to manage anxiety. Exercise and regular movement utilises the additional energy that your system is creating in preparation to respond to a threat which might be something like an overdue bill, so doesn’t in itself require physical exertion.
Most important is to build the habit of responding in a supportive and adaptive way; using the guidelines I'v mentioned should be useful or you might develop methods of your own. It takes persistence to develop new ways of noticing and responding when we default to this sort of mental behaviour but it is achievable.
Regular check-ins can be beneficial, even if you aren't overthinking in that moment, to become accustomed to bringing your awareness to your thoughts without letting them run away with you. Building a practice around this such as meditation or yoga as I mentioned can be useful, and journaling can have similar effects.
An exercise I will recommend is to set a reminder of some sort, an alert on your phone or if you'd prefer an analogue prompt perhaps a rubber band round your wrist or sticky-note on a wall somewhere you pass regularly. Use this as a trigger to stop, breathe, and simply notice what thoughts are floating through your mind in a given moment. Over time this ability to step back and observe your mental landscape becomes easier and can be used as a real-time strategy to help manage your thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses.