Many of us can often get into a state of overthinking about a problem, or just life in general. Our mind can end up going round and round in circles, yet we seem to be getting no closer to any kind of clarity or solution and our anxieties and worries only seem to be getting worse.
“Why can’t I get to an answer, and why does thinking about it seem to make things worse not better”, we might wonder.
Often it turns out that the problem is often that you are using thinking at all to try and get out of a problem. The problem is not that we are trying to get a handle on something, but that we are trying to get a handle on it by thinking.
Overthinking can send the mind round and round in circles, generating an anxiety and paralysis that is counterproductive to solving problems. Mindfulness can help with this by placing an extra layer of awareness around our thinking, preventing us from being absorbed into out thoughts and giving us some detachment from them.
In these cases it is often preferable to get into a mindset of observing a problem rather than feeling a need to think it through to some kind of rational conclusion.
Using mindfulness meditation can allow us to observe problems from a more reflective and detached perspective rather than feeling so caught up in it. In the process of taking this meditative distance the answer can sometimes become obvious just by stepping back a little from over-thinking the problem.
When Thinking Gives No Answers or Too Many Answers
It is a common trap for us to fall in to trying to think our way out of any problems that arise in our lives. We can send our mind spinning around in circles ruminating about a problem or how to solve a problem, and if an answer doesn’t come we just try to think more and more in the hope that more thinking will eventually lead to the answer.
Alternatively some people’s minds are so over-active that they produce too many possible solutions to a problem. Some people are too clever for their own good in this regard. Their mind goes racing round thinking of all the possible answers to a problem but they just end up confusing themselves and not knowing which path to take.
Analysis paralysis can take hold as over-thinking just leaves a person stuck and unable to make a decision on how to solve a problem, either because they can’t think their way to a solution or their mind has come up with too many options and confused the situation.
Either way a person feels stuck but absent of any other perspective they just believe they have to think more to find their way out of the problem and viscious cycle continues.
The quote from Einstein that we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it is relevant here. This is often used to implore “out of the box” thinking where people come up with creative solutions to problems by looking at them a different way. This is fine to a point but often just encourages more thinking about a problem, even if it is thinking about things from a different perspective.
What if thinking itself is the problem in some cases? What if more thinking, even from a different angle, just generates more anxiety and further serves to confuse us and tie us in knots with constant analysis and rumination? We can become almost addicted to thinking as a solution to all our problems.
Meditation As An Alternative
In this sense we would like to slightly modify Einstein’s quote and argue that “We can’t always solve a problem with the same mental process that created it“. We argue that sometimes meditative reflection can be a better alternative, as it detaches us from over-thinking and instead trains us just to observe a problem internally by paying non judgemental, curious attention to it in the form of meditation practice.
From this observing can often come a clear insight into a problem, which then allows to see the problem more clearly, and either find an appropriate solution or let it go. The letting go is often an important aspect as we sometimes realize that whatever was bothering us was not even worth worrying about and so there was no need to even go around in circles trying to think our way out of it.
We have jumped slightly ahead here as these kind of observational meditations are actually often used in later stages of practice. In the early stages, introductory mindfulness courses often feature meditations where you simply focus on the breath or some other object, and whenever the mind wanders, simply notice where it has gone and bring it back to the breath or whatever else you were focusing on.
This practice in itself can often serve to quieten an over-active mind and detach us a little from thinking. However, more advanced meditations actually encourage us to actively delve into any problems that arise in our minds during the process by observing them with a curiosity.
There is no emphasis on thinking our way out of problems with meditation; just observing what’s there mentally and emotionally and also connecting it with any physical sensations which are also present in the body. Over time this process can allow us to see problems clearly without needing to obsessively overthink or analyze them.
As a caveat we should mention that to correctly conduct Vipassana or insight meditation does require practice and in the inital stages there is more of a focus on simply noticing whatever is there is terms of five senses and mental patterns and bringing the mind back to an anchor point such as the breath.
Only later on do most courses encourage you to actually stay with problems and look at them more closely from a meditative perspective.
However, even the introductory practice of simply focusing on the breath can serve to quieten the mind and detach us from over-thinking, so anyone who has problems with this can benefit immediately from meditation and should start right now.
The benefits of mindfulness tend to increase with the amount of practice but even a small amount of practice can produce some benefits in a short space of time.
Yuttadhammo: Observing reality (meditating) allows us to understand reality, which in turn allows us to let go.
Western Thinking Often Relies Too Much on Linear, Univariate Analysis
Western society most definitely places thinking and reason above other modes of being. We are taught to think rationally and logically and solve problems with an “A plus B = C” or “this leads to that” mentality. No doubt this thinking is hugely valuable and solves many problems that allow people in the West to enjoy the standard of living we do.
However, this kind of thinking doesn’t always work for a number of reasons. Firstly, some problems are emotional in nature and can’t be solved by merely thinking in a rational sense. “How to attach this shelf to that wall” is a different kind of problem to “should I stay in this relationship?” or “why I am feeling so down at the moment?”.
Secondly, linear Western thinking of cause and effort has problems in it’s own right. For example we often fall into Univariate analysis when looking at problems from a rational perspective, trying to identify one source of a problem in a “Factor A leads to problem B” way of thinking.
This way of looking at problems does not always work since there are often multiple factors which contribute to problems in our lives, not just one. In fact it is rarely the case that one factor alone alone contributes to a problem and it is a trap we can fall into to try and reduce every problem we face down to one single cause to one single effect.
For example, addicts who are in the process of overcoming their addiction will often find that it is almost never the case that one factor alone lead to or drives their addiction. Most often they find several factors at play driving their addiction, including trauma, emotional issues, dissatisfaction with work, lack of meaningful connection in their lives and so on.
When they begin to untangle their addiction they find it is not so simple as one cause to one effect and they must address all factors that are in play and not just one to successfully tackle the addiction. Their have look at their addiction from a multivariate perspective and not a univariate one. The same is often true for other mental problems.
So whilst in many cases thinking about a problem too much can itself be the problem, it is also sometimes true as Einstein said that the wrong type of thinking can lead to dead ends.
Meditation can offer an alternative as we mentioned but if thinking has to be used then it is at least important to be aware of the trap of univariate cause and effect thinking and realize that more often than not it is multiple factors contributing to a problem and not just one.
Perhaps there is a “sweet spot” between thinking and meditative reflection for some problems, where a little bit of each can complement each other. Ultimately it depends on the person and the problem though and there is no formula.
We only seek to point out though that over-thinking is a definite trap some people fall into and mindfulness can offer a totally different way of addressing problems that can help people untangle from the mental knots they can tie themselves in through too much thinking.
How to Get Into Meditation
There are loads of introductory meditation courses online that can get you started on the subject, but one of the most accessible is Mark Williams’ excellent 8 week starter course on mindfulness meditation for beginners.
If features a series of slightly different meditations, which are run through on a week by week basis. If you practice each meditation on a daily basis then you will likely notice a detachment from over-thinking and a general increase in calmness in a relatively short period of time.
It is an excellent alternative for compulsive thinkers as it offers a totally different approach to problems and the mind in general. It allows us to tackle problems more indirectly through paying mindful attention and observing inner and outer experiences, rather than trying to approach them directly by trying to “think” what the answer is.
Later on the practice focuses more on actually delving into problems to see them more clearly, but all of the meditations will serve to quieten an over-active mind as they detach us from thinking and move us more to non judgemental awareness and observation.
It can be a refreshing change for someone who has grown so used to trying to think their way out of problems that thinking has become almost an addiction.
We have embedded the first video in the series below, as well as link to the other ones. It is a highly recommended introduction to mindfulness for beginners who have become trapped by thinking and are looking to approach problems from a different angle altogether.
Mindfulness Course – Week 1 – Breathing Anchor
- Week 2 & 3 – Body Scan
- Week 4 – Breath and Body
- Week 5 – Sounds and Thoughts
- Week 6 – Exploring Difficulties
- Week 7 – Befriending
- Week 8 – 3 Minute Breathing Space
See also Yutthadhammo Bhikkhu’s brief 3 part introduction to meditation
- How to Meditate I – What is Meditation?
- How to Meditate II – Sitting Meditation
- How to Meditate III – Walking Meditation
You can convert these videos into audio files if you wish using a Youtube to MP3 Converter so you have a portable version to take around with you on MP3 players and other devices.
See also our Mindfulness Resources page for links to some books and more great resources on Mindfulness
Other Resources For Overthinking
Here are some other quick suggestions for resources which can help with overthinking, anxiety and an overactive mind in general.
1. Exercise – Engaging in exercise, particularly intensive exercise, can be a good way to reduce anxiety and calm an overactive mind. It is a great way of discharging or converting the negative energy that often comes with anxiety into something else.
2. Bilateral Stimulation – Using video/audio recordings, which feature bilateral stimulation – where there is alternating stimulation of the left and right hemispheres of the brain – can be a very effective way to calm and overactive mind and racing thoughts. You can look upon this as a more powerful form of mindfulness when it is used properly.
See here for a very effective and cheaply available bilateral stimulation/nature sounds recording from Dr James Alexander’s website. I have used it myself and have found it to be very effective in calming an overactive mind. Other recordings are available on YouTube, with varying effectiveness.
See also our article on audio and visual bilateral stimulation for more on how this method works.
3. Medication – In some cases, it may be useful to use some kind of medication to help calm down an overactive mind in the short term. Always discuss with a doctor what options may be suitable in this regard.