Decluttering my mind: How I learned to stop overthinking

28 May 2020
By Daniel, Writer at Unite Students

I am a ruthless wardrobe declutterer. Every now and then I fill a big bag of stuff and take it to my local BHF shop. Some of the more valuable things go on eBay. It’s a weekend task I do about once a quarter.

But as well as being a ruthless wardrobe declutterer, I’m also guilty of overthinking a lot. I can tie myself up in knots with worry, spending hours chasing the same irrational thoughts around my head.

The thing about overthinking is, it almost never shows you a happy ending.

So I started thinking about how to stop overthinking.

Is it possible to declutter a mind the way you’d declutter a wardrobe? Could I chuck out an unwanted thought like an unloved jumper?

Turns out it is and I could, as I discovered one weekend when I found myself in an overthinking loop of epic proportions.

Here’s how I stopped it.

I got out of bed

Overthinking, for me, is a movie that never ends. I pause it when I go to sleep, then press play as soon as I wake up. It has only a few scenes and it plays on a loop. Now, I love a self-indulgent, indie movie as much as the next guy - but I don’t want to watch a really rubbish one on a loop all the time.

One Sunday, not long ago, I woke up thinking the same unhelpful thoughts I’d gone to bed with. So I decided I would interrupt them. I got up and had a shower, then breakfast, and started to do things. Recognising when you’re in an overthinking loop is the first step towards breaking out of it.

I put a wash on

The thing about overthinking is, it almost never shows you a happy ending. Nine times out of 10, this movie in my head is an epic, end-of-the-world disaster flick. What helps then, at these moments, is a sense of perspective.

I decided I could either catastrophise about things that might happen, or I could do something to improve my actual life now. So I put a wash on. This mundane task reminded me that my life really isn’t that epic or disastrous. Plus, it’s nice to have clean pants.

I went for a walk

Think and think and think, and you lose the ability to make any decision that might improve things. Say what you like about the amygdala, but it can’t do anxiety and action at the same time. Movement is a great way to override this.

So I went for a walk. I climbed a massive hill and felt my thighs and lungs burn, my heart thump. I stood at the top and watched the city below as the wind blew my hair into ridiculous shapes. I was present in my body and my surroundings, instead of lost in my thoughts.

I read a book and watched a film

If awareness of your intrusive thoughts is the first step, thinking about something else is the second. It’s not about trying to banish your worries altogether, it’s about postponing them until you can think about them more constructively. Distract yourself with a task.

When I got back from my walk, I read 20 pages of Angela Carter and fell asleep on my sofa. Then I watched a South Korean movie and ate biscuits. It’s harder to overthink your life when you’re reading about half-swan humans, following subtitles, or gobbling Hobnobs.

I went to bed early

Nighttime can be tough for an overthinker. Most people know how it feels to stare at the ceiling with a racing mind. But good sleep is vital to calming it down. Rest helps you think more clearly and rationally, making you better equipped to deal with stress and anxiety.

I don’t sleep too well when I’ve got a lot on my mind. But I also have habits that make things worse. So I decided to uninstall Instagram. I got into bed at 9pm instead of 10. I read my book for 30 minutes instead of staring at my phone for an hour. I slept better.

Unsure how to stop overthinking? Try this

Lots of people know how it feels to fixate on something, especially if you feel it’s outside of your control and you’re worried about what’s going to happen. It’s perfectly natural.

Next time you find yourself lost in an unwanted thought-loop, give some of these things a try. They might make you feel calmer and more in control too. But if they don’t help and you feel like you need support, speak to your student services team or your GP for advice.

The thing about overthinking is, it almost never shows you a happy ending.
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Daniel is a writer at Unite Students.