NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Kyle MacDonald: How to stop overthinking things

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald.  Click here for the original article…

“How can you handle the amount of internal dialogue that is normally part of the anxiety and depression thinking cycle?”  Overthinker.

I remember an old saying, that “talking to yourself is the first sign of madness.” Personally I find it’s the only way to guarantee intelligent conversation. Either way, we may not all do it out loud, but in our own heads we all talk to ourselves.

Therapists have a great way of making up labels that state the obvious: In this case, we call it “self talk”. It’s that burble of chatter that’s going on inside our head whether we’re aware of it or not. When I was trained we would talk about the “tape” in your head, but these days we should probably describe it as the “playlist”.

So it’s human and normal. But what is it that you say to yourself, and how do you say it?

The way we talk to ourselves, kindly or not, defines the quality of the relationship we have with ourselves. At the risk of getting too philosophical, it is us. But for people who suffer from depression and anxiety this dialogue can feel like a runaway train of fear and self hate.

We call this “rumination”.

So while saying “you think too much” is never a helpful thing to tell someone who is depressed, it’s largely true.

In depressed people the parts of the brain responsible for emotions, “cognition” (or thinking) and rumination specifically, have more connections to each other than normal: emotions trigger repetitive, runaway thinking.

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Once again, pointing out the obvious, at least to anyone who has experienced depressive rumination.

But here’s the really interesting bit. As little as eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, twenty minutes a day, decreases the density of the brains connections between thinking and emotions.

It literally quiets the mind.

When we engage in mindfulness it doesn’t magically change what we think about, and it certainly doesn’t make everything positive all of a sudden.

It unplugs our thinking from our feelings. Over time, as we get distance between our thoughts and feelings, we can better think about what we feel, describe what our emotions are, and increasingly choose which thoughts and feelings we pay attention.

We get back in control of the train. And we can even change the conversation we have with ourselves, to one that guarantees not so much intelligent conversation, but a kind and supportive one.


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