Exercising can help “cure” your overthinking mind by getting you to focus on something external vs. internal.
This is the most common response I receive when people discover I run because I want to. Often, I’ll smile and shrug in response, perhaps an introvert’s typical answer. But if I’m feeling chatty, I might counter their claim by saying, “Actually, running keeps me sane.”
For a “chronic” overthinker such as myself, a regular running schedule has carved out some much-needed headspace for my overly crowded head.
Feel free to raise your hand if this sounds familiar: You’ve been rethinking the same conversation on a loop for a day or two, your mind is fuzzy, and every social interaction, however brief, leaves you somewhat flustered and doubting.
There are many tricks for calming an overthinking mind, but I’ve found mental solace in movement. When I’m outside with just me and my body’s forward motion, suddenly my thoughts get a chance to breathe. Refocusing the mind’s attention on the body can provide much needed rest for an introvert’s buzzing thoughts.
Overthinking — a Blessing and a Curse
For many introverts, our minds take joy in dissecting our world until it’s a jumble of splintered questions and concerns. Introvert, Dear’s Jenn Granneman explores the research showing introverts have more electrical activity in their brains. We tend to be thinkers rather than doers, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But, like many defining characteristics, the introvert’s inclination toward overthinking is both a strength and a weakness.
The underlying goals of overthinking — to be prepared or to understand — can help a person succeed in many ways. If someone’s building a bridge or a skyscraper, I’d rather they spend more time (vs. less) thinking about all the ways to develop and maintain structural integrity.
That being said, there’s a point where overthinking becomes overkill, and the bridge just needs to be built. Or I need to stop editing my research paper and turn it in. Or I need to have that difficult conversation with my friend, for which I’ve developed 12 different scenarios, none of which will likely occur.
When our thoughts go too far, we get stuck. One harmless, circulating thought can spiral into a loop of anxiety or depression. I’ve found, however, that exercise can provide a way of battling our brain demons without accidentally creating more devilish thoughts. By getting out of our heads, introverts can reconnect with our minds on a deeper level, finding rest in our whole person as we unite movement and thought.
The Brain and Stress
The brain is a part of the body. This may be a “duh” statement, but it’s easy to think of the brain and body in separate contexts of mental and physical health (although holistic approaches to health have increased in recent years). But when you engage the body in exercise, you engage the brain.
Alongside its many benefits for cognitive functions, such as memory and alertness, regular exercise gives the brain practice at handling stress. Exercise initiates a temporary stress response in our bodies, which lets our body practice dealing with stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. After exercise, our bodies have lower levels of these stress hormones, which allows us to deal with our general stressors more easily.
Exercise literally helps our (overthinking) brains slow down! It feels poetic: By letting my body run, I let my mind walk. With a little extra blood flow, we can give our brains the tools they need to process our experiences with more logic and less stress. All that said, there are a few main ways you can better manage overthinking before it gets the best of you. (And let’s face it — we’ve all been there.)
3 Ways Movement Can Help Introverts ‘Cure’ Overthinking
1. Ground your mind in the body.
Does anyone experience their whole body tensing up when your mind starts its uncontrollable whirring? Honestly, my answer to this question is often no. I’m so stuck inside my head that I’ve become quite disconnected from my body.
Many therapy techniques, such as yoga or Tai Chi, are rooted in a theory called the mind-body connection. I don’t have the education or time to get into the debate surrounding this fascinating theory (are our minds physical — or a meta-extension of our physical brains?), but these therapies center around the idea that the mind and body are together, so their health is interdependent.
For introverts who enjoy living primarily in our heads, we may sometimes unintentionally neglect our physical needs. (Anyone else forget to eat some days when you get focused?) But whether we like it or not, our minds depend on our bodies for life.
Doing some form of intentional movement can help our minds acknowledge our bodies. And yes, “pain” can be “gain.” The discomfort of sore muscles or heavy breathing can help distract the mind from itself and refocus its attention on the body.
Even though a little discomfort is good in exercise, I’m not saying we need to dedicate ourselves to extreme asceticism. In general, I believe exercise shouldn’t be painful. However, just like it’s healthy to acknowledge a difficult thought or feeling, it’s good to be in touch with our physical aches.
Like many healthy habits, regular exercise can be about finding your own personal balance, some routine that lets you get to know yourself. For an overthinker, I’d recommend a routine that lets your mind get to know your body.
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2. Find what works for you, like running or meditation.
I’ve used running as my personal example, but there are countless other ways overthinkers can move during the day:
- Go to a gym or wellness center. You could lift weights, attend an in-person class, or explore other options. In this piece, Patrick Dale discusses a few strategies for how introverts can have some peace of mind while going to the gym, i.e., exercising alongside strangers.
- Go outside. Running, walking, biking, or hiking can provide the added benefit of being out in nature while also calming down your overthinking mind.
- Find online videos. If you’d rather not exercise with a group, instructional videos are ideal for doing yoga, cardio, dance, etc.
Find a way to move that fits your needs and your body! Finding small moments for intentional movement throughout the day is also helpful. A movement break can be as simple as stretching for a few minutes.
If you find it difficult to refocus your mind during exercise, you might try incorporating meditative practices into your routine. Praying or repeating uplifting phrases during a walk or stretching session can help guide the mind in intentional practices.
3. Schedule time for exercise each day (which is like scheduling time to stop overthinking).
In the midst of overthinking, it can be difficult to realize you’re overthinking, which is why I’d recommend working exercise into your daily routine.
For me, daily exercise has become reliable alone time. Mornings can be an ideal time for extended exercise since they’re naturally quieter, and exercise can jumpstart your brain power for the day. Having a bedtime routine of stretching or yoga can also increase your headspace on a daily basis. You could even plan time to move during a long break during the work day or right after work.
When I get out of a weekly schedule, I’ll find myself taking emergency runs at odd hours of the evening when I realize my mind is too wired to go to bed. I love a good night run, but getting out of my schedule can disrupt other plans, as well as earn me glares from my roommates when I go out alone after dark.
However, sometimes the days get hectic and regular items on the schedule — like exercising — get cut. If you have to stray from your schedule, remember that movement doesn’t have to be extensive to be effective. Even if you feel like you can’t stop and take a break, you can pause during the day for at least five minutes. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes to stretch or take a brief walk. A little can go a long way when it comes to exercise, and I think your brain will thank you in the long run.
It’s About ‘Doing
Like me, I know many of my fellow introverts are head people, or at least, we spend a lot of time there. We like our books, our personal projects, our private spaces where we can mull things over.
But eventually we run into those questions we can’t quite figure out, or our imaginations and daydreaming add elements to an experience that aren’t fully rational. Our brains begin to process until they’ve twisted themselves into an enclosed labyrinth of obsessive thoughts.
When you get mentally stuck, move physically. When you don’t know what to do, moving lets you do something. It can give you a change of scenery and a fresh perspective. Those stress hormones won’t know what hit them.
(And, yes, I absolutely went for a run in the moments where I started to overthink this article.)
Fellow introverts, what do you do to help calm your overthinking brain? Feel free to share your favorite tactics in the comments below!
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