For Many Introverts, the Pain of Overthinking Is Real
Dear Introverted Overthinker,
I see you over there in that corner, avoiding others so they don’t interrupt everything ruminating in your mind. It’s a sick cycle that keeps repeating itself. The more we overthink, the deeper we get. Maybe we’re overreacting? Maybe everything we’re stressing over is only in our heads? After all, that’s what everyone loves to tell us.
But there’s a feeling in your gut that tells you to keep stressing for a reason. What that reason is, you may never know.
Overthinking can sabotage so much. But it also shows us when something is important to us. I know, because I’ve been in your position before — I’m always overthinking something. It gets to the point of wishing I could be blissfully ignorant of everything around me.
I don’t just overthink things. I also feel all those thoughts deeply. In other words, when I overthink things, I really go for it.
There are times when you need to unload to someone trustworthy. There are long, painful nights when you’re torn between wanting to be alone and wanting to be held while you share everything running through your mind. Sometimes we make the mistake of trusting the wrong person. We put our innermost thoughts in the hands of a familiar stranger, i.e., someone we know yet can’t connect with on a deeper level no matter how hard we try.
You know this type of person.
Once those people show us they’re not fully equipped to handle us, we’re at a standstill, regretful of who we’ve opened up to while feeling even more alone in the process.
Why Introverts Overthink
Why do introverts overthink? Probably because our brains are busier than a stadium on game day. In one study, researchers found that introverts had higher levels of electrical activity in their brains than extroverts. It didn’t matter whether the introverts were resting or doing a task — they all showed more brain activity than extroverts.
More mental activity means introverts process more information per second than extroverts, which helps explain why we “quiet ones” overthink.
Another possible reason has to do with which areas of our brains are most active. Neuroimaging studies found that two areas of the brain associated with overthinking — the frontal cortex and Broca’s area — were very active in introverts. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for remembering, planning, decision-making, and problem-solving (sounds like overthinking to me), while Broca’s area is associated with self-talk (what you say to yourself in your mind).
That’s why finding an off switch for my mind isn’t easy. Believe me when I say that getting a good night’s sleep has become a rare occurrence.
How to Cope When Your Mind Won’t Shut Off
I’ve found a few things to be helpful when my mind is miles ahead of me, and I’d like to share them with you:
1. Seek comfort
Whether it be music, a book, watching a good movie, or curling up in bed with a stuffed animal (if you have a pet, this works too — lucky!), comfort is the number one thing we seek when we can’t regain focus. Whatever safely helps calm you down, find it.
2. Write it out
Get out a journal and write down everything that’s making you stressed. Try creating a pros and cons list. Sometimes I rip off the cons side and focus only on the pros.
And you know what? It works.
If you want to shake things up a bit, try keeping only the cons around. Focusing on the cons will remind you of what you’re getting yourself into in the long run. If you’re finding it easier to list cons, that might be your clue that you shouldn’t do whatever it is you’re thinking about doing.
This isn’t for everyone, but I find that letting go of all that pent up stress does wonders, especially late at night. Interestingly, after crying for a while, our breathing and heart rate slow, and we enter a calmer emotional state, according to Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom. Tears may shed the hormones and other toxins that accumulate in our bodies when we’re stressed. Studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, which are hormones that naturally soothe pain and make us feel good.
4. Take a walk
Seriously. Get out of the house and take a stroll somewhere you can gain some clarity. It doesn’t have to be far. Try a park or some place with pretty scenery. I usually find that things become clearer once I get out of my room. If you’re lucky enough to be outside on a sunny day, you’ll get an added benefit: Sunlight boosts the levels of a natural antidepressant in the brain.
5. Talk it out
This one can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a good support system. If you don’t have a trusted friend you can to turn to, seek a skilled therapist or or join a supportive online group. The key word in that last sentences is “supportive,” because not all online groups are. Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective to clear things up and help you see things differently.
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6. Take action
As introverts, we may put off making a decision because we’re looking for the “perfect” or “right” solution, which of course, leads to overthinking. Instead of waiting for the perfect choice, become a person of action when it comes to “little” decisions like going to a party or buying those shoes. In many situations, making any decision is better than not making a decision at all. Once the decision is made, your brain can move onto other things, and that sense of closure makes anxiety and overthinking dissipate.
For bigger issues — like what college to attend or if you should break up with your significant other — take small steps to move yourself forward and only focus on one step at a time. If your choice doesn’t feel right, you have permission to change your mind.
I know it sounds simple written down, but breathing reduces stress. The key is to breathe deeply from your abdomen, getting as much air as possible into your lungs. Try these techniques from HelpGuide.org:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
Then, imagine yourself letting go of whatever is bothering you.
8. Realize you’re only human
This is the most important step. Sometimes we forget we’re only human and we cannot solve every problem right away. There is only so much one person can do, and the sooner we realize it, the better off we’ll be.
Just breathe and remember that you’ve got this! Once everything is settled, you’ll wonder why you drove yourself crazy in the first place. I think that calm feeling at the end of it all is something we can all agree feels amazing. Nothing is ever as bad as it may feel.
Now if only I could get better at taking my own advice…