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Overthinking and Stuck in Your Head

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

One of the most common reasons that clients tell me they seek psychotherapy is because they have a tendency to be “too in their heads.” It breaks my heart to hear the various stories in which clients have missed out on opportunities as a result of being “too closed off, inaccessible, or emotionally shut down.”

This particular subject matter is also close to my heart because I can 100% relate! As a therapist, I am trained to be an expert analyzer, listener, and guide. It can be very easy to get stuck in this mode of analysis and neglect the body and heart. What I had learned, over time, is that too much head and not enough heart had led me to be perceived as cold and unemotional.

The worst part is that I had no idea! I thought I was being open, vulnerable, and accessible to my clients, friends, and family; however, come to find out that was only true some of the time and not even close to being true compared to my perception.

I remember one time a friend had even thrown out the term “ice queen” and it completely took me by surprise. I look back on that moment now and have the utmost respect for this friend for it was this comment that set me on a journey of self-discovery and it woke me up to things that had been residing in my blind spots.

Today, while it is still not always easy, I practice compassion, self-love, vulnerability, and bravery every day. Now I don’t even recognize the woman I used to be. Transformation can be funny that way.

It has become my mission to share the tips, coping skills, and guidance with each and every one of my clients and it is my hope that they are able to glean some benefit as well. I’d like to share some these tips with you so that everyone can benefit!

Here is a list of ways in which you can stay stuck in your head:

1) The trap of overthinking – overthinkers tend to create the illusion that they will be able to solve a problem faster and with greater excellence if they analyze the crap out of it! However, this is a trap. Oftentimes, the only thing we actually do wind up accomplishing is creating more grounds for further overthinking and a stomach ulcer.

Neurologically, what we are doing is creating neural networks (connections that our brain makes to help us keep doing something) that keep us stuck in this unhelpful pattern. In other words, the more often that we overthink, the more automatic it becomes and over time it becomes a habit. The longer the habit, the harder it is to break.

2) Anxiety about the future – 70% of our brain is wired to see the bad in things, this is also known as negative bias. While this statement can be sobering in its own right, it’s important to understand that this is as a result of survival. Humans are primed to be on the lookout for threats to their safety so that they are prepared to either fight or flee from the threat. In turn, we are better prepared to conquer the threat and are more likely to survive.

The problem is that in the modern age, there are far less threats to our survival but far more perceived threats (I.e. insults, rejection, condescension, judgment, ostracism from a group). While these threats are oftentimes not deadly, the mechanism still kicks in regardless and the result is a brain that is consistently activated and ready to defend itself quickly.

No wonder we have so much anxiety!

What happens is, over time, we begin to become constantly fixated on anticipating the next threat and can become obsessed with this state of fear. As this occurs, it takes us further and further out of the moment and further removed from relationships, self-care, leisure and recreation, etc.

Oftentimes, without even knowing it, we begin to avoid giving attention to important domains of our lives and this can even lead to neglect. This can lead to health problems, loss of relationships, crippling depression, and anxiety as a way of being.

3) Avoidance/overly focus on other people – this one tends to affect parents and caregivers most often but can affect everyone at any given time. When we direct our attention outward it becomes easier to deny how we’re feeling on the inside. Additionally, when it is our profession or role as a parent to help others, we begin to adopt the false belief that we are responsible for the well-being of others, this can very quickly become a problem.

[Distinction: parents are responsible for being a guide, setting and enforcing boundaries, and teaching their children morals and values but they are not responsible for how the child feels about and reacts to these things].

This is also how individuals begin to lose their identity – they become so wrapped in their role as a guide/teacher/mentor/authority that they stop putting their needs first. Over time, putting others first becomes a way of being and the individual suffers.

4) Lack of awareness – sometimes I will see clients who are truly stumped when it comes to figuring out why they are so unhappy. Through a process of analysis, it is often found that the client was never taught how to express emotions during childhood.

This leads to the individual living their life according to others’ morals and values because they never learned to identify their own wants and needs. Therefore, they never ask for nor pursue these wants and needs and they are left feeling unfulfilled.

This is often why mid-life crises occur – the individual becomes so used to doing things because he/she was “supposed to” do them, according to family values and societal values, but never really understood why they were doing them (i.e. get married, have kids, work in high stress yet unfulfilling jobs).

5) I have to be perfect – vulnerability is a carefully crafted skill that takes time to practice and master. In Western culture, the perception is that showing emotions is a sign of weakness and therefore should not be shown if you want to be taken seriously. This value is crippling us as human beings as it creates a message that it is not safe to feel nor express emotions. This is in stark contradiction with how we are wired, how our brains work, and what we are designed to do: connect. Perfection is a nonexistent standard that keeps us quiet yet keeps us striving for something that we’ll never reach.

Ways to get out of your head:

1) Talk it out – talking to others seems so simple but is often easily dismissed. Opening ourselves up to others is one of the best ways to reduce shame, increase vulnerability, feel connected, and most of all, it helps us feel not alone. Everyone suffers. When we stop denying this fact and start connecting with others regarding the universality of suffering, the world begins to heal.

Recommendation: call one friend or family member every day for 30 days and journal about your experience. Notice what opens up for you and notice how it makes you feel overall.

2) Stay present – meditation is one of the best ways to practice being present in the moment. It is so easy to get bogged down by thoughts of the past and paralyzed by fears of the future. Taking 10-30 minutes each day to just be present with your thoughts and feelings can have a dramatic effect on restructuring the brain so that it is primed to receive and give joy more consistently. It helps to overcome our natural programming for negative bias as well.

Recommendation: Download a meditation app to help get you started. I like Headspace and Insight Timer. Meditate every day for 30 days and journal your experience.

3) Thought replacement – when you notice that you are getting stuck in your head try to recognize it right away, this brings awareness to the onset of the problem. Once you notice that your head is filling up with negative thoughts and judgments, make it a habit to immediately replace these thoughts with positive ones. Over time, this also restructures the brain so that thinking positively and feeling better become second nature as opposed to feeling sad/lonely/angry/resentful/depressed right away.

Recommendation: make a list of replacement thoughts. Choose your top 5 and right them on a Post-it note. Place this Post-it note on your mirror or somewhere you are likely to see it several times thoughout the day. This will serve as a reminder to replace your thoughts often.

4) Take a walk – the mechanism of activating the right side of your body followed by the left side of your body in a subsequent fashion has been scientifically found to be responsible for the calming effect we feel while we walk. Walking releases endorphins and increases serotonin which elevates our mood. When we give our minds a task such a walking it becomes more focused on the biological processes that are taking place and allows for less attention on our thoughts.

Recommendation: take a 20 minute walk every day to train your mind and body to elevate your mood and change the habit of staying stuck in your head.

Staying stuck in your head can actually be a much bigger problem than people are typically willing to admit. Further, the very nature of the problem prohibits you from reaching out and asking for help. Kept in for too long, this leads to degeneration, disease, burn out, and a host of mental health issues.

If you’re stuck in your head and not sure how to get out, connect with one of the best counselors in Charlotte today.

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