One of the most damning symptoms of mental disorders like anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, etc is overthinking. While on the surface it seems like overthinking may help arrive at solutions on how to beat the problem, it rarely works that way in case of these disorders. A person will end up thinking excessively, sinking deeper and deeper into a bog of negativity. When an intrusive thought pops into the mind, the salvation lies in quashing that thought, relegating it to the background as an unhelpful thought, and carry on with your life. But how do you actually do that?
Let’s take an example: Suppose you are going for an interview. You are dressed well, and are well prepared. And as you are walking on the way to your cab, a car whizzes past through a puddle and splashes muck on your freshly pressed trousers. And you realise that you have to go back home to change. And you were already running a little late before that. What happens? Your mind begins to work overtime. You could think that you will be late for the interview and this means you will not get the job because either the interviewer will be angry with you, or someone else will get the offer because you are late, and then you won’t get another job anytime soon, and then your name in the market will be ruined, and so on. Overthinking. Unhelpful overthinking. So what do you do?
Follow this three step method and you should be able to get a grip on your unhelpful thoughts.
Step One: Reach a point where you realise that you are overthinking. Humans are one of the handful of species who have metacognition (we can think about what we are thinking). Being self-aware is a faculty that can be helpful in mastering these errant thought processes. Become mindful of yourself, your surroundings, your thoughts. When you are overthinking and you notice that you are overthinking, don’t let the process continue. Realise that you are overthinking and that you need to stop.
Step Two: Follow the PIC strategy. The PIC strategy helps you put the thoughts in perspective and once you have a better perspective of your thoughts, dealing with them will be easier. There are three elements to the PIC strategy:
1. P – Probability: If you are overthinking about a disaster that you are anticipating, think of the probability of the disaster actually coming true. In the above example, other than the scenarios drawn up, other possibilities exist as well. The previous candidate may still be being interviewed, and you may realise that your reaching late hasn’t impacted your interview process. Or the interviewer may have reached late as well. Or the interviewer may have disregarded the delay and continued with the interview. Or any other scenario that is not at all harmful to your prospect of getting that job. So if you see the possibilities, the probability of the disaster taking place is extremely small.
2. I – Impact: In case, you are very unlucky, and the disaster that you have thought up for yourself, does happen, you need to ascertain the impact of the disaster. Is the impact very large? Or is it just going to be a rap on the knuckles? In the above example, in case you miss this interview and don’t get the job here, will your world come crashing down? Will your prospects be over? Will your life be completely washed out? Or, will you just not get THAT job? Is that such a big thing? So you see, in addition to the probability, even the impact of the disaster (if it comes true) will be small.
3. C – Capability: In case the low probability disaster happens, are you capable of handling the impact or not? In the case of the above example, in case you didn’t get the job, can you handle the impact of it or will not getting the job kill you? Of course not. You will probably manage it easily enough and move onwards to the next job interview. So your capability of handling the disaster is very high.
With the PIC strategy, you will realise that the intensity in your mind was exactly the reverse when you were overthinking. You were overestimating the probability of the disaster, overestimating the impact of the disaster and underestimating your own capability to handle it. But in reality, the probability of the disaster striking is low, the impact is also low, and your capability to handle it, high. Once you have a realisation about this, the intensity of the thoughts will reduce.
Step Three: If the thoughts are intrusive, they most likely will not dissipate just because you have rationalised them, although you will realise the futility of the thought and will be more prepared to handle them efficiently. So after applying the PIC strategy, you can use the Thought Stop method.
The Thought Stop method requires some preparation, in advance. In advance, before a thought strikes, create a repository of happy memories. These memories could be a picnic with the girlfriend, a movie with the boyfriend, a dinner with family, promotion at work, anything. After applying the PIC strategy, when you see that the thoughts are still bothering you, imagine a red neon light which says STOP in large capital letters. And if possible, shock yourself by saying STOP loudly. And then, once the thought has broken for a second, draw from one of these happy memories and live them out in your mind again. In as much vivid detail as possible. What you were wearing, what your girlfriend was wearing, which movie you went for, popcorn, candy, etc. Everything. When you allow this to happen, the impact of the earlier negative thought will reduce and the thought will soon dissipate.
Using this three step method, it will be simpler for you to control your intrusive thoughts, and you can protect yourself from the loop of overthinking.