Why We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever

meditation illustration

With the way we’re living in the world today, many of us struggle with stress, anxiety, and other harmful mental states. Many people struggle with worrying, overthinking, or ruminating. Some struggle with “monkey mind,” with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. In some cases, we’re too frazzled to have a rich inner life, and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the day and concerns of the world.

Enter meditation.

With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Meditation is a means of quieting and focusing our mind.

Though we can stop there if we wish, focusing only on the psychological benefits, we’d be missing a big part of the point—and the other potential benefits. As a time-honored practice in several religious traditions, with roots in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, meditation is a contemplative practice intended to help us achieve greater spiritual insight. It can awaken our compassion and help us feel more connected to others, potentially including all beings, God, and the universe. And for some, it can lead to a more mindful and enlightened state of awareness and existence.

That leads us to the deeper territory of mindfulness. So, what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to meditation?

 

Mindfulness

According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past.” Quite simply, we can think of it in terms of just three words:

Be here now.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

When we’re mindful, we’re fully aware of the present moment while calmly noticing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in or judging them. Mindfulness is both a state and a practice. When we’re practicing it, we deliberately refocus our attention on experiencing the present moment, or what spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle calls “the now.”

Mindfulness has seen a surge of interest in recent years—from mindfulness in the workplace (including at companies including Aetna, Alphabet, BlackRock, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, Meta, Pixar, and more) and mindful eating to the rapid spread of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs at medical schools, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.

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The Link between Meditation and Mindfulness

Though some people use the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same.

Meditation is a practice that can lead to a state of mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is one of several forms of meditation. (See below for examples of different types of meditation.)

 

The Benefits of Meditation

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to changes in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, brain imaging studies reveal that a half-hour of daily mindfulness meditation can increase the density of gray matter in the parts of the brains associated with memory and empathy.

According to researchers, meditation has many beneficial physical effects, including potential improvements in:

  • blood pressure
  • metabolism
  • immune response
  • sleep
  • longevity
  • alleviation of pain (including chronic pain)

Researchers also point to many mental and emotional benefits. For example, meditation, when done well over time, can:

  • improve brain activity and cognitive function (including mitigation of cognitive decline)
  • enhance attention, focus, and concentration
  • improve our mood and increase positive emotions that help provide resilience against negative emotions
  • help us cultivate self-awareness
  • promote empathy and compassion
  • decrease our anxiety and emotional reactivity
  • help us manage and reduce worrying and rumination
  • help improve performance on specific tasks (e.g., ones that require attention and accuracy)
  • help us manage our cravings (e.g., if we struggle with alcohol or overeating)
  • help us overcome burnout
  • help reduce symptoms of depression

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Different Types of Meditation

With its long history through the ages and its practice in different parts of the world, it’s not surprising that there are many different ways to practice meditation. Here are several different types of meditation:

Mindfulness meditation. We observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. Many people consider focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation as branches of mindfulness meditation.

Body scan meditation. We direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over different regions of our body, from head to toe.

Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation). We silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves and people we love—and perhaps other people we don’t know or even rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.

Transcendental meditation. We use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for a certain period of time or turn our attention within and end up with simple being, perhaps leading to what’s called “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

Death meditation (maranasati). We meditate on the fact that death can strike at any time. The idea is that being mindful of death can help us live well. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

 

Mindfulness Practices

Beyond meditation itself, there are also other things we can do to help make us more mindful. Here are several:

Deep breathing practices. During deep breathing practices (also included in many different types of meditation), we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include exercises like box breathing, in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.)

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—the key to all inner transformation.”
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in everyday activities mindfully. When we’re doing something—anything—we can place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. For example, we can focus on the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating, or on the sensations and smells of the dishes we’re washing.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The goal here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction so we can be more mindful about what we’re doing and experiencing.

Play the “game of fives.” Notice five things in our immediate vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to imagine that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that thing. When we do this, all our attention moves to what we’re noticing in the now. (1)

Find sanctuary. Find or create places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart—and build them into the flow of our lives. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our busy days and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, awe, and wonder.

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Resources

  • Greater Good Science Center’s guide to mindfulness practices
  • UCLA Health guided meditations
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
  • Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
  • Calm app

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Meditation and Mindfulness

  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise.” -Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian Hindu monk, yogi, and guru
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and writer
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer
  • “You can learn more in an hour of silence than you can in a year from books.” -Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.” -Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

(1) A similar approach is the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Reframing to Change Our Outlook

reframing

Article Summary:

Many of us suffer with a large volume of negative thoughts. Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. On the power of reframing.

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Many of us are walking around much of the time in a mild state of anxiety, frustration, or negativity, and it colors almost everything we think and do. Our thought-streams are heavy with negative self-talk, worrying, rumination, and harsh self-judgment from our unhealthy propensity to engage in flawed and superficial comparisons. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias: we tend to over-focus on negatives and underweight positives.

One factor at work here is the prevalence of cognitive distortions, which occur when our thought patterns are flawed or irrational—and usually unhelpful or even damaging. Common cognitive distortions include:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Discounting the positive
  • All-or-nothing thinking: imagining there are only great or terrible outcomes to a situation
  • Blaming: finding fault with others or circumstances instead of looking within
  • Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion
  • Overgeneralizing: seeing negative events as an ongoing pattern of problems
  • Mind-reading: making assumptions about what others are thinking (e.g., that people are judging us negatively), with little or even no evidence
  • Mental filtering: focusing only on negatives and ignoring positives
  • Emotional reasoning: drawing conclusions or labeling ourselves from how we feel (e.g., leaping from “I felt stupid in that meeting today” to “I am stupid”)
Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”
-Byron Katie, Loving What Is

The problem with such thinking traps and cognitive distortions is that they have an array of negative influences, including:

  • loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility
  • sense of helplessness
  • more stress
  • lower confidence, wellbeing, and joy
  • reduced motivation
  • lower performance
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is also dangerous in teams and organizations, because such negative thinking can become normalized and spread rapidly through groups, poisoning the culture. Whole teams can get stuck in downward spirals of negative thinking.

What to do about it? Enter cognitive reframing.

 

Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing—also known as cognitive restructuring—entails shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a more helpful perspective. With such reframing, we can replace flawed or destructive thought patterns with better ones. In doing so, we can change the way we view people, situations, and even memories—and thus our experience of living and our behavior.

The essential idea behind reframing is that the frame through which a person views a situation determines their point of view. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes, and thinking and behavior often change along with it.-Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Reframing

When our mental frameworks are causing us distress, cognitive reframing can help us shift them to more helpful ones. This has all sorts of benefits, including positive effects on our mood, mental health, general wellbeing, and self-esteem.

Reframing can help us promote gratitude and appreciation, attract new opportunities, strengthen relationships, reduce stress, and manage loss and grief. Perhaps this explains why cognitive reframing is used to treat a variety of conditions, including: addiction, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, pain disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and stress.

 

Practical Reframing Approaches

Reframing is something we can all do, whether we’re students, parents, workers, salespeople, managers, or CEOs. It’s relevant across all areas of life, from personal happiness and marriage to teamwork and work performance.

There are many different reframing approaches. Here are several of the main ones:

Asking questions and investigating the evidence. When we’re experiencing negative thought-streams, we can ask ourselves if there are other ways to look at the situation. What evidence supports this thought, and what evidence contradicts it? If we’re judging ourselves harshly, we can ask what our manager, colleagues, and/or staff would say about our work.

Puzzle framing. We can reframe problems not as weights that bring us down but as puzzles to be solved. Problems are a downer, but puzzles come with challenge, fun, and mystery. Here, we can take a cue from Quincy Jones:

I don’t have problems. I have puzzles….
I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses me out.”
-Quincy Jones, record producer, songwriter, and composer

Reframing failure. A manager who sees people on the team making mistakes can jump right into corrections and reprimands, or the manager can reframe it as evidence that team members are stretching themselves, trying new things, and attempting to innovate. All these, of course, are essential for high performance over the long haul.

Three gifts. In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes about the “three-gifts technique”: when facing a bad situation, we brainstorm three scenarios in which that situation could turn into an opportunity or even a gift. It could take days, months, or years to unfold, but the situation ends up having benefits. Example: the head of sales of a company that had recently lost its biggest customer was initially skeptical about this exercise but, with some thought, she realized:

  1. It could be a wake-up call for the company that it’s losing its edge, thereby triggering more urgency in new product development, which could attract many more clients over time.
  2. The loss could help the sales team be more open to new skill development.
  3. It could free up the service staff to provide better service to existing customers, resulting in more referral sales.

Gratitude recasting. Here, we change the focus from a regret or loss to what we’re grateful for. Example: If a grandparent regrets not having had enough time with the grandchildren when they were younger, a recast could be: I’m grateful for the time we did spend together, and we still have time to get to know each other and do fun things.

According to researchers, subjects who engaged in grateful recasting had more healing, closure, and redemption as well as less unpleasant emotional impact from upsetting experiences. They also demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why a bad event happened, whether it could’ve been prevented, and whether they caused it.

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity.”
-Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis

“The work.” In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie notes that we’re all a mirror of our own thinking coming back at us. Her methodology of “inquiry,” with its four questions, is a powerful form of reframing. When we have a troubling thought, she notes, we can ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can we absolutely know it’s true?
  3. How do we react when we believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would we be without the thought?

Context reframing. Here, we change the way we think about the set of circumstances around our challenges. For example, if our flight is delayed, instead of focusing on the hassle, we can pause to consider the larger context of having so much wealth and privilege to be able to fly to places we want or need to go.

Stop taking things personally. In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz notes that most of the things we experience in the world aren’t directed toward us, though we assume they are. Too often, we’re quick to take personal offense and let resentment fester. Instead, we should consider the likelihood that the situation had nothing to do with us: perhaps the person who made that comment was having a bad day or is struggling with some personal challenges or past traumas—or just lacks emotional intelligence or social grace?

Multidimensional view. In her book, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life, Laurie Polich Short recommends viewing things through four lenses:

  1. Big view lens, to view our lives from a broader perspective
  2. Present view lens, to help us see what we’re missing now—and what each moment can bring
  3. Rear view lens, to help us see how we’re wired and how our past is affecting us so we can retain faith for what’s ahead
  4. Higher view lens, to help us see that our life may be given to us for a purpose much bigger than ourselves, in the process seeing more of what God wants us to see
Where we choose to focus makes all the difference in what we see.”
-Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life

Quality of Life Assessment

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Examples of Reframing in Action

Those reframing approaches can lead to an incredible array of possibilities in virtually all areas of our life and work. Here are examples of this phenomenon in action in common scenarios:

If we’re stuck in traffic, instead of getting frustrated, we can appreciate the opportunity to practice deep breathing or listen to nice music or interesting podcasts.

When facing a challenging situation, we can ask ourselves questions like: Is there another way to look at this? What are some other possible reasons for it? What would I say to a friend faced with this?

If we have limiting beliefs, we can simply add the word “yet” to our thoughts about them or change the focus to things we know we can do. For example:

Limiting Belief Reframe
“I can’t do this.” “I can’t do this yet.”
“I’ve never led anyone before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out. I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
“I’m not good enough to manage this project.” “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable. And I have what it takes to figure this out.”

If we’re feeling helpless, we can change our focus from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to address our challenges, much like becoming a detective trying to solve a mystery.

If we’re feeling stuck, we can realize that we’re never truly stuck because we always have the capacity to generate new ideas, as Dave Evans and Bill Burnett point out in their book, Designing Your Life.

When feeling nervous about public speaking or leading a meeting, we can change our focus from fears of screwing up and being embarrassed to a more positive frame: Great, all this adrenaline shows that I care and will give me the energy to share my passion for this subject.

Every single important thing we do is something we didn’t use to be good at,
and in fact, might be something we used to fear
.”

-Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author

If we’re struggling with a daunting transition, we can view it as a challenge to overcome or even an exciting opportunity for learning, growth, and adventure.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman

If we’ve been handed a tough assignment at work, instead of dreading and resenting the pressure, we can view it as an opportunity to learn something new and raise our profile by adding more value to the team.

When we receive tough feedback or criticism, instead of shutting down and feeling resentment or self-righteousness, we can extract value from the feedback, noting that it can help us improve—and that it shows the person cares about our development.

If team members are feeling frustrated and disempowered, they can reframe their mindset about their role (and manager). Too often, workers give too much deference to their managers or are too quick to abdicate responsibility for what’s happening in the organization, blaming people in positions of authority. The best workers do all they can to help the organization achieve its goals. This means taking risks, shaking things up, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, asking tough questions, and letting their manager know what they need to succeed).

If managers are concerned about conflict on a team, they can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence. (See my article, “Why Conflict Is Good—And How to Manage It.”)

If we’re struggling with micromanagement or a need to swoop in and save people, we can change how we see a situation involving someone in need. For example, instead of believing the thought that the person will suffer without our help, we can note how the person can develop new coping skills that will serve them well going forward.

 

Conclusion: The Power of Reframing

Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. This will help us become more resilient.

For reframing to work, we must learn to recognize distorted thinking and have the motivation to change our ways. Since our thought patterns can be deeply engrained, sometimes it’s wise to get help from a therapist or coach.

Reframing can be the difference between a life of frequent disappointment and one with more satisfaction and ease. What’s more, its effects are cumulative. Positive thought-streams have favorable effects that ripple out, helping us and others.

Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it.”
-Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles and Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Power of Reframing

  • “It’s only a thought and a thought can be changed.” -Louise Hay, author
  • “The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” -Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned meditation teacher and best-selling author
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust, The Captive
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Everything can be taken from a man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “The secret to living your best life lies largely in your ability to see all that is in front of you.” -Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything
  • “There is enough light for those who choose to see, and enough darkness for those who are of a contrary disposition.” -Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher
  • “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” -Matthew 6:23-23 NIV

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Our Negative Self-Talk: 15 Practices

How to Stop Our Negative Self-Talk: 15 Practices

Many of us struggle with negative self-talk—an inner critic that savagely sabotages us with doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”
-Shirzad Chamine, executive and best-selling author

 

How to Stop Our Negative Self-Talk

There are many things we can do to hush the inner critic in our head.

  1. Doing breath work: breathing deeply and intentionally (as in yoga, meditation, and “box breathing”). This will change our physical and mental state.
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
  1. Noticing our thoughts more: observing the things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “I’m being overly critical again”) and let them go.
  2. Practicing self-compassion: treating ourselves with understanding and warmth in difficult times and recognizing that we all make mistakes. With self-compassion, we can give ourselves grace, forgive ourselves, and move on.
  3. Being curious about or fascinated with the issue we’re concerned about—a more positive frame.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

  1. Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations that don’t involve harsh self-judgment.
  2. Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest. (Consider reciting the “serenity prayer.”)
  3. Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  4. Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

  1. Asking questions to understand why we’re feeling a certain way and how things might be changed.
  2. Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  3. Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or a puzzle or mystery that we can solve.
  4. Playing and having fun. (Play often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.)
  5. Taking action. This naturally interrupts our negative self-talk and rumination and focuses us on our context and next move.
  6. Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become victims of the thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or “witness consciousness” to observe their thoughts and let them go.
What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am.
Who am I then? The one who sees that.”
-Eckhart Tolle, German spiritual teacher and author
  1. Changing the channel on negative thoughts. Sometimes it helps to use a pattern interruption technique like swiping our hand to the side, symbolically signaling that we’re dismissing our negative self-talk.
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Is your self-talk too negative?
  2. What techniques will you try to address it?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps and Articles

 

Appendix: Support Resources

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Overthinking—28 Practices

How to Stop Overthinking—28 Practices

Many of us get caught up in overthinking. It’s very common.

We analyze things excessively. We worry too much. We replay things over and over in our head. We ruminate.

It’s a big problem for many people.

In my Traps Test, with responses from more than 600 people around the world so far asking about more than 60 common traps that inhibit people’s quality of life, overthinking is the number-one trap. (See my article, “18 Signs You’re Overthinking,” to determine whether you struggle with this.)

The question then becomes how to stop it.

 

How to Stop Overthinking

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address our overthinking. Below are 28 practices from which we can choose.

  1. Catch ourselves in the act of overthinking. If we can bring this habit into our awareness, then we can begin reprogramming our brains with more enjoyable and productive ways of thinking. Author Melody Wilding recommends using a pattern interruption technique such as silently saying “stop” when we start overthinking. Or we can swipe our hand to the side, symbolically casting our overthinking away.
  2. Recognize that a key to success in life is taking more action more often. One of the biggest mistakes we make in our lives is having a thought-to-action ratio that’s way too high. Change the focus from problems and worries to solutions and actions.
  3. Decide to become a person of action instead of an overthinker. Enjoy getting lost in doing things.
  4. Recognize that our thoughts are like a dial, not a switch. This insight from David Thomas, author and Director of Family Counseling at Daystar in Nashville, teaches us that we can’t switch off our thoughts, but we can turn the volume down on rumination and negative thoughts.
  5. Practice making quick decisions. Start with small things and count down from three: “three, two, one… choose.” Then go with it. Get used to a faster decision cycle and note the results.
  6. Determine what’s creating fear in us. Get better at recognizing how many of our fears are false phantoms, much like the childhood monsters we feared under our beds. And get better at overcoming our fears.
  7. Focus intensely on something. Listen to music and focus intently on something in it, like the lyrics or the guitar line. Or study a drawing or painting and examine the shapes, lines, and colors.
  8. Learn what our overthinking triggers are and avoid them. They could be certain social media accounts, news sites, or sticky situations with certain people.
  9. Give ourselves a time budget for how long we’re allowed to think about something. Then choose to move on after that.
  10. Develop our confidence and learn to trust ourselves more.
  11. Determine the things that we do have control over and focus on them. If we’re worried about an important upcoming meeting, we can do a great job preparing for the meeting and then make sure we get a good night’s rest and arrive early to set up. Then we can be satisfied that we’ve done our job.
  12. Get better at letting things go. We’re probably placing way more weight on things than the situation warrants. People think way less of us than we imagine.
  13. Change our thoughts into questions. For example, we can shift a thought from “I can’t believe I said that” to “What could I say differently next time?”
  14. Get some exercise. This leads to a reduction in stress hormones and comes with so many benefits, including better mood and higher greater energy levels.
  15. Get out into nature. Our brains become calmer and sharper after we spend time in nature, according to researchers.
  16. Try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or yoga.
  17. Do things that interest us and that occupy our attention (e.g., fun activities and hobbies).
  18. Connect to our senses. Try the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.
  19. Journal. Writing our thoughts and feelings down can stop us from ruminating. It can restore a sense of control. Journaling doesn’t have to be formal or structured. We can just write down our thoughts as they arise.
  20. Help others with small acts of service or simple acts of kindness. This is a great way to add more meaning and connection in our lives while also getting us out of our own heads.
  21. Lean into positive relationships. By being with others, we can connect, have fun, support each other, and silence our mental gremlins.
  22. Replay happy memories. Relive good times. Talk with an old friend or flip through a cherished photo album.
  23. Find sanctuary—places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)
  24. Go out on adventures. They make us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It’s hard to ruminate when we’re climbing a mountain or trekking in new areas. (See my article, “Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It.”)
  25. Bring awe into our lives. How much can we worry when we’re gazing at the cosmos or studying the intricacies of a spider web? (See my article, “The Power of Awe in Our Lives.”)
  26. Engage in prayer or worship. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our overactive mind and tap into something larger than ourselves.
  27. Meditate. It can calm our sympathetic nervous system and decrease our anxiety, stress, and emotional reactivity.
  28. Talk to a friend—or a professional therapist or counselor. Getting things off our chest can reduce our propensity to keep thinking about them.

Clearly, there are many things we can do to stop overthinking. The point isn’t that we must do all of them. We should experiment with the ones that are most appealing and see which ones work the best.

We should also note here what doesn’t work in trying to overcome overthinking. According to the research, we can’t just tell ourselves not to have certain thoughts. That can lead to more thoughts on the subject at hand. For example, if we’re told not to think of something, our brains will do the opposite and think about it. Instead, we need to replace negative thoughts with different and better ones.

Wishing you well with it.
Gregg

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What helps you stop overthinking?
  2. What new practices will you try?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Appendix: Support Resources

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

18 Signs You’re Overthinking

Many of us get caught up in overthinking—excessively analyzing something or dwelling on possibilities. We think about some things—mostly bad things—too much and for too long.

It can be mentally replaying embarrassing moments or worrying about an upcoming meeting. Our thoughts spiral out of control when someone mentions out of the blue that we need to talk.

There are two prevalent forms of overthinking: ruminating (involuntary, compulsive thinking) and worrying (fretting about potential problems or imagining bad outcomes).

Overthinking is very common. In my Traps Test, with responses from more than 600 people around the world so far asking about more than 60 common traps that inhibit people’s happiness and quality of life, overthinking is the top trap.

According to researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, 73% of people aged 25 to 35 admitted to overthinking at some point in their lives. She found that overthinking is more common among women, but common for men too. When author Jon Acuff and Dr. Michael C. Peasley asked 10,000 people if they struggle with overthinking, 99.5% of respondents said “yes.” What’s more, 73% reported that it made them feel inadequate, and 52% said it left them feeling drained.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

18 Signs of Overthinking

Overthinking can include the following:

  1. having trouble shutting off our thoughts
  2. criticizing ourselves excessively for something we did in the past
  3. having so many thoughts and not knowing where to begin
  4. cycling through possible scenarios in our minds
  5. fearing that we’re not enough and that others will judge us harshly or reject us
  6. frequently wondering what others are thinking of us
  7. assuming the worst and imagining terrible outcomes (catastrophizing)
  8. bombarding ourselves with negative self-talk
  9. having trouble making decisions
  10. getting caught up in “analysis paralysis” and not moving forward on things
  11. second-guessing our decisions
  12. changing our mind often
  13. fearing that we’ll never get better or that our situation won’t improve
  14. mentally replaying awkward moments
  15. getting stuck in negative thought loops and uncomfortable emotions
  16. feeling anxious, restless, or unsettled often
  17. experiencing mental fatigue
  18. having a hard time focusing on the present moment (because we’re thinking about the past or the future)
“While you were overthinking, you missed everything worth feeling.”
-Nitya Prakash, Indian writer

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you struggling with overthinking?
  2. How is it affecting your mental health and well-being?
  3. What will you do to tame your overthinking dragons?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Related Articles

 

Appendix: Support Resources

“A crowded mind
Leaves no space
For a peaceful heart”
-Christine Evangelou, writer

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying

What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying

One of the common traps of living affecting so many of us these days is overthinking—excessively analyzing something or dwelling on possibilities and second-guessing ourselves. We think about some things—mostly bad things—too much and for too long.

It can be mentally replaying awkward conversations or embarrassing moments repeatedly. That time we got dumped by our childhood crush. Or worrying about an upcoming presentation or interview. Putting off asking for a promotion or raise because we’re overthinking. Our thoughts spiral out of control when our boss mentions out of the blue that we need to talk.

I’ve fallen into this trap many times. I remember cringing repeatedly at my lame attempts to woo a girl in school that ended in flames of humiliation and self-flagellation. I recall jogging around a lake over and over again for months wondering if I should leave a job before finally stopping in my tracks and realizing that the prevalence of that question was a clear answer. Yet I struggled for months.

Overthinking is common. According to researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, 73 percent of people aged 25 to 35 admitted to overthinking at some point in their lives. She also found that overthinking is more common among women than men, but common among both.

When author Jon Acuff and Dr. Michael C. Peasley of Middle Tennessee State University studied overthinking, they asked 10,000 people if they struggle with overthinking. The result? 99.5% of respondents said “yes.” What’s more 73% reported that it made them feel inadequate, and 52% noted that it left them feeling drained.

There are two prevalent forms of overthinking: ruminating and worrying.

 

Type 1: Rumination

One common form of overthinking is rumination, in which we engage in involuntary, compulsive thinking. We get stuck in negative thought loops and uncomfortable emotions.

Rumination tends to involve repetitive thinking about negative past events, problems, or concerns. With rumination, our thoughts can become so overwhelming and excessive that we can’t stop them.

It’s a dominant symptom of anxiety and depression, and it’s also habit-forming since we’re laying down neural pathways in our brains when we do it.

This kind of compulsive thinking is actually an addiction.
What characterizes an addiction?
Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop.
It seems stronger than you.
-Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

Type 2: Worrying

Another common form of overthinking is worrying. When we’re worrying, we’re experiencing discomfort with uncertainty, leading to anxiety and stress. We’re constantly wondering, “What if…?”

Worrying involves fear and anxiety from anticipating that we may experience something negative or harmful. When we worry, sometimes we fixate on small details and lose sight of the big picture (such as a low probability of a bad event and a high probability that we’ll be able to deal with it just fine if it occurs).

Sometimes worrying can take over, making us lose control of our thoughts. It can lead to procrastination, numbing ourselves via distractions, or excessively seeking constant reassurances from others.

“To think too much is a disease.”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

Signs of Overthinking

Beyond the examples of rumination and worrying noted above, overthinking can include the following:

  • having trouble shutting off our thoughts at night (or other times)
  • criticizing ourselves excessively for something we did in the recent past
  • having so many thoughts and not knowing where to start
  • cycling through possible scenarios in our minds
  • fearing that we’re not enough and that others will judge us harshly or reject us
  • frequently wondering what others are thinking of us
  • assuming the worst and imagining terrible outcomes (i.e., catastrophizing)
  • telling ourselves we can’t do things and bombarding ourselves with negative self-talk
  • getting caught up in “analysis paralysis” and not moving forward on things
  • fearing that we’ll never get better or that our situation won’t improve

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Where It Comes From

Overthinking in all its forms, including rumination and worrying, comes from many sources. It can come from trying to control a situation, trying to get more clarity about what to do next, or trying to predict what will happen to reduce our anxiety. A common underlying theme is discomfort with uncertainty.

Those who are motivated by achievement, prestige, or perfectionism can be more prone to overthinking. According to neuroscientist Sanam Hafeez, “Perfectionists and overachievers have tendencies to overthink because the fear of failing and the need to be perfect take over, which leads to replaying or criticizing decisions and mistakes.”

Overthinking can also be a habit picked up from our childhood—something we learned from having to deal with tough situations such as over-controlling parents. It can come from trying to reduce feelings of helplessness or grasping for comfort. We convince ourselves that there may be a solution to the problem if only we keep thinking it through.

In addition, overthinking can come from urges to procrastinate or avoid decisions. In essence, we’re convincing ourselves that we can’t make a decision because we haven’t analyzed it enough yet, and that allows us to avoid blame for being wrong.

Finally, it can come from stresses or trauma, which causes our brains to get stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance as a defense mechanism.

 

Overthinking and Leaders

Overthinking can be a big problem for leaders. Many leaders must make hundreds of decisions a day, a stressful burden. Some leaders can get lost in deliberation so much that it inhibits decision-making and necessary action.

In her book, Trust Yourself, Melody Wilding talks about “sensitive strivers,” high achievers who think and feel more deeply. Studies show, she notes, that they have more active brain circuitry and chemicals in neural areas related to mental processing, and that they comprise about 15-20% of the population.

How do followers respond to leaders who overthink? Summarizing research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Professor Zakary Tormala noted that “people seem to be less drawn to and less open to being influenced by individuals who overthink small decisions or ‘underthink’ big ones.” What people want, according to the researchers, is an appropriate level of “thought calibration” that adjusts the level of thinking to the significance of the decision at hand.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

The Problem with Overthinking

Unfortunately, overthinking and its manifestations can get us into trouble in many areas. For example, it can:

  1. lead to mental fatigue and burnout and make us feel drained
  2. elevate our stress levels
  3. disturb our sleep
  4. harm our health, potentially including suppressed immune functioning and increased incidence of coronary problems, according to medical professionals
  5. increase our risk of mental health problems, substance abuse, or suicide
  6. lead to avoidance
  7. impede our ability to make decisions
  8. lead to inaction
  9. cloud our judgment
  10. waste our time
  11. reduce our productivity
  12. interfere with our problem-solving, since we end up dwelling on problems instead of solving them
If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.
If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.
-Dalai Lama
  1. crowd out our heart, intuition, and inner wisdom, as we overindulge in cerebral thinking and analysis
  2. inhibit our creativity
  3. harm our relationships by driving people away, causing new problems like loneliness or isolation
  4. sap our sense of agency and control in our lives
  5. prevent us from achieving our dreams

In the end, our overthinking gets us nowhere, because our mind keeps coming up with new questions and concerns. Often, we’re overthinking about things that we have no control over, a true waste of time and energy. And we’re imagining worst-case scenarios that rarely come to fruition.

We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
-Seneca, ancient Roman philosopher

We tend to engage in negative thoughts when we’re overthinking, not positive ones. Researchers have found that we have a negativity bias, a tendency to register negative stimuli more readily and to dwell on them. As humans, we weight negative events more heavily than positive ones.

We ruminate on suffering, regret, and sorrow. We chew on them, swallow them, bring them back up,
and eat them again and again. If we’re feeding our suffering while we’re walking, working, eating, or talking,
we are making ourselves victims of the ghosts of the past,
of the future, or our worries in the present. We’re not living our lives.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and teacher

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About Overthinking

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address our overthinking. Below are dozens of simple practices from which we can choose.

Catch ourselves in the act of overthinking. If we can bring this mischievous habit into our awareness, then we can begin reprogramming our brains with more enjoyable and productive ways of thinking. Author Melody Wilding recommends using a pattern interruption technique such as silently saying “stop” when we start overthinking, visualizing our worries floating away, or flicking a rubber band on our wrist when we catch ourselves overthinking.

Recognize that a key to success in life is taking more action more often. One of the biggest mistakes we make in our lives is having a thought-to-action ratio that’s way off kilter and top-heavy toward thought, weighing us down in anxiety and inaction. Change our focus from problems and worries to solutions and actions.

“The antidote to overthinking isn’t more thinking—the antidote is action.
You don’t think your way out of overthinking. You act your way out.”
Jon Acuff, Soundtracks

Decide to become a person of action instead of an overthinker. Enjoy getting lost in doing things. Try it for a while and note the differences across domains of our lives, from energy and momentum to confidence and results.

Recognize that our thoughts are like a dial, not a switch. This insight from David Thomas, author and Director of Family Counseling at Daystar in Nashville, teaches us that we can’t switch off our thoughts, but we can turn the volume down on rumination and negative thoughts—especially via actions.

Practice making quick decisions. Start with small things and count down from three: “three, two, one… choose.” Then go with it. Get used to a faster decision cycle and note the results. Develop decision processes and criteria, such as prioritizing our core values when making important decisions.

Determine what’s creating fear in us. Get better at recognizing how many of our fears are false phantoms, much like the childhood monsters we feared lurking under our beds. And get better at overcoming our fears.

Focus intensely on something. Listen to music and focus intently on something in it, like the lyrics or the guitar line. Or study a drawing or painting and examine the shapes, lines, colors, and proportions.

Learn what our overthinking triggers are and avoid them. They could be certain social media accounts, news sites, or sticky situations with certain people.

Give ourselves a time budget for how long we’re allowed to think about something. Then choose to move on after that. Our overactive minds may be satisfied with a fixed allotment of thinking time. (Some people call this “worry time” and report that it’s comforting to them.)

Develop our confidence and learn to trust ourselves more. Learn to trust that things will probably be okay and work to overcome any instances of “impostor syndrome.”

Determine the things that we do have control over and focus on them. If we’re worried about an important upcoming meeting, we can do a great job preparing for the meeting and then make sure we get a good night’s rest and arrive early to set up. Then we can be satisfied that we’ve done our job.

Get better at letting things go. Recognize that we’re probably placing way more weight on things than the situation warrants. While we may be beating ourselves up over a situation, it’s likely that others hardly noticed our part in it or just moved on. People think way less of us than we imagine.

Change our thoughts into questions. For example, we can shift a thought from “I can’t believe I said that” to “What could I say differently next time?” We can change a thought from “I don’t have close friends” to “What should I do to be a better friend?”

Get some exercise. This leads to the removal of stress hormones and comes with so many benefits, including better brain health, greater muscle and bone strength, reduction in the incidence of disease, better mood, greater energy levels, and more.

Get out into nature. Our brains become calmer and sharper after we spend time in nature, according to researchers. We can hike in the woods or do some gardening, giving our minds a chance to enjoy the break and focus on pleasant sights and activities.

Try relaxation techniques. Examples include taking deep breaths or doing yoga. The research is clear that such simple acts can dial down the mental noise in our heads.

Do things that interest us and that occupy our attention. Engage in fun activities and hobbies. These can bring relaxation, contentment, and satisfaction into our lives and reduce our stress—and even better if we do them with others.

Connect to our senses. Try the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste. Simple exercises like this can help stop the drumbeat of our thoughts.

Journal. It’s cathartic to write our thoughts down. Writing our thoughts down can stop us from ruminating. It can restore a sense of control as we gain insights and discern patterns. Journaling doesn’t have to be formal or structured. We can do a simple brain dump and just write down our thoughts as they arise.

Help others with small acts of service or simple acts of kindness. This is a great way to add more meaning and connection in our lives while also getting us out of our own heads.

Lean into positive relationships. By being with others, we can engage and connect, have fun, support each other, and silence our mental gremlins.

Replay happy memories. Instead of feeding into worries or concerns, relive good times and happy memories. Talk with an old friend or flip through a cherished photo album.

Find sanctuary. These are places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Go out on adventures. Adventure makes us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It fuels us with the energy and excitement of exploration. And it takes our minds off the mundane. It’s hard to ruminate when we’re climbing a mountain or trekking in new areas. (See my article, “Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It.”)

Bring awe back into our lives. Awe is a powerful emotion and a marker for life at its grandest. It gives us an experience of vastness and mystery. How much can we worry when we’re gazing at the cosmos, studying the intricacies of a spider web, or experiencing a great performance? (See my article, “The Power of Awe in Our Lives.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our overactive mind and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, and wonder.

Meditate. According to researchers, meditation can calm our sympathetic nervous system and decrease our anxiety, stress, and emotional reactivity. Meanwhile, it can help with our focus and overall well-being.

If you want to conquer overthinking, bring your mind to the
present moment and reconnect it with the immediate world
.”
-Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations

Talk to a friend—or a professional therapist or counselor. Part of the value here is getting things off our chest, which can reduce our propensity to keep thinking about them, not to mention learning new coping skills.

Clearly, there are many things we can do to address our overthinking. The point isn’t that we must do all of them. We should experiment with the ones that are instinctively most appealing and determine which ones work the best for us.

Let’s also note here what doesn’t work in trying to overcome overthinking. We know from research that we can’t just tell ourselves not to have certain thoughts. That can lead to more thoughts on the subject at hand. For example, if we’re told not to think of a pink elephant, our brains will do the opposite and think about it. Instead, we need to replace negative thoughts with different and better ones.

 

Conclusion

These days, we ask a lot of our minds. We shock them with breaking news alerts and crises around the world. We feed them with email, social media, digital entertainment, and all manner of stimuli.

If the quality of our lives is influenced deeply by the quality of our thoughts, isn’t it worth addressing our negative thinking patterns like overthinking, rumination, and worrying? How much more peace, joy, and impact might we have if we were to restore a healthier balance between our head and our heart?

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you struggling with overthinking, rumination, or worrying?
  2. How is it affecting your mental health, well-being, performance, and happiness?
  3. What will you do to tame your overthinking dragons?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books

  • Jon Acuff, Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking
  • Eckart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • Melody Wilding, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work
  • Jennie Allen, Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts
  • Nick Trenton, Stop Overthinking: 23 Techniques to Relieve Stress, Stop Negative Spirals, Declutter Your Mind, and Focus on the Present
  • Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Women Who Think Too Much

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Overthinking

  • “While you were overthinking, you missed everything worth feeling.” -Nitya Prakash
  • “Overthinking steals time, creativity, and productivity by making you listen to broken soundtracks. Do you know what happens when you listen to new ones? You give your dreams more time, creativity, and productivity.” -Jon Acuff, Soundtracks
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie
  • “Good days start with good thoughts.” -Jon Acuff, Soundtracks
A crowded mind
Leaves no space
For a peaceful heart.
-Christine Evangelou, writer

 

Appendix: Support Resources

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Many of us are going through much of our lives with a “monkey mind” that’s restless and easily distracted, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. (1) The problem is that chaos in our minds will bring chaos in our life, work, and leadership. It will make us anxious and make it harder for us to accomplish our goals.

Unfortunately, this monkey mind phenomenon is as common as it is old (the term having been coined by the Buddha), and it’s aggravated by the way we tend to work in our modern world.

I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind.
The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit, and howl.
My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, writer

 

Signs of Our Monkey Mind Going Wild

How to know if we’re afflicted by a monkey mind? When our monkey mind is active, we:

  • have scattered thoughts
  • feel anxious, restless, and unsettled
  • find our mind wandering after just a short while of doing something
  • experience mental fatigue
  • feel impatient often
  • are often bouncing from thought to thought and task to task
  • have a hard time focusing on the present moment
  • spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future
  • return to the same thought loops over and over again (rumination)

Our monkey mind is a bit like Curious George—always causing trouble. How much of our day do we spend worrying, complaining, or relitigating past sleights? How about assuming the worst and running worst-case scenarios through our minds again and again? These are telltale signs of the monkey mind in action.

Give anything to silence those voices ringing in your head.”
-from the song, “Learn to Be Still,” written by Don Henley and Stan Lynch, recorded by The Eagles

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Problem with Our Monkey Mind

Though it’s common, monkey mind isn’t harmless. Its restless bouncing from thought to thought comes with many problems, including:

  1. making us anxious and restless
  2. amping up our stress levels
  3. impeding our ability to focus and concentrate
  4. inhibiting mental clarity
  5. preventing us from being in the moment, present with people, or focused on the task at hand
  6. pushing others away if they find it draining or chaotic
  7. reducing our sense of calm and wellbeing
  8. disrupting our sleep
  9. pulling us away from the things that matter most
  10. reducing our contentment and happiness
  11. becoming a lifelong habit that harms our mental health, quality of life, and career

Monkey mind is related to what psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, called “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder that impairs our control over our attention and our effectiveness. With psychic entropy, a negative feedback loop can form in which we feel unpleasant emotions that make it hard for us to focus, thus causing us to fail in achieving our goals, then starting the cycle all over again—and sapping our confidence. He wrote, “Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals.”

 

How Our Monkey Mind Inhibits Our Leadership

A monkey mind can also haunt leaders and managers. Think of Karen, a busy executive facing a steady stream of challenges in her work. At breakfast, she’s preoccupied with the presentation she will give to an important customer later, and she’s running late. She’s also worried about her son’s new friends. In her two morning meetings, she’s thinking about what to do with Jerry, a longtime colleague who’s been struggling with an important new project, and how to approach the upcoming board meeting.

When she calls her husband over lunch, she remembers that she forgot to schedule her car for service. In her customer meeting, she nails the delivery but then spirals into self-doubt when the conversation turns to future product releases, and she relives a heated exchange she had with the IT team this week.

At the gym after work, she’s revisiting her answers to the customer’s questions about functionality, and at dinner with her family she’s wondering again about what to do with Jerry. In bed that night, she’s reading a novel, but her mind keeps drifting to the problems of the day, so she must go back and re-read almost every other page. When the lights are out, her head keeps spinning.

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.
If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm,
and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—
that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.
Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.
You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
-Steve Jobs

Monkey mind inhibits our leadership by:

  1. leading us to poor, impulsive decisions or slowing down our decision-making
  2. making us more reactive than proactive
  3. harming our credibility
  4. preventing us from focusing on our priorities
  5. reducing our executive presence
  6. preventing us from listening well to others
  7. frustrating our colleagues
  8. killing our enjoyment of our free time
  9. increasing our stress and anxiety
  10. harming our sleep

Monkey mind relates to many of the leadership derailers that inhibit our leadership effectiveness, potentially including avoiding tough issues, being a bottleneck on big decisions, causing chaos for the team, not being sufficiently clear, becoming ego-centric, being hyper-critical, impulsive, indecisive, or insecure, not listening well, being obsessive or perfectionistic, being pessimistic or prone to overreaction, and becoming a workaholic.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

What to Do About It

We’ve seen how our monkey mind can detract from our work, leadership, and quality of life. So, what to do about it? Here’s a punch list of things we can do to start addressing our monkey mind:

Think of our monkey mind as something to befriend as opposed to an enemy we need to vanquish. In some ways, it’s built into our brain’s design. Calm redirection will serve us much better than judgment and resentment. According to Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, “if we create a calm space for the monkey mind to jump around in, it will eventually settle down.” (2)

Meditate. With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Studies have found that meditation can lead to improvements in brain function, blood pressure, metabolism, sleep, focus, concentration, and even our lifespan, as well as alleviation of stress and pain. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to change in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. (See the Appendix below for some common types of meditation.)

Be here now.
-Ram Dass, Be Here Now

Breathe deeply and do breath work. During breathing practices, we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include deep breathing exercises, such as box breathing in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.) Then repeat the process.

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—
the key to all inner transformation.
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in mindful, offline activities. When we’re doing something—anything—place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. Focus on the sensations of washing the dishes on our hands or the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating. Meanwhile, we should engage more in real-world offline activities. Read a book. Play a musical instrument. Go for a walk. Watch the squirrels and birds in our backyard. And we should be mindful and present while doing it, bringing our attention back to the moment when it wanders.

Play the “game of fives.” Writer Marelisa Fabrega recommends pausing our thinking and noticing five things in our vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to pretend that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that sight, sound, or smell. When we do this, all our attention moves to the present moment.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions, from texts and emails to videos, breaking news alerts, streaming shows, and social media posts. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The key here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction, in which our brains are constantly flooded with stimuli designed to capture and control our attention. Along these lines, we should wean ourselves from the habit of taking out our smartphone every time we get bored. That mindless, compulsive behavior only stimulates the monkeys in our mind to race quickly from thought to thought as we keep swiping.

Take breaks in between activities. Grab a cup of coffee. Gaze at the horizon. Get some fresh air and sunshine. Take some deep breaths. Take a nap. Even short breaks are restorative.

There is more to life than increasing its speed.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Journal. Jotting down our thoughts and feelings in a diary or journal can be beneficial because it allows us to express our emotions freely, clear out distressing thoughts, organize our thoughts, gain new insights, recover a sense of control, find patterns, and deepen our understanding of the events in our lives (and ourselves). According to research studies, journaling can help with anxiety, hostility, and depression. It’s been linked to measurable effects on our health and immune system response. Tip: For best results, include both thoughts and feelings when journaling (and avoid rehashing troubling thoughts over and over), and consider adding some drawing or doodling to the text as well. (See my article, “Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices.”)

Practice self-care. Engage in regular self-care practices, including sleep, exercise, nutrition, and relaxation. Turn these into habits and regular routines. All of these can have calming effects on our minds through various mechanisms that are well documented.

Find sanctuary. Create a space of sanctuary associated with a calm mind, such as a place to think or write, or a place to meditate or pray. It can be a place of worship, a quiet retreat in the backyard, a trail in the woods, a quiet park nearby, or a peaceful kayaking outing on a lake. For some people, it can simply be a centering practice, and not necessarily a place.

Get out into nature. More than a hundred studies have documented the benefits of being in or living near nature—and even viewing nature in images and videos. According to the research, it can have positive impacts on our thoughts, brains, feelings, bodies, and social interactions—including reduced stress, enhanced recovery from illness, and changes in our behavior that improve our mood and overall wellbeing. Viewing nature can calm our nervous system and lead to a cascade of positive emotions that can in turn promote things like creativity, connection, cooperation, kindness, generosity, and resilience. Experiencing nature can also induce powerful feelings like awe, wonder, and reverence. Unfortunately, many of us today suffer from what environmental writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” (See my article, “The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside.”)

Do deep work. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport notes that to produce at our peak level we need to be able to do “deep work”—working “for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” Such deep work is now as valuable as it is rare, and it will be a big differentiator for those who develop the capacity to do it well. It requires discipline and weaning our minds from the easy comforts of distraction. “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Write things down. If our monkey mind is bouncing between several thoughts and worried about missing or forgetting things, the simple act of writing things down can be surprisingly reassuring for many of us.

Use a shutdown ritual at the end of each workday. Newport also recommends implementing a strict shutdown ritual at the end of our workday. For every incomplete task, goal, or project we face, we should either have a plan for its completion or capture it in a place where we can revisit it later. That way, we’ll know “it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”

Engage in activities that put us in a state of “flow.” Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi characterized flow as a state of complete absorption, almost effortless attention, and peak performance. In flow, he writes, we invest our attention fully in the task at hand, and we function at our greatest capacity. When in a flow state, we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we stop thinking about ourselves as separate from the activity. We’re so absorbed in it that time seems to slow down or stop for us. How to experience flow more often? We need three things:

  1. a clear set of goals
  2. clear and immediate feedback so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals
  3. the right balance between the challenges we face and our skills (if there’s too little challenge, we’ll get bored, and if there’s too much challenge, we’ll feel anxiety)

Serve others. The monkey mind tends to be ego-centric, focusing mostly on ourselves. We can disrupt that narcissistic loop by focusing instead on serving others—and being present in the act of contributing.

Find and embrace things worthy of our focus. Too often, our monkey mind is ruminating about things of little significance. We should be disciplined in dedicating more of our lives to things that matter—to things that honor our purpose and core values and allow us to contribute to others and make an impact—with consistent routines.

If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions
you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing,
and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
-David Brooks, “The Art of Focus

 

Conclusion

We’ve seen that the monkey mind can cause great suffering in our lives and be a real disruptor in our work. And we’ve covered many ways to address it.

The result should be a mental disposition that more often than not is the opposite of monkey mind—one of tranquility and inner peace. A disposition of acceptance (or “nonresistance” as the Buddhists call it) and of equanimity and ease.

Filipe Bastos from MindOwl makes a distinction between monkey mind and “monk mind,” which entails presence, focus, compassion, discipline, perspective, and consciousness. See the image below.

Monkey Mind and Monk Mind
Source: MindOwl

The good news is that our brains have an amazing capability to rewire their neural pathways. With neuroplasticity, our brain’s neural networks can change through growth and reorganization. As a result, investments in our focus, attention, and consciousness can pay real dividends over time if we commit to daily practice over time.

Science writer Winifred Gallagher notes that the findings from many disciplines “suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience…. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on…. I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

Here’s to a life in which we can focus attention on things that are worthy of it, thus lifting us up.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with the chaos and disruption of a monkey mind, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions, causing distraction and anxiety?
  2. How is it affecting your quality and enjoyment of life and work—and your productivity and performance?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Calming Our Monkey Mind

  • “Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” -Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha)
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass
  • “When you are tempted to control your mind, stand back and realize that the task is impossible to begin with. Even the most disciplined mind has a way of breaking out of its chains.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, author
  • “Many people are so completely identified with the voice in the head—the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it—that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind…. The greater part of most people’s thinking is involuntary automatic, and repetitive. It is no more than a kind of mental static and fulfills no real purpose. Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you…. The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

 

Appendix: Some Common Type of Meditation Practice

  • Body scan meditation, in which we direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over every part of our body, from head to toe.
  • Focused attention meditation, in which we focus on one thing, such as our breath, and when our mind wanders to other thoughts, we gently bring our attention back to our breath.
  • Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation), in which we silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves, people we love, neutral people, rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.
  • Mindfulness meditation (also known as open monitoring meditation), in which we observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. (3)
  • Transcendental meditation, in which we use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, with an eventual aim of experiencing what they call “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

(1) The term “monkey mind” is attributed to the Buddha, and there are later uses of “mind monkey” expressions from the Later Qin dynasty in China. Side note: Apes are the ones that usually swing through the trees, while monkeys more often run on tree branches rather than swing.

(2) Source for this tip: Leo Babauta, “Monkey Mind: Shifting the Habit of Feeling Distracted Throughout the Day,” ZenHabits.net, undated.

(3) The default mode network includes regions of our brain that are active when our brains are idling (i.e., not focused on a specific task) and moving from thought to thought by default. According to researchers, mindfulness meditation can deactivate the regions of the brain associated with this network, perhaps even changing the structure of the brain over time, allowing us to switch off this network more and more.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!