An antidote to self-doubt and overthinking: The train of thought
It's a click-bait title - but I promise to keep the intro brief and get to the technique. What is one thing that self-doubt, worry, anxiety, overthinking, second-guessing, procrastination, self-criticism, and confusion all have in common? Cyclical, repetitive thought patterns.
You get on the 'train of thought' at the first station: "Have I lost enough weight this month?" You ride it to the next station. "Only one pound, I'll never have the body of my dreams!" Perhaps one or two more stations down the line, you reach "What if he/she/they don't find me attractive?!"
Most of us, at this point, bounce back and forth between stations one to four, like a beach ball at a Nickelback concert. Our minds just cycle between the same thoughts and images. And, because our physiological threat response can be activated by thought and image alone, the result of 'dwelling' (cycling) through these thoughts tends to be an emotion...
Fear. Or one of its many less pure forms: anxiety, irritation, anger, despondency, hopelessness, shame, sadness, etc.
The emotion feeds on thoughts and images in our minds, using them as fuel. I've made the habit of a lifetime out of being afraid of what following a scary thought through to its end might bring. Most of us share this habit.
How to break the cycle of repetitive thinking
You can cut off the fuel source of painful emotions; break the habit of cyclical, repetitive thinking and imagining. You can get off the train of thought.
How? By thinking in a straight line. Ride that train right to the final station on the line - the terminus, the final station.
There are two parts to this technique, which we'll explore below.
First, get clear on the situation you are worried about:
- What is it you don't want to happen?
- What might go wrong?
- What or who is causing you to feel distressed/angry/disappointed/anxious?
With that in mind, imagine this situation truly happening to you. Really feel the consequences. What is the worst that could happen?
Get clear on what that worst scenario is. Next, ask yourself:
- What is so bad about this worst-case scenario?
- What is to fear about that scenario occurring?
- What real-world outcomes are there?
Once you have got clear on the above answers, take a break for a minute. Chill. Then, using your most recent answer, ask yourself the same question again. What is so bad about my previous answer occurring?
Now ask it again. And again. Keep going. Deeper and deeper.
Eventually, after asking that question enough times, and digging into the emotions, real-world outcomes, etc, you will get to the 'end of the line'. The terminal station.
At this point, usually, you will end up in one of two scenarios:
- You realise that what you were afraid of isn't that bad or scary. It was an illusion. The 'worst-case scenario' wasn't actually that bad. You could bounce back from it, as you have before, many times.
- The worst that could happen is now very clear in your mind. So, instead of worrying (thinking in circles), you now know what situation you really want to avoid.
In the second situation, there is one final step.
Break the situation down into two parts:
- What is within my control? And, therefore, what I can change, take action on, and begin to influence the situation. Solid action and momentum is one of the best antidotes to worry.
- What is outside of my control? And, therefore, not worth a second more of worry. Because you can't change it. The only thing you can do is accept it.
"May I accept the things I cannot change; have the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."