Here’s What to Do When Your Mind Won’t Switch Off

A philosophical approach to overthinking

It’s fair to say that I’ve had to face more difficult situations in my twenties than I’d anticipated.

There’s was my parents’ separation, my fiancé’s cancer diagnosis and then all of the other stuff that comes with being a young guy trying to make a career out of his dream job.

All of these situations present challenges of themselves: coping with change, the prospect of loss and the uncertainty of financial security. By far, though, my most formidable foe has been my own mind.

It’s been a challenge — wrestling with my busy thoughts. But I’ve learned how to cope in the process.

If there’s one quote that sums up my approach to the whirlwind that this past year has been, it’s the following gem from Marcus Aurelius,

‘Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.’

The battles we face usually have more to do with our mentality than anything else. It’s not the situation that’s difficult. The difficult part is dealing with our thoughts.

Our Thoughts Make us Miserable

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it best:

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.’

We all think too much — especially when we’re faced with uncertainty. Take the example of an unexpected ailment, like a crippling stomach ache. If our minds were rational creatures, we might think, I’m not a medical professional, I’ll wait to hear what my doctor says about my symptoms.

But we rarely think that way. Instead, we turn to Google and frantically seek an explanation, diagnosing ourselves with all sorts of terrifying illnesses when, in reality, it’s probably just have indigestion.

When a loved one gets a cancer diagnosis, the same thought patterns take place. After processing the devastating news, I started trying to predict what the future would hold.

A million questions raced around my mind — will Charlotte’s neurosurgeon be able to operate? Will the tumor respond to treatment? Will she be able to cope with twelve months of chemotherapy?

And yet, those thoughts were completely futile. They haven’t changed the situation at all, not even a year later, and have only made the present more difficult to cope with.

In the wise words of J.K Rowling’s fictional protagonist, Newt Scamander,

‘My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.’

So how do we stop worrying?

The Philosophy of Worry

Lying awake early one morning, my mind racing, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I stumbled across a quote from Epictetus that read:

‘Some things are in our control and others not.’

I didn’t pay much attention to those words at first. It seemed pretty obvious to me, so I just carried on scrolling. But in my hazy-eyed stupor, that little kernel of wisdom resonated with me on a deeper level.

Epictetus was right. I could sit there contemplating the life expectancy of brain cancer patients all night, but could I control it? Not one bit. And then it dawned on me that virtually all of our thoughts are about things that we have little to no control over.

We sit and ponder all manner of possibilities and prospects, driving ourselves crazy and leaving us unable to hold a conversation or eat breakfast without worrying about some distant deadline or our endless to-do list.

Not only that, but our thoughts often make us feel pretty anxious. And miserable.

I remember being on my first plane journey and feeling worried sick as soon as I experienced a little bit of turbulence. My mind was weighing up all sorts of harrowing possibilities, when in reality, everything was fine.

I was worried for nothing, and as a result, I suffered for no reason.

These are all real, rational worries. But we can’t control any of those things — and if we could, wouldn’t it be better if we actually did something, rather than just thinking? All we’re doing is causing needless stress and suffering, and we’re only losing touch with the present moment.

How Useful Actually Are Our Thoughts?

Almost all of our thoughts are pointless. We think about the past, mistakes we’ve made, our taxes, our to-do lists. We lie awake in bed at night ruminating on the events of the past 24-hours.

But does this serve any practical purpose? Do these thoughts precede any real action — action that serves to make us or anybody else happier?

The truth is that 99% of our thoughts are pretty useless. Most of them do little more than drive us crazy and make us worry needlessly. There are, however, two categories of thought that can actually be beneficial to us:

  • Thoughts about things that you can control. How to solve problems, how to behave, which decisions to make, what’s right or wrong, etc. Thoughts about these kinds of things can be helpful as they often precede or facilitate action. We can think carefully about how to act, go ahead and execute that action, and then forget all about it. At that point, we should stop thinking about whatever it is we did and move on.
  • Processing and understanding information. When we’re trying to make sense of a new concept or idea, it can help to take time to organize it in our heads. Internalizing a new philosophy, for instance, would be difficult if we didn’t first think it through carefully. When we do, we can pack away any new information into our memory for when we might need it again.

Aside from these two categories, the rest of our thoughts aren’t all that helpful. They don’t serve any real purpose, and usually they just make us feel unhappy, stressed and disconnected from the present moment.

Applying this to my situation — the fact of the matter is that my partner has brain cancer. That’s reality. I can’t control the decisions her surgeons make. I can’t control how effectively she responds to treatment. I can’t control her future.

So is there any point in me thinking about these things? Of course not.

Filtering Out the Noise

If only a small percentage of our thoughts actually help us, how can we filter out those that don’t? It’s pretty simple, actually, and it all begins with awareness.

As soon as a thought comes up and starts distracting you from whatever it is you’re doing it, just notice it. Pay attention to what’s going on in your mind without making any judgment. If you’re judging, you’re thinking, and that’s not what we want.

Once you’ve noticed a thought, just release it back into the ether of your mind. Let it go. Unhook yourself from its pull. Then refocus on whatever you were doing before your thoughts took over — drinking coffee, taking in the scenery, reading an article.

Notice. Disconnect. Refocus. That’s really all it takes.

When we repeat that simple process over and over every single time a thought pops up and pulls us back into our own heads, if we just identify it, let it go and tune back into real life, we start to get really good at it — until eventually, thoughts don’t have that much power over us anymore.

In the words of Idowu Koyenikan,

The mind is just like a muscle — the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.

The more you practice noticing and disconnecting, the easier it becomes to refocus. Over time, you improve your capacity to be able to live for each moment and separate yourself from any thoughts about the past and the future.

Before You Leave

I run a daily newsletter The Daily Grind where I send out tips to creatives and entrepreneurs about success, wellness and honing their craft.

If that sounds like you, follow this link to sign up.

Owner of Mind Cafe | Let’s chat on Instagram: @adriandrew__

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