Untangling the Knots of Negativity or Overthinking Requires Effort, But You Can Do It!
by Matthew Williams
I was always a thinker. Wait—scratch that. I was always an overthinker.
It's not a choice. It's just the way my brain works. Most of the time it's a good thing: a proclivity to think and a questioning nature helps me — I hope — to view things from a wider point of view than I may have done otherwise; to recognise the limits of my own life experience and the filters through which I make sense of the world and my place in it, leading to a desire to want to know more, to learn, to better myself.
To know myself.
But sometimes, my brain stops working. Thinking becomes stilted, thoughts are lost in a confusing tangle forming knots of negativity and fear, strangling expression as words disintegrate in the mind's fog and the connection between brain and mouth is scattered with obstacles, around which sentences break and struggle to reform.
At its worst, during severe depression, my ability to think clearly and to express myself was lost almost completely (over-thinking!); dead eyes were a giveaway to the lack of spark inside, the brain a black whirlpool of rumination swallowing all thoughts and subsuming them beneath the only truths that it would recognize:
You're not good enough...
You're going to lose everything...
You'll never get better.
Faced with a self that was totally alien to the idea of self that had propelled me through over 30 years of a largely charmed life, I was forced to confront who I thought I was; to question what I thought, how I thought, and why I thought in the way that I did.
Pulling apart the threads was hard, so fucking hard; like most things in life that we take for granted, it's only when forced to confront ourselves that we can appreciate just how lucky we are, to be able to travel through life safe in our assumptions of who we are, comfortable in the skin - and the mind — that we inhabit.
When I look back on this time I see something else too: I see the power of not thinking. Just as the athlete that trains his body to the limit needs time for relaxation and recovery to allow damaged muscles to repair and strengthen, so too does the mind need to switch off to allow the crashing waves of thoughts to subside and settle into calmer waters.
This is easier said than done amidst the raging mind-storms of severe depression, but as I reflect on the moments of calm amidst my storms — getting lost in a game on the PS3, sinking into a good book, a pub quiz, a game of darts — I see my mind being tended to every bit as much as it was during psychotherapy.
Amongst the fog there was something that did become very clear to me during this period. A thought that articulated itself with clarity and with conviction; a core belief that I was left with when everything else was stripped away.
Without wishing to sound melodramatic, I didn't want to live anymore. Not because I wanted to die but because I couldn't face the crumpled and torn facsimile of life that stretched ahead of me, one in which I was totally alone, with no recognisable identity and with no hope of breaking free of the mental anguish that was my constant, unrelenting burden.
It was from this state of non-being that a core-belief crystallised: life presents each of us with defining challenges and it is our job to learn the lessons that are held within them. Whatever reason there was for the state in which I found myself in I was convinced that there was a reason, that it was my task to find this reason and that there was no way of escaping this task; whether in this life or the next, I had to find it. I had no choice but to live through it and to learn.
The fact that I sit here writing this is testament to the fact that I did. I learned a lot, and from that dark, lonely morass came a better understanding of self; of my hopes, my fears, and of the inner resources I possess with which to face life's inevitable future trials (and they have certainly been put to the test since).
The deep, stagnant pit of depression is the darkest, loneliest place I've ever been to and my deepest hope is that I will never find myself there again. To be honest, it's a thought that I can hardly bear. I try to maintain a vigilant awareness of my moods and thoughts but have found that this can come at its own cost; when vigilance over-reaches and begins to question what would otherwise have been considered the normal ebb and flow of moods, where features of personality can be translated as character flaws, faultlines which lead to the darkest parts of myself, parts that however deeply buried, however long they lay dormant, I mustn't forget are there.
I think about it, I write about it, and I've learned. I continue to learn, and to accept that within me lay both the seeds of my collapse and the tools of recovery. I try to keep my tools sharp and more than ever I try to accept myself just as I am and to allow myself to feel whatever mood I'm feeling, without judgement and without resistance. I remind myself that it will pass and that I don't always have to know the answers, there doesn't always have to be a reason.
Here are a few ways I've found to quieten my mind:
Meditation: (First, don't beat yourself up if your mind decides to chatter throughout!) Like anything it takes practice and you get out of it what you put in. As little as 10 minutes per day can begin to make a real difference
Taking yourself outside of your mind and focusing on your other senses can be useful; take a time out to check in with your surroundings - what do you see, hear, smell, feel?
Breathing: By simply checking in with your breathing and counting your breaths you can take yourself out of your overactive mind
Lose yourself in something you enjoy: a book, film, music (preferably something light and enjoyable!)
Exercise: tiring your body out is a good way of distracting you from what is going on in your mind (and it will get you fitter too, which is always a good thing); I like to use a punchbag which can also be pretty cathartic!
Writing: Since beginning to blog in December 2015, writing has been my main 'thought-dump' (Exhibit A: see above). I find that putting words on a page stops them from swimming around in my head so much; it helps to put a bit of distance between me and my thoughts and helps me to see them more objectively. I thoroughly recommend it to find your own mindfulness groove!
Useful mindfulness/meditation resources that I've found helpful to transform my life:
Headspace: App available for Apple and Android devices
Mindfulness for Beginners: by Jon Kabat-Zinn (book)
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled: Ruby Wax (book)
Lastly, I remind myself in how far I've come, and that maybe it's just me.
Maybe I'm OK . . . just as I am.
Matthew Williams is a single father to two children and divorced ex-husband to an ex-wife. He started his blog, Love, Laughter & Truth, in December 2015 in an attempt to make sense of his rollercoaster life following depression, divorce and his introduction into the weird and (occasionally) wonderful world of dating. Matthew lives and writes in the UK.
Please visit www.lovelaughtertruthblog.com to read more of Matthew's fine writing.