Suzann Pileggi, MAPP '08, is a wellness writer and consultant. She is a monthly columnist for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) newsletter and Wisdom magazine, and a certified holistic health counselor. Suzann's website.
Suzann's articles are here.
Since the theme of this month is stress and resilience I spent some time pondering ways to lighten my daily burden. I took a long hard look at my life and noticed that I place much undo stress and pressure upon myself. I coined a phrase that captures my daily life: I’m an overthinking anticipating maximizer . Much of my stress is self-induced. Discovering this phrase was an exhilarating “a-ha” moment for me. Surely, this ritualized pattern of living isn’t written in stone; rather, it’s a collection of learned habits. While it will take practice, I now see that I can unlearn them by replacing them with healthier habits to decrease my stress and enhance my state of mind.
Let’s break down the phrase and take a brief look at each of the three words that best define my habits.
For rational human beings, thinking is critical to life. However, too much of a good thing, like fine wine and chocolate (two of my personal favorites!), may hurt us. Thinking in excess can be toxic. In her book, Women Who Think Too Much, University of Michigan psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema defines overthinking as “getting caught in torrents of negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and well-being.” Overthinking can be detrimental to health.
Due to the rapid speed and unpleasant destinations my mind often travels at any given moment, especially in stressful times, I should qualify for the gold standard in frequent flyer miles. Whereas someone who doesn’t struggle with overthinking can easily get from point A to point B, my mind appears to take the circuitous route, with many detours, delays, and dips in the road. I get so exhausted from thinking alone that the term a “mental holiday” is something I cherish. While my daily physical jog is challenging it nowhere compares with the exhausting mental race I run every day.
According to Nolen-Hoeksema, overcoming overthinking is like trying to escape from quicksand. She recommends three steps to cease the habit: breaking the grip of your thoughts so they don’t continue to sink you down; moving to higher ground where you can see things in a broader perspective; and avoiding future traps. Her book delineates a set of practical strategies for accomplishing each of these three steps. Engage in pleasant distractions. Adjust your focus. Abandoning unhealthy goals. Personally, I find that taking time for myself, slowing down to savor, and meditating are daily habits that help me tame my out-of-control thinker.
University of Loyola’s Dr. Fred Bryant depicts anticipating the future as one of the three temporal forms of savoring, along with reminiscing about the past, and in-the-moment relishing. As a natural anticipator, and a zestful person, I’m often ebullient about upcoming positive events. However, at the same time, this attention towards the future can equally bring me much unwarranted worry when confronting uncertainty. Since I tend to look ahead, rather look than back or revel in-the-moment, I often get stuck on the negative “what-ifs.”
During Dr. Karen Reivich’s Resiliency Training Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania last summer, I learned about the underlying emotional states, e.g. anger, sadness, guilt, anxiety, etc. that impact people’s behaviors. I immediately related to the state of anxiety, and then made a connection to my strong anticipatory nature. Truly an “a-ha” moment for me, I pondered: Could my often anxious state be related to my focus on the future? Perhaps, if I focused more “on-the-moment” by redirecting my attention from the future to what I could do in the here-and-now, I could decrease unnecessary anxiety, and take better control of my thoughts and rein in my stress.
According to definitions by University of Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, I’m a solid maximizer who always wants to make the best choice as opposed to a satisficer who accepts good enough .
Schwartz doesn’t know what makes one a maximizer but thinks it is perhaps impacted by where someone lives. New York City, my home, prides itself on choice. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want – whether it’s Greek or Thai food you’re seeking, or belly dancing or bowling, you can do it whenever you want. Even with yoga, my respite from a life in overdrive, I’m presented with so many options. Do I take Bikram, Vinyasa, or Ashtanga? The energy it takes to make the choice is almost not worth the trouble. But it sure keeps the yoga studios in business and anxiety prescriptions soaring since restoring peace of mind is what is needed after evaluating all of our choices. I often end up doing nothing because of the all the energy I exert on just deciding, a concept Schwartz refers to as “paralysis by analysis.” Research shows that while maximizers may make marginally better choices than satisficers, they end up feeling worse about what they choose and they experience more stress.
Changing Into a “Thinking Just Enough, In-the-moment Satisficer”
Together, my tendency to overthink, anticipate and maximize creates a pattern of over analysis, pesky anxious thoughts, and nagging self-doubt where I’m constantly wondering how I could do better.
Fortunately, gratitude is my top signature strength. By reframing a situation and looking at what I have to be thankful for, I can decrease my tendency to overthink, dwell on the future, and always seek the best. Instead, I plan to:
- Take Dr. Schwartz’ advice to only spend more time on making choices about the things that matter most in my life
- Be more mindful of the present and what I can do now
- Transition to becoming a “satisficer” in most areas of my life
As I stop being a stressed-out overthinking, anticipating maximizer and become a thinking-just-enough in-the-moment satisficer, I move closer to the serene life that I truly desire.
Books to read more
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. New York: Owl Books.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
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