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How to get out of your head: 9 tips to stop overthinking everything

The positive thinking and self-development movements have been around for many years. A premise of these increasingly popular fields has been about understanding and improving ourselves and hence becoming more enlightened.

Over the years, there has been a plethora of self-help books, webinars and courses on the internet to help you become more self-aware.

Increasingly however over the last number of years, I have honed my own way of being, one that involves more of an acceptance of the person I am, rather than always trying to improve myself, with all my anxieties and foibles.

Two approaches have really resonated with me and have a powerful impact on how I live. 

They are from diverse fields. One is based on eastern philosophy which, as we know, has been around for thousands of years.  The other is Western therapy-based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

What I have come to realise is that they are similar approaches with the same results but with a different language, one coming from evidence-based research and a left-brain perspective while the other more of a right-brain eastern spiritual philosophy.  

The most important thing is that these approaches work, irrespective of where they come from and the language they use.

Western therapy-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been developed over the past 30 years and has become increasingly popular. 

Professor Steven Hayes from the University of Nevada Reno has been heavily involved as have clinicians and researchers internationally. 

Dr. Russ Harris, well-renowned ACT trainer, has written a number of great books on ACT including the very popular The Happiness Trap and has a website with some excellent resources.  Here is the link https://www.actmindfully.com.au/.

Most Western models of therapy are focused on the reduction of symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and depression.  What differentiates ACT is that quality of life is mostly dependent on action in alignment with your values. 

The goal is to change your relationship with the symptoms you have, rather than trying to get rid of them, so that they no longer hold you back from living a fulfilling life.

In a nutshell, the main aim of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility which is defined as the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to change or persist in behaviour when doing so serves valued ends. 

 According to Dr. Russ Harris, there are six core processes in ACT. 

Contacting the Present Moment

The aim here is to become more mindful and engage fully in whatever is happening at this moment, with curiosity and without judgment. We can get so absorbed with our thoughts, ruminating about the past or worrying about the future that often we can be on automatic pilot, not being present at all. 

Mindfulness is found in ancient spiritual and religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  It has only been a short period of time that Western psychology has acknowledged the benefits of developing mindfulness skills.

Dr Russ Harris says,

 “We can use mindfulness to ‘wake up’, connect with ourselves, and appreciate the fullness of each moment of life. We can use it to improve our self-knowledge—to learn more about how we feel and think and react. We can use it to connect deeply and intimately with the people we care about, including ourselves. And we can use it to consciously influence our own behavior and increase our range of responses to the world we live in. It is the art of living consciously—a profound way to enhance psychological resilience and increase life satisfaction.”

Defusion (Watch your Thinking)

This is about stepping back and detaching from your thoughts.  It is definitely easier said than done particularly when there is an emotional component to them. The idea here is to let your thoughts come and go. Hold them lightly without being consumed by them.

You need to recognise thoughts, feelings and memories for what they really are – just words and pictures, allowing them to come and go without resisting them. 

Sometimes, we can be consumed and in fact enslaved by certain thoughts. The monkey mind is an apt term for this type of thinking. For example, it can be ruminating about the past, being fearful of the future or even something that a person said to you.  

Often labelling these thoughts helps. Here is the “I’m not good enough story”. It is such a relief to know we are not our thoughts. They often are there as a result of our patterns of behavior or past experiences which have been triggered.

Acceptance (Open Up)

This is when you make space for those thoughts, feelings and sensations to be there. Let them be.  Once you start getting frustrated that these thoughts are persisting you will get caught up in them again. 

It is important here to separate yourself from those thoughts. It is such a relief to know you are so much more than persistent and unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, images.

Rather than thinking I am not good enough, reframe the thought to say I am having the thought that I am not good enough. This can help you unhook from the thought. 

(To learn techniques to stop focusing on the past and live more in the present moment, check out Hack Spirit’s most popular eBook on the art of mindfulness here)

Self-as-Context

When we talk about the mind we are talking about two distinct elements. There is the thinking self and the observing self. We are all clear about the thinking mind, generating thoughts, memories, judgments, plans, imagining etc. 

The observing self is the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we are thinking, judging etc. In ACT this is called self-as-context. In eastern philosophy, it is called pure awareness. Dr Russ Harris states,

“As you go through life, your body changes, your thoughts change, your feelings change, your roles change, but the “you” that’s able to notice or observe all those things never changes. It’s the same “you” that’s been there your whole life. With clients, we generally refer to it as “the observing self” rather than use the technical term “self-as-context.”

When we talk about stepping back and observing our thoughts, this is what we mean. This is the ability to be aware of your thoughts without being immersed in them, being able to have some level of detachment. Impossible at times I know!

Values (Know what matters)

This is an integral part of the ACT process. This is when you clarify what your core values are, how you want to behave in all facets of your life.

In ACT Made Simple Dr. Russ Harris compares values to a compass because they give us direction and guidance on our ongoing journey in life.

There are many resources available to help you articulate your values.  When we define our values, it helps us be more aware of who we really are and what we stand for. There are some great activities on the link I gave above.

Committed Action

This is when you take action in alignment with your values.  This gives you momentum, the important thing here it is whatever actions you decide to take you know that you are following your core values.

Skills that can help you live a values-based life include goal setting, developing mindfulness and meditation skills, time management, practising self-care and compassion as well as developing resilience.

According to Dr. Russ Harris, committed action means “doing what it takes” to live by our values even if that brings up pain and discomfort. 

As it states in ACT Made Simple, the primary aim of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility. In other words, it’s the ability to “be present, open up, and do what matters.” 

The greater our ability to be fully conscious, to be open to our experience, and to act on our values, the greater our quality of life because we can respond far more effectively to the problems and challenges life inevitably brings.

We experience a sense of vitality

By living this way, engaging fully in our lives and living in alignment with our values, we develop a sense of meaning and purpose and we experience a sense of vitality. 

In ACT Made Simple, vitality refers to a sense of being fully alive and embracing the here and now, regardless of how we may be feeling in this moment. 

True success is when you are living a values-based life, being fully engaged in the present no matter how you are feeling and being fully open to your experiences.  You may set goals that you don’t achieve but if you are living a life guided by your values you are living a successful life. 

In summary, ACT stands for:

A= Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present

C= Choose a valued direction

T= Take action.

The Untethered Soul

The other approach I have been very much influenced by is from a book based on eastern philosophies using bits of yogic texts as a resource.  The book is The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer, the founder of a multimillion-dollar medical software company and founder of Temple of the Universe, a yoga and meditation center for people of any religion or belief to experience inner peace.

The Untethered Soul is an accessible, easy to read spiritual narrative and is not based on any particular theory.

It describes how you can separate yourself from your ego and reach a state of well-being and acceptance, letting your energy flow through you, rather than blocking or suppressing it.

The Untethered Soul is full of wisdom and expresses eloquently many ideas and theories over the last few decades.

In particular, it has many similarities with some of the core processes in ACT, particularly the second core process, Defusion or Watch your Thinking.

The first step towards having an untethered soul is realizing that we all have an incessant, inner voice talking nonstop, directing our life. 

Once you are aware of this, then can you stop, pause and take a step back to look at what’s really going on for you. 

Michael Singer writes, 

“Just view the voice as a vocalizing mechanism that is capable of making it appear like someone is in there talking to you. Don’t think about it; just notice it. No matter what the voice is saying, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s saying nice things or mean things, worldly things or spiritual things. It doesn’t matter because it’s still just a voice talking inside your head. In fact, the only way to get your distance from this voice is to stop differentiating what it’s saying.” 

Singer calls it the difference between your self and your personal self. Your self is the pure flow of awareness. Your personal self is the identity you develop, based on the perception of your inner voice and thought patterns. This is very similar to the thinking mind and the observing mind described in the Self- as- Context process in ACT.

 Michael Singer says,

“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it.

You will someday come to see that there is no use for that incessant internal chatter, and there is no reason to constantly attempt to figure everything out. Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.” 

Free ourselves from our thoughts

In essence, Both ACT and The Untethered Soul help us to free ourselves from the constant activity of the mind and not be enslaved by our thoughts.

Stepping back from our thoughts is a really useful tool to help us live life on our own terms and not just the terms directed by the incessant chatter within.

What a relief to know it is not our thoughts that determine how we want to live our life. 

In fact, it is our attitude to those constant thoughts and the effort we make to fully engage in the present, be fully open to our experiences and live in alignment with our values, that in the end defines a truly successful life.  

(If you’re looking for a structured, easy-to-follow framework to help you find your purpose in life and achieve your goals, check my eBook on how to be your own life coach here).

Do you want to live a mindful life?

The simple fact is that learning about Buddhism and other eastern philosophies can empower genuine lasting change in our lives.

In my new eBook, I unwrap these iconic teachings and detail specific actions you can take to improve your daily life. Together we're going to work to strengthen your relationships, increase your emotional resilience, and systematically train your mind.

After reading this eBook, you’ll be equipped with all the tools you need to live a happier and more satisfying life.

Check it out here.

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Jeanette Clare

Written by Jeanette Clare

I have been in vocational education both as a manager and as a teacher over many years. I'm also an experienced coach who is passionate about people achieving their goals, whether it be in the workplace or in their personal lives.

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