How to Stop Overthinking

The practice of not thinking has sold more than 1 million copies in Japan. Now that it’s translated into English for the first time, let’s explore what we can learn from it.

What would happen if we started listening instead of hearing, looking instead of seeing, or feeling something rather than touching it? The same can be said of how we engage with other sensations – to actively connect with the smell or taste of something rather than allowing it to just happen to us. Perhaps it’s cool and rainy outside. We might think, “oh, not again, I don’t like this weather.” Instead of thinking about the temperature and our preferences, assuming we can surrender to the sensation and ask ourselves: How does the air, temperature, or rain feel on my skin? If we can connect with this idea, it has the potential to transform our thinking.

Letting go of negative thoughts

In his book, Ryunosuke Koike invites us to focus on the sensation, which can be a comfortable experience, and one way to find peace, regardless of any initial label and associations we might attribute to lousy weather. Koike explains more about this simple shift from passive to active: “That’s the difference between touching and actually feeling. In a Buddhist context, it’s the difference between forgetting and focusing.” He believes that all the failures we ever experience may be attributed to excessive thinking and negative thoughts, and the only way to gain control of our thinking is to practice stopping it.

Moving our state from passive to active by “setting intentionally” presents us with a different experience. By actively looking at a flower in front of us, other things will fade in the background, and our other senses will calm down. This is ultimately what Koike‘s book reveals. He offers up a set of ancient Buddhist techniques and practical ways to overcome overthinking by using our five senses and bolstering our perception of the physical: our sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It invites us to examine how we use these in our daily lives and how we can use them to manage our thinking. It isn’t just an invitation to cultivate mindfulness through the senses to help achieve a balanced state of mind. His book also offers advice, such as how to avoid manipulative information and ways to practice eliminating negative thoughts. It also draws upon many of the core Buddhist teachings used to cultivate compassion. Furthermore, it invites us to consider how we conduct our lives, the way we communicate, behave, and how we engage with life, with the underlying motive of examining our actions and our own impermanence, as a way of managing our thoughts, charged feelings and prevent overthinking.

What causes overthinking?

Our culture and society teach us to examine, analyze, study and work hard. It often tells us what we should be thinking, whether that’s through advertising, the government, social media, the news, our family, or simply through the process of social osmosis. The channels are overwhelmingly wide-reaching, and often we’re unaware of these incoming messages. 

Culture in the West is fast-paced and driven by the need to succeed, to have it all, and achieve great things. We start to become these goals, whatever the cost. Even when we embark on a self-healing quest or therapeutic journey, we have a tendency to want to strive, achieve or get results quickly. These behavioral patterns, and to what degree we overthink, will vary based on life experiences, persona, and environment. 

Ryunosuke Koike said, “As humans, we are always thinking. Thinking is usually considered a fine characteristic of humanity, and we tend to believe we’re superior to animals because we think. But is that truly the case? My feeling is that because we think, our ability to concentrate can falter, and we can sometimes get frustrated or lost. Let’s call it thinking disease, a disease that occurs as a result of thinking.” 

One of the notions mentioned early on in the book is the idea that our reality is too boring or ordinary and that, actually, negative thoughts are more stimulating, and so the mind seeks out the negative. It’s easy to get into these unhelpful habits, where we feel over-stimulated by external and internal messages. However, just as patterns are learned, they can also be unlearned.

The impact on wellbeing

When we feel that the demands or pressure placed on us are more significant than our ability to cope, given our current resources, we can experience a stress reaction. Surveys in the workplace suggest that up to 13 million working days are lost in a year due to stress and stress-related illnesses. 

Stress reactions occur because the mind and body are preparing to deal with the perceived pressure or threat. The overthinking and stressed-out mind instructs the body to release a surge of hormones, mainly adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, which maximize our ability to face up to the pressure or run away from it. This is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

When the pressure has passed, these stress hormone levels can once again return to normal. However, we are regularly overthinking, and this can lead to feeling ‘stressed’, which is when our body constantly releases the stress hormones, with no opportunity for the levels to return to normal. These stress hormones can remain in the body, causing the symptoms and effects of stress.

So, overthinking can lead to anxiety and stress, which can then lead to a number of signs and symptoms, including headaches, muscle pain, nausea, stomach problems, sexual problems, palpitations, tiredness, poor concentration, racing thoughts, insomnia, low mood, and a plethora of other behavioral, psychological and emotional side effects.

It’s essential for the brain to rest. The brain’s sympathetic system is triggered when presented with a message of perceived threat, stimulating the production of stress hormones and causing stress symptoms. However, when the message received is one of calmness and wellbeing, the parasympathetic system is triggered, stimulating the production of endorphins. These are the body’s feel-good hormones and, as well as increasing the feeling of happiness, they produce a tranquil amnesiac condition with an effect 200 times that of morphine.

What’s the antidote?

We know that, if practiced, mindfulness can benefit our lives tremendously. According to a study by Sala Horowitz, PhD (2010), it continues to be a compelling approach for reducing stress, anxiety, anger, chronic pain disorders, substance abuse, memory loss, and trauma. The same research also shows that meditation results in significant physical and mental health benefits after as little as eight weeks of daily practice.

Mindfulness and meditation aren’t about stopping all thoughts and entering a void of nothingness. It’s about noticing thoughts as they arise. That doesn’t mean that you allow that train of thought to become a complete narrative on what you need to do today; it just means observing the thought as it arises. This noticing of the thought may allow you to let it go before it runs away with you.

Breaking habits

So how can we reconnect our senses and rid ourselves of negative and unhelpful behaviors?

Deep breathing is both a relaxation and release technique – this is a perfect place to start. Then there’s color breathing, which is both a relaxation and release technique. Progressive relaxation is a relaxation technique that invites you to relax each part of your body. It also acts as a distraction and brings your experience back to the body.

Stress release techniques are used by hypnotherapists whereby you imagine letting go of stress triggers and unwanted thoughts and feelings, for example, from a hot air balloon, into a boat, into a cloud.

Then, of course, there’s mindfulness, backed by many studies, science and is now considered a reputable antidote to over-thinking.

The more we can practice these techniques in place of overthinking, the more likely it is that our brains will lay down new neural pathways, which will enable us to change our mindset.

The techniques Ryunosuke Koike outlines in his book are practical ways to cultivate mindfulness. Yet, it offers so much more than that. He provides a compassionate sense of how to reframe our experiences and adjust our perceptions. His teachings, which are underpinned by ancient Buddhist philosophy and practice, are ultimately the unique combination taught to those following the Buddhist path.

The Practice of Not Thinking will show you how to retrain your brain and eradicate these difficult habits, resulting in a calmer and more pleasant life. This is the perfect book to help us keep our thoughts clear and peaceful as we re-adjust to the fast-paced nature of post-lockdown life. There’s never been a better time to stop overthinking and start sensing.

How to start using your senses

Koike suggests paying attention to the movements of your mind regularly. Check yourself now and then, setting up an imaginary sensor like you would do a home alarm system. He suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • What is my mind thinking about now? 
  • What is it looking at?
  • What is it listening to?
  • What types of smells is it smelling?

Then, when you have more awareness of what is happening at this moment, adjust your awareness or change the movements of your mind.

If you notice that you’re thinking unneeded thoughts, you can focus on feeling instead.

In short, this first primary step is to start recognizing how many of your five senses you’re using at any given time.

He discusses the Noble Eightfold Path, which in Buddhism is about living in the right way. This path involves eight practices, which are said to lead to enlightenment, and which include: developing your inner strength to ensure you adopt the right approach in terms of your thoughts, speech, actions, and way you live, developing your concentration, cleansing the mind, becoming aware and adopting the correct views and using meditation to expand your mind and to understand your path better.

5 Steps to enlightenment

1 Allow forgiveness

Be kind and show compassion, to yourself, others, and all sentient beings. This includes forgiving yourself and others.

2 Think before you speak

Be aware of, and mindful of, your speech, thoughts, and actions, noticing how these can impact yourself and others.

3 Be authentic

Adopt the right livelihood and the right way of living.

4 Celebrate mindfulness

Spend time cultivating a steady mind, whether that’s through meditation or other mindfulness techniques.

5 Open your eyes

Nurture your global views; think beyond your own inner world.