ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias interviews Dr Gwendoline Smith about how terrible it is to think too much.

Certainly I overthink things, in the sense that I worry and fret and angst, but not in the sense that I actually think very deeply or intelligently. It’s more a formless and hopeless chaos of anxieties, shames, guilts, regrets, ancient grievances, lingering resentments, and various assorted self-loathings – you know, all in a day’s work, it’s just the way many of us function, or malfunction. One of the striking things about War & Peace is the way Tolstoy gets inside the teeming, steaming heads of his characters and transcribes their every thought; Russia, in the early 1800s, and everyone is talking to themselves in a formless and hopeless chaos.

Auckland clinical psychologist Dr Gwendoline Smith writes books that show us “pathways” to get our heads together. Her latest self-helper, The Book of Over-Thinking, is selling extremely well. The title alone resonates with a lot of people. Overthinking is a problem. At worst, it’s a sickness. For many of us, it’s a drag. We’d get more things done around the house and in our lives if we weren’t so paralysed with worrying about things; we’re always striving to simplify, do a Marie Kondo on our heads and throw out emotional clutter, arrive at a peaceful easy feeling which may or may not resemble a lobotomy.

Her publisher put me in touch with Dr Gwendoline. I emailed off a few questions and she answered them quickly. I was grateful for that but the truth is I found a lot of her answers really very aggravating, with her boring incoherent jargon (“a biopsychosocial phenomena”) and her dogged insistence that worry doesn’t do anyone any good. I think that worry is an essential component of thinking, gives it substance and emotional depth. I think it’s a sign we’re sensitive and like to look at things from different angles, and that we want the best result for everyone, not just ourselves. I also think that the concept of thinking less is really terrible. I hate chilled-out people; they’re usually f**king morons. And I cannot agree with her about Elaine from Seinfeld. Elaine is adorable, for God’s sake! But Dr Gwendoline is coming from a good place. She makes a lot of sense. She’s here to help.

As follows is a transcript of our interview.

Is overthinking a kind of epidemic?

I write in my book about the relationship between overthinking and anxiety. Overthinking is worry. Worry is generalised anxiety, and anxiety is the current mental health epidemic. Anxiety is also the neurological pathway into depression.

We need to think hard and long to work through complex issues. Are you advocating that we think less, cut corners, and settle for crappy decisions?

No. What I’m commenting on is that when an individual worries, this impairs decision-making. The consciousness has limits. An article on happiness in the Harvard Business Review described worry as “negative mind-wandering”. Their finding showed an approximate 30 percent drop in creativity, innovation and productivity.

Isn’t overthinking actually a way of taking into account other people’s feelings and situations, and that not to do so, to just focus on ourselves, is grossly selfish? “I’ll do what works for me.”

Worrisome overthinking – which is what my book is about – has nothing to do with sensitivity to the feelings of other people. Where it does apply is if someone believes they’ve offended another person, they go away from that situation and endlessly ruminate about the conversation, with  regrets about what they’ve said. The perception of the conversation becomes distorted by what I call “thought viruses” –  they feel guilty, and then the emotional experience of guilt reinforces that they’ve done something wrong and offensive. But feelings do not provide an accurate gauge of reality. Feelings are not facts.

Are we an unhappy and stressed-out society?

It’s not my observation that New Zealanders are more stressed and unhappy than other first world nations. However, we do have shocking statistics when it comes to teenage suicides. But the reasons for these statistics are complex and I’m always hesitant to make generalised statements about a biopsychosocial phenomena.

The author Gordon McLauchlan, who died this month, famously described Kiwis as “the passionless people”. Are we more “the anxious, seething, sleepless people”?

I’m not sure what Gordon exactly meant by this so won’t comment.

Do you see examples of overthinking in popular culture? That is, a character who makes a hash of things by overthinking?

The most fantastic example of overthinking and over-reacting is Seinfield. All the characters would overthink and jump to conclusions. Elaine in particular would constantly follow her emotions and ignore cues from reality.

You’re down on worrying. But to worry is to be human. By telling us to worry less – isn’t that an artificial construct?

Not all human beings worry. There’s the old saying,”I can’t believe what Bob is like – everything is just like water off a duck’s back.” In other words Bob doesn’t worry. It’s not in his temperament; he doesn’t have that habit of thinking. I don’t think to worry is human. To think is human.

Doesn’t chilling out make you kind of stupid?

Not at all. Some of the highest achieving individuals in our world do not worry. Not worrying is not an indication of being thick – quite the opposite.

You’re also down on our use of the concept “should” – we think that we should do this, that, and the other, and you say that’s bad. But isn’t “should” a way of motivating us to do the right thing, and to think our way through our problems?

People who use the word “should” will often claim that it’s a motivator. But “should” creates far more negative emotional responses – guilt, resentment, frustration, self-loathing. “Should” is more of a demotivator. It drives behaviour through fear.

Is sleep the best cure?Just shut down, you know. Get some rest.

Sleep is the brain’s food, so of course it’s vital and essential to our psychological well-being.

Cognitive therapy made me stop smoking. (I went to an Allen Carr session.) Messages were apparently put deep into my subconscious and I lost the will to smoke. Can it work to make us lose the will to think too much and drown out the negative clamorous voices in our head?

My books The Book of Overthinking and The Book of Knowing are based on the methodology of cognitive therapy. This methodology is proven to be the most effective treatment approach for the anxiety disorders. So, yes, it does work for overthinking.

The Book of Overthinking by Gwendoline Smith (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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