Anxiety and overthinking - revisiting the pile of rocks

Anxiety is a different experience for every sufferer, but there is one feature I see as common to myself and my clients – the pull towards going over and over a list of problems, fears and failings.


In therapy, I often compare this experience to being like sitting by a large pile of rocks. Each one has a different problem written on it, and the client takes their time picking them up one by one and looking at them carefully. Sometimes daily, sometimes hourly.

Picking up the rocks and passing them to a new pile ready to be visited again the next time. Never getting rid of them, never dulling the pain of looking at them by repetition, just spending time with the pile of rocks.

The urge to revisit the pile of rocks is triggered in many ways. Sometimes, in an emergency. The panic or anxiety attack hits, and the body is stunned. The mind goes into overdrive and wants to revisit all the problems again.

At other times, perhaps the person feels they have a quiet moment alone and wants to use the time to think through their situation, and they begin to revisit all the problems again. The prompts are different, but the outcome of a sense of loss and overwhelm may be the same.

The process is time-consuming and exhausting. And yet, at the same time, familiar or oddly comforting, and has the feel of problem-solving. This is especially true for overthinkers and high achievers – they are used to thinking their way out of a crisis or difficult situation, so their own mental distress should be no different. The drive is similar to that which leads to making a list, examining it thoroughly, and working through it.

However, this is not a list like any other. A list of jobs for the day ‘Post Office, shopping, finish article’ is one thing. But a list that has points like ‘get over your grief, rediscover your old self, just be better’ is quite another.

The pile tricks you into thinking that the problems are heavy but simple and that the solutions must be too. The fact that the pile continues to exist must mean you have failed; go back and do it again until you do it right. This sense of failure, of self-criticism, drives the urge to repeat the process and hides from you a different idea – that you could choose not to sit down.

Pile of pebbles

That choice is far from easy to make and may need to be made every day for a while. Feeling the urge and noticing it is there is the beginning, choosing to act or think differently comes next.

Not sitting by the rocks doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the problems or denying the pain they cause you. But, is an acceptance that naming the problem isn’t the same thing as working through it.

To begin to do that, you need more self-care and gentleness than is presented by a pile of cold, hard rocks. You need to be in a place of positive thinking, without every problem or failure in front of you at once. Crucially, a compassionate, therapeutic relationship can be a good place to start the process safely, exploring together how your rocks impact on your life and sense of self.

Eventually, the rocks will lose their draw. The need to run through all your problems in a time of stress or reflection is replaced by a growing sense of inner strength and acknowledgement that you can take the steps you need to begin healing, without stopping to remind yourself of all the negatives first. In the meantime, be careful where you chose to sit, and remember you can get up again.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11
Written by Tania Davis, MSc, UKCP Reg
Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11

Tania Goldsmith is a psychotherapist and counsellor currently working online, but based in Loughborough. She works with adults on a range of issues, blending curiosity and compassion to help clients begin to grow again. She has a broad experience of short and long term work, presenting issues and ages, diagnoses and personalities.

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