Smart Thinker: Psychologist Gwendoline Smith
Smart Thinker: Psychologist Gwendoline Smith
Gwendoline Smith goes by the name of Doctor Know – so it’s little surprise that her publication The Book of Knowing has received high praise for helping young people understand their own minds and get their feelings under control. Although the techniques and strategies in her books are ageless, The Book of Knowing was geared towards youth – meanwhile her new title The Book of Overthinking was written with adults in mind to address a problem that the majority of her clients face. “I thought, ‘What’s the biggest thing that presents over and over and over in my clinical practice?’ And it would be overthinking,” says Smith.
The Book of Overthinking explains that there’s a difference between positive and negative overthinking, with the latter essentially being worry. “Overthinking as a term is much more acceptable and digestible for the average person,” says Smith. “If I was to have entitled it The Book of Worry – now who’s going to read that commuting on the train with everybody looking at the cover? Not many. And also, what I’ve found is that the younger generation – say 20s, 30s – they don’t talk about worrying. They talk about overthinking. But when you deconstruct the definition of overthinking it’s exactly the same as worry.” She notes that the essence of worry is the prediction of negative catastrophic or disastrous outcomes. “And when you talk to overthinkers, that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
This worrisome overthinking is causing numerous problems for her clients. “One of the first things [overthinking] does is eat away at sleep,” Smith explains. “For your average functioning, engaged member of the public, the overthinking will start with waking up, tossing and turning – a very restless sleep. Then they start to get fatigued and a bit irritable and sleepy during the day, so therefore the sleep itself is never refreshing.” Worry also activates the production of adrenaline and cortisol – the stress hormones. These are the chemicals associated with fear that are released as part of the body’s natural fight/flight/freeze response. When this fight/flight/freeze alarm system is constantly being switched on and off, it begins to take a toll on overall health and wellbeing. Overthinkers may start to experience bowel problems, stomach ulcers, muscle tension, headaches, sleep disturbance or fatigue. “And then in terms of the mood, because people are tired, they tend to be more irritable, they tend to get flat, disinterested. So as it continues you start to see something that looks like a mild depression,” explains Smith. “It’s not a severe depression, but it’s starting to morph into something where the mood is really suffering.”
With so many clients experiencing this destructive form of worry, Smith firmly believes anxiety is the epidemic now, not depression. “Over my career I’ve noticed an increase in clients across the board, and I think that’s because it’s more acceptable now to see a psychologist, there’s less stigma. So where the profile’s changed is it used to be that I would see a lot more depressed people, and so therefore what you’re looking at there is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff scenario. Now, as it’s become more acceptable, there’s more media coverage, there are more conversations about it, people are presenting earlier and so what that means is that you get to treat the anxiety before it’s morphed into depression.”
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is widely-used to treat anxiety disorders, and a number of its techniques are outlined in The Book of Overthinking. “The cognitive therapy approach is not to teach positive thinking,” explains Smith. “The approach is to help with thinking more constructively in a way that’s more helpful, and you do that by challenging the meaning that’s been given to certain situations.” Her clinical opinion on positive thinking? It doesn’t work. “As I’ve said in the book, you can’t put sugar on s***. If someone’s really anxious and fearful and phobic, that is a waste of time.”
The Book of Overthinking is an easy read that can be devoured in a short time, and it comes with the elements of The Book of Knowing that its readers love – illustrations, humour, simple language and relatable examples. “Nobody’s going to read a textbook,” says Smith. “And self-help books are dry, uninteresting and boring.” The inclusion of comedy makes The Book of Overthinking particularly accessible. “When people are laughing, they learn more. They’re more relaxed. And also I think if something’s funny it further destigmatises, so it doesn’t say, ‘Here’s a really serious book because you’ve got a problem and you’re f***** in the head’, you know – ‘You’re sick.’” Smith’s refreshingly blunt method of explanation comes across in the book as effectively as it does in our interview. “I’m good at teaching laypeople with humour, and a lot of academics aren’t good with that. They’re so trained in the academic way that you’re referencing and doing bibliographies of 500 words just to say the word ‘and.’”
There’s a wealth of knowledge in The Book of Overthinking that is guaranteed to help anyone whose life is being negatively impacted by worry. But if there’s one thing Smith would want people struggling with overthinking to take away, it’s this – worry is mythology and superstition. “Two of the major beliefs involved in the superstition of worry are the preventative power of worry and the predictive power of worry. But the bottom line is you will gain nothing from worrying apart from ulcers and irritable bowel to name but a few. Only behaviour changes the outcome – worrisome overthinking changes nothing.”
The Book of Overthinking by Gwendoline Smith is on sale now in all good bookstores.