In our modern society, with so many sources of information, it’s easy to get into overload. We’ve got so many things to consider that it can lead us to overthinking. Today we’re going to discuss how you can rein in your overthinking for good.
Overthinking is a major issue in these overstimulated, excessively informed times. It takes only seconds to go from worrying about having a headache to diagnosing yourself with cancer on WebMD.
And if that’s not bad enough, we lie awake in our tired/wired states and agonize over all the things we did wrong that day. You wonder if your coworker’s unexplained bad mood was because she hates you, or if you should have made that point in that meeting, or whether you should get up right now and throw away everything in the house that has sugar in it.
Overthinking is a major cause of anxiety and depression because it causes us to constantly worry about the future and ruminate over the past. Instead of spending time in the here and now, we live in the land of what if?
Worse than that, while overthinking about the future might start out innocently – like trying to feel prepared for a situation or informed on a decision, it actually clouds our judgement. Overthinking increases your stress and overwhelms you so that your brain can’t make good quality decisions.
And to top it all off, as overthinking begins to cause the anxiety and/or depression, those mental health problems may cause you to overthink even more. Overthinking can cause you so much distress that you develop other unhealthy coping mechanisms. It might begin to interfere with your sleep in both quality and quantity. All these factors lead down a slippery mental health slope that can be difficult to recover from.
In light of all that struggle with overthinking and how much damage it can cause, here are 5 ways to help you rein back in those unwanted thoughts.
2 WAYS TO OVERTHINK ABOUT IT
When I began researching this article I believed, wrongly, that overthinking was really just thinking too much about the future. Trying to plan for every imaginable situation — no matter how unlikely (or impossible), or worrying about something you can’t control — like the weather.
However, overthinking isn’t just about the future. It’s also all that dwelling on the past we tend to do as well. The hours spent pondering what if you had made a different decision or trying to figure out what someone else actually meant when they gave you that look.Eons spent picking apart every last detail of that chance run in with your ex.
And all of this for what? None of this thinking does anything positive for you. It drains your energy, clouds your judgement, and can send you into a mental health nosedive.
However, this is not to say that thinking about a particular situation is necessarily overthinking. You could spend your entire day working on a certain project and it could all be positive, problem solving type thinking. You could be brain storming, or coming up with solutions, or trying new angles.
These thinking patterns are what our brains are meant for. They lead us to creativity, to growth, to action. Overthinking on the other hand just spins us in circles. It’s the difference between hopping on the freeway and driving an hour to your destination, as opposed to circling around and around on the on ramp to the off ramp and back again.
Both instances make you feel like you’re doing something. You’re still driving, or thinking as the case may be, but one actually moves you in a meaningful way, and the other is just a waste of gas.
THE OVERTHINKING CYCLE
Regardless of whether you tend to lean to worrying, rumination, or a mix of the two, the more you do it, the more you’re going to do it.
Because thinking is a habit. You’ve heard me say it before. The more you tend to think a certain the way, the more you will continue to think that way. This is why negative people tend to get more negative the older they get. The longer they’re at it, the deeper the habit, the more difficult it is stop — or even notice that it’s happening.
Also, because so many thoughts swim around in our brains, it makes it difficult to notice when we wrapped up in a particular thought pattern unless we make plans to be mindful of it.
And because this is a negative thought pattern the more upset we become about whatever we’re overthinking about, the sooner your amygdala is going to get involved. Your amygdala is the ancient part of your brain that is in control of your fight or flight.
When you’re just sitting around working on solving a problem or answering an email your amygdala is just chilling out. It has no reason to be involved because you’re calm. But if you start worrying about something and getting upset, your amygdala will start to take notice.
If you’re upset, it’s upset and it will take over in a heartbeat. And when that part of your brain takes over, there goes all your logical thinking and creativity. Poof. Gone.
Fight or flight is all about keeping you alive. It’s about adrenaline and cortisol to keep you running or strong when you need to be. It’s the very opposite of staying calm and making a logical decision.
Every time you go down that road you’re further stressing yourself out. And if you’re a chronic overthinker you’re probably living in a constant state of stress response, which can lead you to burnout. In the meantime, you may start using unhealthy coping mechanisms which will have negative impacts of their own.
Additionally the more you worry or ruminate the more you’re likely to do it. It may start as just going through a stressful period that has you worried about an important happening in your life. Maybe you’re planning your wedding and it’s so overwhelming. Perhaps you have a loved one that is ill. You could just be going through a prolonged stressful period at work.
The more that you engage in the overthinking during one of these periods, the harder it will be to stop when the situation is resolved. You will find that whenever you have a quiet moment to think your mind immediately finds something to worry about — past or future. And the more you allow that to continue the stronger the habit of overthinking will become.
YOU DON’T JUST STOP OVERTHINKING
Ever said to yourself, “I just need to stop overthinking things”. Did it work?
Pretty much never in the history of overthinking has anyone stopped overthinking because someone said stop overthinking things. That’s not how this works.
The more you tell yourself to just stop thinking about something, the more it will creep into your mind. We can’t stop thinking about something by trying to NOT think about it.
This means that you need some other methods to deal with your excessive thoughts.
If you’ve read more than a couple articles here, you’ve heard me say this: not everything you think is true. It’s hard to remember that because we are in our heads all day long. We hear our own thoughts more than we hear anything else.
But just because you thought it doesn’t make it true. An anorexic that is dangerously underweight will still hear thoughts that she’s too fat. And an overthinker will still hear thoughts that worrying about something will somehow help the situation. Neither are true, but it doesn’t stop us from thinking them.
When you are actively trying to change thought patterns, the first thing to do is notice when you have the thoughts. For example, notice when you’re worrying. If you’re laying in bed ruminating over whether or not you should have said that thing to your boss, pay attention to that. Say to yourself, I’m overthinking right now. Labeling the action helps you acknowledge it.
Then once you are able to notice when it’s happening, challenge it. Remind yourself that overthinking isn’t going to help the situation at all, but it will hurt your mental health. Tell yourself that no, you’re not going to overthink about this, and go do something else instead.
Do Something Else
Because you can’t just stop overthinking you will have to replace that overthinking with something else more positive. Below are some options that you might try depending on what works for you and when the overthinking is happening.
Overthinking pulls us either to the past or the future. Neither of which we have any control of. All we have is the here and now. Practicing mindfulness is the best way for you to drag your overthinking brain into the present.
There are many ways that you can do this. Focusing on your breathing is probably the easiest, do anywhere option. Just focusing on feeling your breath going slowly in and out will both give you something to focus on and help get your logical brain back in control if you got amygdala high jacked by your stress.
Why did you have to say that? What if it rains on vacation? What did she mean with that look?
These are the kinds of questions that send you down the overthinking garden path. They initially seem like something you could figure out if you think about it enough, but nothing productive ever comes of it.
When you find yourself asking these types of questions, change it to what can I do? Overthinking is triggered by what if questions, but productive thoughts are triggered by what actions could you take?
If you do come up with something you can do, then you don’t need to be thinking about it anymore. However, there might not be anything you can do, which tells you that further thinking is useless and wasteful. This is when it’s time to find another direction to send your thoughts.
What Can Go Right?
Oftentimes our overthinking leads us to catastrophic predictions. You spend hours picking apart that fight with your partner only to come to the conclusion that they’re going to break up with you. Then you begin to worry about that. You jump from the past to the future never considering what could go right.
When you get stuck in a situation where you’ve thought about it and you really can’t do anything helpful, you can at least switch your thought pattern from something negative to something positive.
Spending hours worrying about whether you will get that job won’t influence the people making the decision. So instead of wasting that energy and stressing yourself out, practice visualizing a positive outcome instead.
Visualize the absolute best possible outcome and when you being overthinking about your interview, switch your mind over to the positive. This will help prevent your amygdala from getting control and it will switch your habit. Eventually where you would worry about a thing you will start to come up with all the positives that might happen, instead.
Find a Distraction
Time flies when you’re having fun, right? Sometimes a distraction is one of the best ways to stop worrying. Especially if it engages both body and mind.
Because overthinking goes into that habit place, it tends to happen when your mind is quiet. Any free time you have might soon be filled with overthinking about everything that has or will ever happen to you.
A positive distraction can be useful to get yourself out of that stressful place that overthinking may have already taken you, and also distract your mind and give it something else to do.
When the overthinking habit is very strong, this is a great way to start breaking it. The less opportunity you have to overthink, the weaker the habit will become. Eventually you may find your thought habit changing and going to thinking about your positive distraction instead of heading towards worry.
The caveat here is that binge watching and endless hours of video gaming and such other distractions do NOT fit in this category. These are not hobbies, they are escapist/avoidance behaviors that actually damage your mental health. A positive distraction is likely active and often produces something (cooking, knitting, painting, etc).
While overthinking feels like we’re going to do something productive with our time, it’s actually detrimental to our mental health and clouds our ability to make a good decision. Overthinking is a negative thought habit that can be overcome. Try some of these tips the next time you find yourself ruminating about the past or worried about the future.
If you struggle with negative thought patterns that are stopping you from taking actions on your goals, please contact me here. Coaching with me can help you change the way you think so you can move forward.