We have all been bestowed with a brain which, for the most part, is a wondrous creation which enables us to process information, think through our options, and determine how to proceed.
However, at times our mind can seem like our own worst enemy. When we find ourselves overthinking an issue, with our thoughts returning again and again to a past situation or future scenario, we’re likely to needlessly wear ourselves out.
So, it’s in our best interest to nip this overthinking habit in the bud. Some tips to help:
- Awareness. First, notice when you’re overthinking. When you feel anxious, identify what your mind is doing. Are you going over and over something in your head? Is one thought repetitively spinning around in your brain, without your making any progress or coming to any resolution on the matter? That’s overthinking.
- Count the cost. Recognize that your overthinking is doing you more harm than good. Sometimes we believe that if we just ponder a problem for long enough, we’ll be able to figure out a solution. However, there comes a point when our repetitive analyzing can befuddle us, wreak havoc with our sleep (which can impair our thinking), get in the way of our creativity, interfere with our noticing and appreciating the present (leading to our later regret of having missed out on important details), and drain our energy, any of which can cause paralysis. Other results of overthinking can include isolating ourselves from people and situations we fear may make us uncomfortable, using alcohol, drugs, or overeating to numb our feelings or stop our incessant thoughts. It’s not worth it.
- Consider what could go right, rather than what could go wrong. The first option engenders hope and enthusiasm, whereas the second option breeds fear and despair. Why not use your mind in a productive way, if you find yourself mulling over a situation? Even when thinking positively, though, it’s best not to overthink things and instead leave the results to work out as they may (aside from doing your part – and only your part).
- Get working on this ASAP. With time, overthinking can become a deeply ingrained habit. The more we think a certain way, the stronger that neural pathway in our brain becomes. It’s similar to walking along a particular path in the woods. Gradually the path becomes increasingly well-worn, while the foliage surrounding the path continues to grow, so it becomes easier to choose the familiar path and more difficult to forge a different road. So, the sooner you take steps to break the overthinking habit, the better.
- Distract yourself with healthy, nurturing activities such as playing with your pet, chatting with a friend (about topics other than the object of your current obsession), exercise, meditation read a good book, etc. Temporary distraction can improve your mood, give your mind a break and allow you to come back later to the issue at hand with new, creative ways of coping with the situation.
- Focus on taking the next, best, right action according to your best determination. Instead of letting your mind remain in a tailspin about imagined future scenarios, use your energy productively. Write that email, clean your office or kitchen for 15 minutes, or simply close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply for a few moments. Ask yourself, “what would a person who loves and respects herself/himself do right now?”, and act accordingly. Often simply taking action can alleviate the anxiety and obsessing, whereas passive obsessing just compounds the problem.
- Write out your thoughts. Put specific words to what is worrying you and why it seems to have such a hold on you. Seeing this on paper (or a computer screen) can help you to see your concerns more clearly, rather than having vague feelings of dread and racing and repetitive thoughts. You could then just tear up the paper (or delete the computer file), or you could…
- Write out alternative explanations and possibilities for your situation and worries. Let’s say that you initially wrote down, “I’m terrified that my performance review at my job will go poorly, and I’ll be fired.” You can then list things you’ve done well in your current position as well as how you’ve actually learned from missteps you’ve made on the job. The latter can go a long way towards reframing any mistakes on your part (and we all make them), which could lead to a productive discussion during your review, if the matter comes up.
- Get some mental and emotional distance from the problem. Pretend that a close friend of yours, rather than you yourself, is struggling with the issue. What words of advice would you give them? Often when we step back from a situation, we can see things more clearly and objectively and are less emotionally reactive.
- Imagine a STOP sign. If you find your mind embroiled in mental obsession, picture a STOP sign and tell yourself “Stop!”, or even hold up your hand and say “Stop!” In doing so, you’ll develop a new, more productive habit of (kindly) telling yourself that enough is enough, and to direct your attention to more productive pursuits.
- Use the STOP acronym to remind yourself to (1) Stop, (2) Take a breath, (3) Observe what’s going on within and around you, and (4) Proceed with the next indicated step. This can help to focus you on the essentials and let go of extraneous thoughts that threaten to derail you.
- Know when you’re particularly vulnerable to obsessive and negative thinking and try to refrain from pondering a problem/the past/the future at these times. In other words, beware HALT (which stands for being either Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired). If you’re in one or more of these states, your ability to think clearly and process emotions effectively will be impaired. You’re also more likely to fall victim to negativity. Don’t put yourself in this position. Doing what you need to do to get back in balance, such as getting a good night’s sleep or eating a healthy meal, should be your top priority at this time.
- Stop using the past to predict the future. Just because you made a mistake or fell short of your expectations in the past, it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to fail the next time around. Presumably you’ve gained some helpful self-knowledge from your experience, which you can use to your advantage in the future.
- Keep company with people who don’t overthink things. It’s been said that we become like the five people with whom we spend the most time. Who are these people in your life? Do you want to “catch” their attitudes? Because attitudes are indeed contagious.
- Practice gratitude. It’s difficult to be overwhelmed by worry when we’re counting our blessings. On a daily basis, make a list of five things for which you’re appreciative. Try to vary what you write down, so you’re not automatically jotting down the same items. Consider sharing your list with a friend, so you can encourage each other to look on the bright side.
- Remind yourself where you are right now. Mentally or aloud, tell yourself, “I am doing the dishes”, “I am taking a shower”, “I am feeding my cat”, or whatever the case may be. Ground yourself in your present reality. Make this moment the centre of your attention. This will save you so much mental and emotional energy, as opposed to allowing your mind to spin off into yesterday or tomorrow.
- Post reminders around you to stay present and calm, such as “Keep it simple”, “One thing at a time”, or “Let it be”. An object such as a gem stone, small rock, or other object that you associate with calmness, and which you spend a few moments focusing on, can also help bring you back into the moment and into peace.
- Remember your priorities. First Things First. What is most important to you? How does the object of your worry fit into the grander scheme of your life? Is it really that consequential? Are you allowing a small issue to cast a big shadow? Is it more important than your peace of mind, health, and happiness? Because, make no mistake, you are sabotaging all three if you continue to obsess.
- Set a limit on the time it takes you to make a decision. When we procrastinate on a choice, we can wear ourselves out, miss out on other important aspects of life, and make things more complicated than they have to be. Yes, certainly we may need to take time to gather important information, but often the best answer is right there in front of our nose – we just get wrapped up in trying to do this “perfectly” (as if such a thing existed) or in trying to avoid the work or uncomfortable feelings we might be in for once we actually make our decision. For relatively simple decisions, set a timer for 15 minutes, weigh your options, and come up with the best (not perfect!) decision, then act on it. For more complicated decisions, set a timer for 30 minutes a day (at most) to think about the matter, then change the subject. If you feel tempted to mull the issue over some more, remind yourself that your unconscious brain is working behind the scenes on your behalf, and that you can resume your problem-solving tomorrow (at the earliest).
- Set a limit on how often you check the news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other news outlets. Bombarding your mind with yet more information when you already struggle with overthinking will just add fuel to the fire. Respect the power and clarity of silence. For instance, you might limit your media time to 15 minutes three or four times a day.
- Take regular breaks throughout the day to do something calming. This will decrease the chances that tension and anxiety will build up within you and thus lessen the likelihood of your drifting into overthinking.
- Learn something new. Take up a new language, take a new yoga class, walk in a new neighbourhood, or do a crossword puzzle. Channel your mental energy into something interesting and creative.
- Consider whether you may be suffering from depression or anxiety. Overthinking is often (although not always) a sign of mood disorders. What’s more, overthinking can impair your mental health, so it’s a vicious cycle. You may benefit from some counselling sessions with your EAP Assist counsellor to address what may underlying your busy brain.
- Know the difference between overthinking and problem-solving. There is a time, place, and way to productively mull over an issue. Overthinking focuses on the problem. Problem solving focuses on the solution, what you’ve learned from your experience, and your viable options/what you can do now.
- Practice radical acceptance. This means accepting all aspects of your situation, including your thoughts and your feelings about your circumstance. You may not like not having all of the answers. You may feel uneasy about having made a mistake or embarrassed yourself. You may feel angry that someone else did not behave according to your preferences. So be it. All the same, you can accept that this is the way it is (or was, if you’re mulling over the past). Resistance is futile (and exhausting). Resistance will just generate more suffering. Seeing yourself and the situation as they really are will allow you to refocus your attention on what you are able to take action on now.