All day long, thousands of thoughts are running through our minds. Funnily enough, most of them are exactly the same thoughts as the day before: we ponder about performing well at work, spending enough time with our family and what we’ll have for dinner.
Overthinking is the tendency to constantly monitor and analyze your thoughts. Not only are you highly aware of your thoughts, but you also spend a lot of time deciphering its meaning and cause. Overthinking comes in two forms: rumination, which is the psychological term for replaying past problems in your mind, and worrying, when you compulsively consider all kinds of (doom)scenarios.
Thinking things through isn’t bad in itself. Rumination can prevent you from making the same mistake twice, while worrying helps to identify problems and narrow your attention so you’re more likely to take action.
But overthinking becomes a problem when you can’t stop overanalyzing every little thing. You have trouble falling asleep at night because your brain just won’t shut off or you drink one too many glasses of wine to drown out the negative thoughts.
Whereas self-reflection is solution-orientated, overthinking involves dwelling on your negative thoughts. You feel like have no real control over what’s happening. This only worsens when you zoom in on your problem, brainstorm all kinds of scenarios… and then don’t take action. As a consequence, you get even more stuck in your mind and your problem doesn’t get solved, leading to even more rumination and worrying. This vicious cycle can eventually spin out of control and end up in a depression, anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If overthinking is taking over your life, you’re feeling seriously depressed and anxious, or you find yourself engaging in addictive behaviors to escape your worries for a while, please reach out to your doctor, psychologist or other medical professionals for face-to-face, personalized help.
Just to be clear, having a healthy thinking pattern doesn’t mean you never relive embarrassing moments or run ‘what if’ scenarios through your mind. It simply means that when bad thoughts cross your mind, you don’t get stuck in a negative or self-destructive spiral.
Building practices that prevent overthinking from happening in the first place is obviously very helpful. But when you want to quiet the mental chatter and focus on more constructive things than your worries now, what can you do?
6 Short-Term Strategies to Stop Overthinking Now
Feeling really anxious and need to stop overthinking immediately? Skip the first steps and focus on #5 and #6: taking a mental pause and seeking positive distraction. Come back to the full short-term strategy whenever your thoughts and emotions have calmed down again.
1. Become aware of your overthinking patterns
The first step to change any kind of behavior is to become aware of it. But it can be hard to recognize a negative spiral when you’re in the midst of it. So learn to recognize the warning signs of overthinking:
- Are you getting lost in your train of thoughts? Do you struggle to focus on anything else?
- Do you replay conversations in your mind more than once, thinking about what you should have said or done?
- Is there a constant, nagging sense of worry in the back of your mind? Can you feel tension building up in your muscles or a heavy feeling in your stomach?
- Are you using words like ‘never’, ‘always’ and ‘should’ (which are all signs of common cognitive errors)?
- Does it feel like you can’t shut your brain off, even though you should be sleeping or getting ready to go out?
When you notice yourself doing any of these things, chances are you’re falling into your overthinking patterns.
2. Do a brain dump
Once you’ve become aware that you’re overthinking, stop going over the same problem in your mind by ‘offloading’ your thoughts. Grab a pen and paper and quickly write down everything that bothers you. You don’t have to form eloquent sentences, jotting down some keywords works just fine. If you’re at work or on-the-go, find a quiet spot for a minute and dump all your worries in your phone’s notes.
Not only will a brain dump give you a better overview of what you’re concerned about – maybe it isn’t as big or bad as you think when you see it written down – but it may also give your brain a sense that “it’s handled’. That way, your mind no longer feels the need to remind you of the problem constantly.
Next, if you’ve put all your worrisome thoughts onto paper, move onto the next step. Trust that you’ll get back to your brain dump list when you’re ready to tackle it.
3. Examine and challenge your thoughts
Looking over your list of worries, do a quick thought experiment to test the validity of what you’re thinking. Examine your thought patterns and ask yourself:
- Is this thought true and accurate? Build your case with real-world evidence: write down all proof for your beliefs in one column and the counter-examples in the other.
- If you do find support for your beliefs, is that evidence accurate or could it be another symptom of your negative thinking? Are you confusing facts with opinions?
- Is this thought helpful in the long run or just distressing?
- What’s the worst thing that can happen? On a scale from 1 to 10, how likely is it that this will actually happen?
- What would you tell your best friend if they had these negative thoughts?
- In which ways would your life change if you stopped believing your negative thoughts?
Challenging your thoughts is an effective technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to hold your automatic thinking patterns under scrutiny and test it for common cognitive biases.
Just make sure you don’t get stuck in another overanalyzing mode. Set a timer and give yourself no more than 5 minutes to examine your thoughts before moving on to the next step.
4. Get into problem-solving mode
As the saying goes, “Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.” So swap your rumination for more constructive thoughts and actions.
a. Replace your negative thoughts with helpful ones.
Even if you have made mistakes – and who hasn’t – does it help you to keep thinking you’re a failure? Will your life get any easier by repeating ‘My life’s a mess’ or ‘I don’t think I can go on’? I don’t think so.
Thought replacement looks a bit like comforting an upset child. “Ok, it might not have been the smartest move to order those fries when I’m trying hard to improve my health. But one unhealthy meal does not mean that I’m a quitter who messed up their diet. Every meal is a new chance to make a healthy choice.”
Changing your negative thought patterns is not about pushing away your true feelings or becoming overly optimistic, but rather about choosing realistic but helpful statements over harmful ones. Whenever you notice a recurring negative thought popping up in your mind, try to find a more empowering alternative. For example, instead of saying “I can’t cope” to yourself, try “This is really hard, but somehow I’ll find a way to get through and make it work.” Notice how these different sentences about the same situation make you feel.
Don’t get me wrong; you don’t have to put on rose-colored glasses on when life clearly sucks. But reframing your problem can help you to cope better. When you train your mind to focus on the positive side of things, you create mental space for your problem-solving skills to kick in and come up with creative solutions.
Which brings me to my next point…
b. Make a list of problem-solving ideas.
Thinking things through can actually be useful when you keep going over an unpleasant experience that’s within your control. Let’s say, your neighbor down the street made a nasty remark you can’t get out of your mind. Worrying about what your neighbors think of you, is beyond your control and won’t be solved by overanalyzing. But replaying the situation could help you set clear boundaries, stand up for yourself or think of an eloquent response for future conversations. You could also ask yourself: Why does this particular insult hurt so much? These are all forms of adaptive self-reflection.
So look at the biggest concern on your brain dump list and come up with at least one concrete things you can do (relatively soon!) to improve the situation. Depending on the problem, you could apologize, make an effort to fix a mistake, communicate more clearly next time or ask for help.
Remember, taking action is the crucial step that separates ‘normal’ overthinking from problematic overthinking. So again, don’t spend too much time on the analyzing and thinking part.
5. Take a mental pause
When you’ve identified your overthinking pattern, challenged the accuracy of your thoughts and brainstormed more constructive alternatives plus concrete actions to take, it’s time for the most important step: stop overthinking.
Speak to yourself like a strict parent of teacher would tell off a child, and take a mental pause. You can literally say “STOP” in your head whenever your thoughts wander off again if you like. Do not allow yourself to continue overthinking.
So take a deep breath, imagine exhale all your worries and move on to the final step…
6. Positive distraction
To stop yourself from getting back into another thought loop, take your mind off your worries with positive distractions. As fun as it can be, losing yourself in excessive Netflixing, binge-eating or drinking away your sorrows has more negative than positive consequences in the long run.
Instead, try to get out of your head by working with your hands. Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert found that hands-on work, like knitting, gardening and washing your car, decreases stress and lessens depressive symptoms.
So get creative. You don’t have to be artistic; just let coloring, scrap booking, knitting or wood work take your mind off your worries for a while. Make music or cook a nourishing meal to engage all your senses. Moving your body is also a proven wat to calm your mind and boost your overall wellbeing.
Tackling your overthinking now not only helps you to sleep soundly or have a worry-free day, but it also prevents a downward spiral of increasing anxiety and rumination.
I’d love to know, which strategies help you most to stop overthinking?
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