How to stop overthinking and what to do instead

Our capacity to think is one of the wonderful capabilities that makes us human. Our thoughts are the purveyors of our most beautiful emotions and actions. We evolved as a species because our ability to think about a past event, analyze it, and change our future behaviour was the basis for us to build our family and societal structures. Thinking is core to being alive.

But, you know what they say about “too much of a good thing.” Part of thinking is also the act of overthinking. Everyone thinks too much sometimes. That feeling where you just can’t get your brain to shut off is universal, and we’ve all been there.

Generally, overthinking falls into two types of destructive thought patterns — ruminating on the past and incessant worrying about the future. Ruminating includes negative dwelling on thoughts like:

●      I was better at my old job, I never should have left.

●      I shouldn’t have said what I said this morning at work. I bet everyone thinks I’m dumb.

●      I never learned how to be confident and that’s why I always screw up.

Incessant worrying includes persistent predictions about bad things that will happen in the future, including:

●      I’m never going to be as good a parent as everyone else at school

●      I’m going to embarrass myself at the office, there’s no way I’m going to know what I’m doing.

●      I’m terrible at saving money and I’ll never have enough to pay all my bills.

The real-life negative impacts of overthinking

Occasional overthinking is normal. But when it progresses into a chronic problem, overthinking can have a directly detrimental effect on your mental health and quality of life:

●      It interferes with true problem-solving

“Analysis paralysis” is a real thing. While research shows that chronic overthinkers believe that their habit helps them make the right choices, it ultimately hurts their ability to successfully solve problems by focusing more on the problem than its potential solutions.

●      It disrupts sleep

Anxiety and overthinking are directly tied to lower quality sleep. It makes it not only hard to fall asleep in the first place, but more likely that you’ll sleep fewer hours once you do. 

●      It increases chance of mental illness

Ruminating on your past mistakes and perceived shortcomings has been documented to lead to more long-term mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety and depression. Even more concerning, the connection between mental health and overthinking is cyclical. Once your mental health is lowered, you’re more likely to overthink, which continues to negatively impact your mental health, and on and on.

How to identify if you’re overthinking

One of the reasons overthinking can be so hard to address is because it’s tricky to identify in the first place. How are you to know if you productively, proactively thinking about a problem instead of destructively, reactively overthinking about a problem?

In essence, overthinking does more harm than good. It’s hurtful instead of helpful. If you can answer “yes” to a few of these statement about your own thinking habits, you might be at risk of being a chronic overthinker:

●      Do you think that thinking about bad things happening in some way actually prevents them from happening?

●      Do you worry that if you think less about your past that you’ll encounter the same problems again?

●      Do you constantly repeat embarrassing moments over in your head?

●      Do you ever catch yourself surprised by or unaware of what’s happening in the present because you’ve been thinking about the past or future?

●      Do you spend a lot of time trying to uncover hidden meanings in what other people do or say?

●      Do you constantly worry about things that you know you have no control over?

3 science-backed strategies to stop overthinking

Habit change isn’t easy. For some of us, we may have been overthinking for years or decades. Undoing those ingrained mental behaviours isn’t going to happen over night. But, just like any other skill, with consistent work you can train yourself to think in a brand new way and, more importantly, create a more healthy mental relationship with what you choose to think about.

1. Schedule time to worry

Worrying is a part of life. When we have a balanced, aware mindset about how we think, noticing a worry is a great indicator when we need to address a particular issue or take action to fix something. But when we’re chronically overthinking, particularly about something that we don’t have actual control over, the act of worrying becomes counterproductive.

The potential answer is not to try to force yourself not to worry, but to schedule time to ruminate just like you’d schedule a workout or when to pick up your kids from school.

A recent Penn State research study showed that participants who picked a regular, 30-minute time slot each day to “allow” themselves to worry were more able to recognize their worrying thoughts at all other times of they day.

The beginning step to making a mental habit change is recognizing the behaviour in the first place. At the same time, knowing they hadn’t a scheduled slot of worry-time didn’t make people feel bad about their desire to worry – just that they should delay it until their allotted time. After two weeks, the participants felt measurable decreases in their own anxiety and felt an increase in confidence so that, when they did sit down and use their 30-minute slot of “time to worry,” they were more able to find solid, actionable solutions more quickly.

2. Replace overthinking with gratitude

Feelings of gratitude are a natural antidote to worry and rumination. In fact, gratitude has been shown to physically change the way your brain functions for the better. Multiple studies show that a regular practice of identifying things in your life that you’re grateful for increases happiness and limits anxiety.

This works extremely well when paired with the 30-minute scheduled time to overthinking. Anytime you catch yourself over becoming lost in thought outside of that 30-minute slot, take two quick steps: 

●      Remind yourself that you can think about anything you want in your 30-minute block of time

●      Think of three things in your life that you’re grateful for instead.

One of the nice things about gratitude is that it can be about anything, no matter how large or small. You can feel grateful for anything from your family and home to a blade of grass or a smile from a stranger.

3. Practice mindfulness

Overthinking, and the anxiety it fosters, lives in the past and the future. That’s one of the key reasons why classic modes of overthinking focus on things that have happened or that could happen. Creating a habit to become self-aware in the present moment — the instant that you have the most control over —  is a proven method to release yourself from the stress and negativity of overthinking.

Sometimes folks confuse being mindful with having a full-on meditation practice. While meditation does have a long list of incredible benefits for both your body and your mind, it can feel daunting to begin. Getting started with a basic, 4-step set of actions to build some mindfulness to counteract overthinking can be done in just a minute or two, any time of day, and no matter you are.

The next time you catch yourself overthinking about the past or future, try these steps:

●      Stop what you’re doing. If you’re using a chair, sit up straight and put your feet flat on the floor. If you’re standing, pull yourself up, relax your shoulders and feel your feet planted solidly on the ground.

●      If you can do it safely, close your eyes. If you can’t, just keep a soft focus on something in the distance in front of you.

●      Turn your focus to your breathing. Feel it going through your mouth and nose, and notice how your chest rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.

●      Notice how the overthinking tries to pull you away from your attention on your breath. Don’t try to replace it, “do it right,” or criticize yourself. Just breathe and notice your “overthoughts.”

In time, you’ll feel more natural at replacing the initial feelings of overthinking — and its stressful effect — with a more calming state of self-awareness. Remember to try not to blame yourself or judge how you’re doing. Some days it will be easier and some days it will be harder.

Remind yourself that you’re taking the time to improve something fundamental to who you are and that will make your life better. Be kind and compassionate to yourself as you build a new habit, and in time you’ll have a more balanced, mindful approach to thinking that will help you solve problems better, sleep longer, and boost your overall quality of life.

Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.

Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.
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