Have you ever had this happen?
You get in your car and start driving to work. You begin to think about something unpleasant or frustrating. The next thing you know, your thirty-minute commute is over, and you have no memory of driving yourself to the office. But you do have strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, or self-doubt.
Overthinking our problems or worries traps us in a mental loop from which it is very difficult to disengage. I've had periods in my life when I was going through an emotional difficulty or a big decision, and I simply couldn't stop thinking about every detail and possible outcome.
I felt imprisoned in my own mind. Even though I knew I was overthinking, my finger was permanently pressing the “on” button in my mind.
What is overthinking?
According to the American Psychological Association, overthinking involves “repetitive, prolonged, and recurrent thought about one's self, one's concerns and one's experiences.” Overthinking entraps us in a variety of ways — through rumination, worry, self-reproach, and anticipating negative outcomes.
You can certainly overthink about positive situations and memories as well, through savoring, anticipation, and reminiscing. However, this kind of overthinking doesn't have the same effects as thoughts of negative or painful experiences or fears.
Aside from making you feel trapped in your mind, negative overthinking can lead to mental and physical problems. Repetitive negative thoughts over a prolonged period of time can lead to stress, anxiety, and clinical depression.
Negative brain activity can weaken your immune system, leading to a variety of physical ailments. Studies have shown patients who ruminate about getting sick or having certain side effects of medications (even placebo medications) will actually get sick or experience the side effects.
There's plenty of reason to stop overthinking, but if you're trapped in it, all of those reasons only make you feel worse and give you something more to fret about.
How to stop overthinking. Use these 10 ways to stop thinking so much:
Pick 1 of these 10 tips so you don't overthink:
1. Create awareness
When we're trapped in these negative thought loops, we become so immersed in our thoughts that we don't recognize how deeply entrenched we are. If you recognize overthinking as one of your regular patterns, then set a mental intention to become aware of it when it's happening.
When you notice yourself thought-looping, just be the observer of your thoughts without judging them or adding a second layer of stress, worrying about your overthinking.
Say to yourself something like, “Oh I'm doing that overthinking thing again.” The ability to mentally stand back and observe your own behavior is the beginning of releasing the grip of repetitive thoughts.
2. Trigger a pattern interrupt
In addition to noticing you're overthinking, do something physical to interrupt the looping pattern. Just noticing might do the trick, however, it helps to create some actual “break” in the pattern.
Wear a rubber band on your wrist (which itself will be a reminder of your thinking), and gently snap it when you notice yourself overthinking. Or if you wear a ring or watch, switch it from one hand to another. The goal is to momentarily activate another part of your brain through a physical reminder and to bring your thoughts back to reality.
When you snap the rubber band or switch your watch or ring, say the word “Stop” out loud. Repeat the physical reminder several more times, saying the word “Stop” again each time. Notice what you are feeling, seeing, smelling, and hearing immediately after this exercise. Be in the reality of the moment rather than in your head.
3. Practice thought replacement
After you interrupt your pattern of overthinking and take a moment to be in the moment, create a positive affirmation or replacement thought that contradicts your negative thinking pattern.
For example, if you are worried about a comment your boss made to you, you might say something like, “I have an open, positive relationship with John, and my performance at work always exceeds his standards.”
You don't have to believe your replacement thought, but you do want to flood your brain with these positive affirmations in order to create new neural pathways that loosen the grip of negative thoughts. The practice of positive thinking has been shown to affect real change in feelings and actions.
Repeat your affirmation or positive thought out loud if possible or in your head several times after the rubber band exercise. You may have to repeat this entire process several times an hour when you first practice it, especially if you have been overthinking for a long time.
But keep at it, as you'll notice over time your negative thoughts will diminish, and you can break free of them much more quickly and easily.
4. Reframe reality
During times when you aren't trapped in your thoughts, take some time to examine the reality and truth around your thought pattern. Several years ago, I lost two friends to ovarian cancer within six months. I became trapped in fear and negative thinking that I'd get this disease too.
After fighting with my thoughts for weeks, I finally did some research about this cancer. Although I happened to have two friends die from it, the statistics I read proved to me in black and white the low odds of my getting it. I made a copy of these statistics and looked at them every time I got trapped in my fearful loop.
You can practice this analysis with your negative thoughts. Ask yourself, “Is this thought really true?” If there is some truth to it, how much truth and how likely is it a bad outcome will materialize? How much are you projecting your worries on to reality?
Act as if you are your own best friend with a more realistic perspective of the situation. Become a detective and seek out the facts.
5. Phone a friend
Sometimes an actual friend or a counselor, coach, or advisor, can give you a real perspective on the issues related to your overthinking. Take the time to talk with someone whose judgment and common sense you trust, and share the topic of your thoughts and the extent of your worry and thinking.
They can give you feedback on whether or not your thoughts are out of proportion to reality and offer counsel and support to help you break free of your thoughts.
If your overthinking relates to a physical ailment or concern about your health, go see a doctor (even if you fear you'll get bad news) and find out for sure whether or not your concerns are justified.
Most of the time they aren't, and if there is a problem, it's likely not nearly as bad as you think. Having a voice of knowledge and authority reinforce that everything is OK will help break the overthinking pattern.
6. Get busy
When you are trapped in your head, you can't be present in the moment. One of the best ways to get out of your head is to get busy doing something that engages and occupies your mind so your negative thoughts can't take over.
Physical labor is often a great way to break up overthinking. But you can do anything that requires focus and attention — from painting to organizing all of your books alphabetically to calculating your yearly expenses.
Your thoughts may still try to creep in to distract you, but keep steering yourself back to the task at hand. Eventually, you'll get lost in the task. It will likely take a fight between your determination to stay focused and your intruding thoughts but keep at it.
You want to show your thoughts who's in charge, just as you'd keep redirecting a naughty toddler back into the “time-out” chair. In time, they get the message you mean business.
7. Learn to meditate
Meditation has a myriad of physical and mental health benefits, but for your purposes here, meditation is another tool to help you tame your mind. Of course, it's hard to meditate in the midst of an overthinking episode.
But you can practice meditation in between these events. Through your practice, you'll become more and more adept at quieting your mind and observing your thoughts without judgment so they lose their power over you.
You learn to stop identifying with your thoughts and view them as you view pop-ups on your computer screen. They are neutral (albeit annoying) affectations of consciousness that don't represent reality.
When you first practice meditation, you might feel you're giving your overthinking habit the perfect forum to run free with wild abandon. Just return your attention to breathing or observing your thoughts.
[Enjoy this guided meditation below on overthinking everything.]
Even in the midst of a negative thinking carnival, you can force yourself to focus on your breathing for five minutes. This teaches your brain that you have control and can calm and relax you long enough to implement some of the other techniques outlined here.
When I've been trapped in worry thoughts, it sucks my mental and emotional energy. The last thing I want to do is exercise. However, I've learned from experience it's the absolute best thing I can do.
Exerting yourself through cardiovascular exercise boosts endorphins and serotonin, the feel-good chemicals in your brain. Exercise has been proven to increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
When you exercise, you generally must have some level of focus to perform the exercise, so it distracts the mind from intrusive thoughts and forces you to be in the present.
When you're trapped in your thoughts, go out and run, hop on an exercise bike, or take a cardio fitness class. Even if you don't feel like exercise, force yourself to do it for at least thirty minutes.
Don't allow your negative thoughts control your decision to take action on something you know will make you feel better and help manage your thoughts.
9. Make the decision
Sometimes we get trapped in looping thoughts around a big decision. Should I take the job or stay put? Is divorce a better option for both of us or should we keep working on our marriage? Should I put Dad in a nursing home or try to care for him in my home?
When you're trying to make a decision that has potential negative outcomes for each alternative, you can get stuck in the paralysis of analysis. No clear solution is apparent, and you believe if you keep thinking about it, you'll get more clarity. Some analysis is necessary for any decision, but eventually, you reach the point when there's nothing more to be considered. You simply have to choose.
This is a very frightening place to be. It's like standing on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, and you're smack in the middle of the rope, too afraid to go forward or backward. If you keep standing there, you'll only make fear stronger. Make a decision, whether or not you feel sure if it's the best one.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
10. Write it down, tear it up
According to an Ohio State University study, researchers found that “when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well.”
Professor Richard Petty, the co-author of the study, says, “At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts.” When the study participants wrote down and then threw away their thoughts, they didn't consider them any longer.
If you are overthinking a problem or decision, write it down first thing in the morning. Then tear the paper up and throw the pieces into the trash can. Do this three or four times a day, depending on how much you are overthinking. At the end of the day, give yourself an overthinking score, with ten representing a lot of thinking and one representing very little.
Continue this practice for a week, writing down and tearing up your thoughts several times a day, and then rating yourself at the end of the day. This will help you see how well the technique is working for you.
Although it might feel like you're a prisoner of your thoughts, you do have control of them. You can retrain your mind to obey your will in order to release the grip of overthinking. As you practice the techniques outlined, you'll build your mental muscle and create new neural pathways in your brain so you can release or direct thoughts.
Be patient with yourself and diligent in your efforts. Remember, your thoughts don't own you, and you aren't your thoughts. Reclaim your inner power so you can enjoy peace of mind and emotional freedom.
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