Imagine that it’s close to bedtime.
You’ve finished a long day of work, ate dinner, and watched TV. You get into bed and relax by doing some reading.
After a while, you realize it’s getting late and decide to call it a night. You reach over and turn off the light. It’s pitch dark now.
You know you should be falling asleep. And yet there you are, staring at the ceiling. Your mind is racing with all sorts of thoughts.
You think back to something you said and wonder if things came out wrong. You reflect on a past action that resulted in negative consequences. Then, you start to worry about all the things that could possibly go wrong.
With each passing thought, you feel yourself sinking into a low mood.
If this sounds like you, you may be suffering from overthinking.
Thinking Too Much Can Damage Your Mental Health
Worrying about an event or remembering a painful memory is a normal phenomenon. We all have moments where we think back to a situation and analyze how it went. But after a while, these thoughts go away and we move onto something else.
For an overthinker though, these thoughts don’t simply drift away. Like a faucet that can’t turn off, one worry leads to another. Overthinkers spend endless hours regretting events in the past or feeling anxious about the future.
Some indicators that you tend to overthink include the following:
- You imagine all the potential worst-case scenarios.
- You think back to past conversations and what you should and shouldn’t have said.
- You rehash everything a person said or did, and the deeper meaning behind their actions.
- You get so wrapped in your thoughts that you “zone out” in front of others.
- You beat yourself up over things that happened in the past.
These thoughts end up consuming your life, as if a raincloud were sitting above your head. When you overthink, you may believe your mind is just sorting things out. But that simply isn’t the case.
There’s a clear difference between overthinking and problem-solving.
Unlike overthinking, problem-solving is a positive and productive act. Solving a problem means identifying the dilemma, looking for alternatives, and then finding the best solution. It leads you to proactively try and resolve an issue.
Overthinking, however, is about fixation. Your mind stays stuck on the first step of problem-solving: the dilemma. It’s a negative and unproductive act because you only focus on the problem without trying to find a way past it.
Problem-solving is about improving a situation, while overthinking centers around the idea that there is no way out. You’re stuck in a pit, looking hopelessly upward with no chance of escape.
Ruminating, defined as “to think deeply” (and has a secondary meaning, “to chew the cud”), has harmful effects on our mental health. Research has shown that there is a link between rumination and depression and anxiety.
Stressful life events lead to increased ruminating, which triggers depression and anxiety in the long run. In turn, depression and anxiety lead to more rumination. It’s a vicious circle that’s difficult to escape.
Escaping the Tendency to Overthink
Once you’re stuck in a harmful train of thought, it feels more comfortable to stay there than to leave. You cling to your habits out of a sense of familiarity.
However, you can take active steps to change that behavior. You can shift from tiring yourself out with your thoughts to finding solutions. By reaching a conclusion, you can gain closure and peace of mind.
To do so, here are four ways to stop overthinking:
1. Question your beliefs.
What is something about yourself that creates an emotional response? It might be an embarrassing moment, a perceived weakness about yourself, or a worry about getting into a potentially bad situation. This thought might get triggered for no reason. Once it does, you can’t turn it off.
Now here’s a challenge: What if you were to try thinking about that thought in a different way? For instance, a past event may have seemed incredibly embarrassing to you, but to others, they either barely remember or don’t care at all. Perspective matters a lot.
Or maybe you always believed that you were incapable of doing something. You see someone else achieving something and think to yourself, “That’s just not me.” This thought process leads you to put in a half-hearted effort or not even attempt something at all.
If you’ve been stuck on a certain thought, ask yourself why you think that way. Is it because you tried and didn’t get the results you wanted, or is it your fear telling you so? Do you keep your beliefs because it’s easier to think that way rather than to go and do otherwise?
2. Turn your thoughts into action.
We overthink because we believe that simply thinking about something will create a solution. It’s as if rehashing the same facts, images, and words will suddenly lead us to a reach a new conclusion. But of course, ruminating does nothing to actually instill change.
If anything, overthinking keeps us stuck in the same loop. We feel more and more trapped the longer we stay in that same mental spot. And when you fixate on one thing, you become blinded to other possibilities out there.
The key to moving past a problem is to shift your brain into finding a solution. You are more in control than you think. When you come across a problem, instead of wondering why something happened or complaining about it, ask yourself, “What can I do about it?”
Focus on what’s within your power. Ask yourself how you can do something better in the future, what lessons were gained, and the next steps moving forward. You are continually evolving as a person, and your actions should reflect this.
3. Focus on the present.
When you think about it, our minds tend to wander a great portion of the time. Either we’re thinking about a past memory, or we’re wondering what our future looks like. Rarely are focusing on where we are right now.
If you have a tendency to ruminate, take a moment and absorb your surroundings. What are you grateful for right now? What is something good that has happened today?
Try listing at least three positive things in your life, such as a person you’re thankful for, a serendipitous event, or a luxury that you might have taken for granted lately. Jot them down. You’ll find the simple act of writing them down can surprisingly change the way you feel.
4. Stimulate your mind.
Have you ever conjured up a vivid image in your mind that you tried forgetting? If you have, you know it’s not that simple to whisk away your thoughts. Telling yourself to stop thinking about something only makes it more prominent.
When you find yourself falling into a destructive thought pattern, change what you’re doing. Lying on the couch? Get up and go for a walk. Watching a boring show? Read a book that’s on your list.
Recognize when you’re starting to spiral into negative thoughts. Overthinking tends to slip in when we’re idle, with little to occupy ourselves. Switching tasks is often enough to switch up the way you think.
Act Differently to Think Differently
Worrying about your job stability or analyzing all of your past actions can be a huge emotional and time burden. It may seem like thinking incessantly about something is the answer, but it’s really just a way to rehash the same problem. In the end, you’re back at square one.
Overthinking can be a difficult habit to shake. But like other bad habits, it’s possible to replace overthinking with positive habits, such as problem-solving, practicing gratitude, and challenging your self-perception.
When you start acting differently, your brain takes note – and you’ll find yourself thinking and feeling differently too.
The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution by David A. Clark and Aaron T. Beck – Based in cognitive behavioral therapy, this book helps readers to manage anxiety and worry through worksheets, exercises, and examples.