Has anyone ever told you to stop overthinking things?
I know that I’ve heard it a few thousand times! That might be an exaggeration, but probably not! In this article, you’ll learn five simple steps that I take to stop overthinking and be present.
You’ll know if you’re overthinking when you experience repetitive and unproductive thoughts – like your mind is on a merry-go-round that keeps circling around and around. The challenge is that overthinking keeps you focused on one thing. That one thing is usually what you’re unsure about, and at the same time, you’re invested in a particular outcome – that you can’t control.
Since thoughts are focused in many different ways, the research has generally distinguished between rumination, which is focused on the past, and worry, which is focused on the future. No matter which word you use, overthinking tends to loop around the same thought, and there isn’t a resolution to what you’re overthinking. The overthinking loop keeps the cycle of thoughts running in your mind.
One of the most frustrating things about overthinking is that it doesn’t get you any further and is generally not helpful. An excellent way to know if you’re overthinking is when you recognize that you are stuck thinking about the same thing repeatedly, but your thinking doesn’t lead to a solution.
Overthinking tends to follow a pattern.
Re-evaluating the past
Rumination is the term often used by researchers, including repetitive thoughts about the past. Regrets (feeling wrong about an event or missed opportunity) and resentments (anger about an experience) also fit within this area. Many people are disappointed that they didn’t pursue a different path in life or are angry about how they were treated in a relationship. But I often hear in my practice when clients keep thinking about something they said. It might be second guessing how a comment might be perceived or judging themselves about a comment and feeling embarrassed about it. No matter what you’re overthinking about the past, the truth is that it’s not helping you to be present or confidently move toward your future.
Be in the present moment.
Does overthinking lead to being stuck today? Many people overthink the present, feeling like they’re in quicksand. You could question your choices and how they led to your current life circumstances, relationships, or work. Typically, this results in more stress and feeling less fulfilled in life.
Your relationship with yourself is based on your thoughts about yourself, your life and the people in the present moment. Do you let yourself experience your life positively or overthink and focus on perceived flaws and mistakes? If so, this is an opportunity to reassess where you are in the present moment so that you can choose your next steps.
Controlling the future
Overthinking your future is what’s usually described as worry. Worry can be either short-term or long-term. Short-term worry is something like not waking up when your alarm goes off two hours early to catch a flight or text anxiety – did I study enough or even the correct material? Long-term worries might be, will I have enough money and be healthy enough to enjoy my retirement?
Overthinking signals a problem
When overthinking happens, it’s a signal that there’s a problem and you don’t yet know how to solve it. You might have thoughts –
- I’m not happy with my career. Is it the job or me?
- Is my partner my soulmate or is a soulmate even a real thing?
- Is there a way for me to feel confident about my finances?
While these are great questions to ask yourself, overthinking clouds or preventing you from making decisions that lead to answers, van Randenborgh and colleagues (2010) found that rumination- replaying thoughts from the past- negatively affects decision-making. Participants in their study found making decisions more difficult and feeling less confident in the decisions they made.
Research has found that negative thinking is strongly associated with overthinking. Another study found that future-focused worry is associated with increased anxiety and thinking ability. Lastly, research suggests that changing overthinking that leads to worry can reduce anxiety since they are interrelated.
How to Stop Overthinking
1. Relaxation techniques
Not only can overthinking increase stress and anxiety, but it can work in reverse – anxiety can lead to increased worry – it’s a bi-directional vicious cycle. A powerful way to interrupt the cycle is to use relaxation techniques. There are many relaxation techniques you can use. One way to relax is by engaging in physical activity like working out, walking, or practicing yoga. Another type of relaxation engages your mind and body, like taking deep breaths, practicing meditation, or guided imagery.
Then, there is relaxation, which helps you shift from overthinking to being in the present moment. These techniques could be reading a good book, watching an enjoyable moving, spending time outside, talking with a neighbor, friend, or family member journaling and the list could go on and on. When you notice that you’ve thought about the same thing more than once and it’s leading you to overthink that’s the time to stop, plan some relaxation time and shift your thinking.
2. Get some distance
Sometimes it’s good to put a little space between you and what’s on your mind. Mindfulness lets you step back from your thoughts and consider where you want to go. The ability to take an objective viewpoint of your thoughts is vital to stop overthinking them. When you overthink, you can become consumed by the issue you’re focusing on and lose perspective. When you realize that’s what’s happening, it’s helpful to future pace which is asking yourself, “Will this be important to me in a year, five years?”
3. Challenge yourself
When you challenge yourself, holding yourself accountable is more straightforward, so you can make changes as needed. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts helpful to me?” When you have more awareness of overthinking, you can put it into perspective and choose how you’ll respond. A lot of the time overthinking is a way to pause taking action. We all have coping mechanisms, no matter how unhelpful they might be. Sometimes overthinking is a way to press the pause button and give yourself some space. Challenging yourself is one way to break through the overthinking noise and take action.
4. Fact or fiction?
Have you heard the phrase, “Thoughts are not facts?” But we all know that, at times, it can feel like they are stone-cold facts. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember exceptions. It’s human nature to make mistakes or deviate from a habit. Looking for exceptions is helpful when you realize that your thoughts aren’t helpful or reflect your reality. Sometimes reminding yourself that very few things are “always” one way or another can free you from overthinking.
5. Spend time with a pet
Most pets don’t seem to experience stress as humans do. They don’t think overthink about or are embarrassed by their behavior. They can show us how to live and enjoy the present moment!
Overthinking is not only unhelpful, but it can also actively harm your well-being by increasing stress, anxiety and negative emotional states. When you understand how overthinking functions in your life and how to stop it with the stress management skills above you have what you need to break free from the patterns that hold you back from living a fulfilling life!