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 learn 5 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 made the distinction 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. In fact, the overthinking loop is what 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 just not helpful. A good way to know if you’re overthinking is when you recognize that you are stuck thinking about the same thing over and over again 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 researcher that includes repetitive thoughts about the past (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Regrets (feeling badly 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 one of the things I hear a lot in my practice is when client’s 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 your overthinking the past is about, 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 and it leads to feeling like they’re in quicksand. It could be that you 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 the thoughts you think about yourself, your life and the people in the present moment. Do you allow yourself to 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 even prevents you from making decisions that lead to answers. van Randenborgh and colleagues found that rumination- replaying thoughts from the past, negatively affected decision-making. Participants in their study found making decisions more difficult and feeling less confident in the decisions they made (2010).
Research has found that negative thinking is strongly associated with overthinking (Segerstrom et al., 2000). Another study found that, future-focused worry is associated with increased anxiety and thinking ability (McLaughlin et al., 2007). And lastly, research suggests that changing overthinking that leads to worry can reduce anxiety since they are interrelated (Gana et al., 2001).
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 engaging in physical activity like working out, going for a walk or practicing yoga. Another type of relaxation engages your mind and body like taking some deep breaths, practicing mediation or guided imagery.
And then there is relaxation just because it helps you to shift out of overthinking and into 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 overthinking 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 allows you to take a step back from your thoughts so you can consider where you want to go with it. The ability to take an objective viewpoint of your thoughts is key to stop overthinking them. When you overthink, you can become consumed by 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 it’s easier to hold yourself accountable, 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 make a choice about 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 remember exceptions. It’s human nature to make mistakes or deviate from a habit. When you realize that your thoughts aren’t helpful or reflect your reality it’s helpful to look for exceptions. Sometimes reminding yourself that very few things in are “always” one way or another can free you from overthinking.
5. Spend time with a pet
For the most part pets don’t seem to experience stress as humans do (Sapolsky, 2004). They don’t think overthink about or are embarrassed by their behavior. What they can show us is how to live in the present moment and enjoy it!
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!