We’ve all been there - lying awake at night because your thoughts just won’t shut up, overthinking everything in the past, present, and future.
While overthinking can sometimes be useful, it’s mostly anything but. Not only is overthinking simply unpleasant, but it can also be a symptom of depression or anxiety disorders, cause you to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, and even shorten your lifespan. Fortunately, overthinking can be overcome, if you know how to pull the brakes.
In this article, I’ll take a look at different types of overthinking, as well as 5 methods that will help you stop overthinking everything.
What is overthinking?
We are all prone to overthinking sometimes. For example, I have changed my shirt five times before a job interview, spent ages debating whether texting my crush back immediately would come off as desperate, and wasted valuable time at an exam doubting an answer that seemed just a little too obvious. You probably have your own examples of overthinking.
The term ‘overthinking’ is pretty self-explanatory. Just like ‘overcooking’ means cooking something longer than necessary, reducing its quality as a result, overthinking applies the same concept to thought: thinking about something longer and harder than necessary, past the point of helping.
Overthinking can have its benefits. For example, chronic overthinkers can also be some of the most well-prepared people, and overthinking can save you from making rash decisions you might regret later on.
But more often than not, overthinking something has a negative impact on your life.
Is overthinking a mental disorder?
While overthinking is not a mental disorder, it can lead to worrying about future events. Excessive worrying is a symptom of anxiety disorder, which affects nearly 20% of the US population every year.
So even though overthinking is not strictly a mental disorder, it is generally seen as a bad thing, and not without reason. Overthinking can cause you to miss out on opportunities and keep you up at night, obsessing over every mistake from your past.
In the psychological literature, overthinking is generally divided into two overlapping but distinct phenomena:
According to psychiatrist Randy A. Sansone, rumination is a “detrimental psychological process characterized by perseverative thinking around negative content that generates emotional discomfort”.
Rumination is often focused on the past and present and tends to stay on the theme of loss.
Worry, on the other hand, is more focused on future uncertainty and often deals with anticipated threats, real or otherwise.
Both excessive worry and rumination are associated with worse mental health outcomes. According to psychologist Susan Nolan-Hoeksema, who is widely considered to have coined the term ‘rumination’ in its psychological meaning, rumination predicts the onset of depression. In addition, rumination is also associated with anxiety, binge eating and drinking, and self-harm.
While it’s logical that obsessing over past mistakes is related to depressive symptoms, anxiety and even self-harm, the mechanisms connecting these phenomena are still unclear. It can go both ways: rumination can cause depressive symptoms, but depression can cause rumination.
What's the impact of overthinking?
In the article linked above, Randy A. Sansone reports evidence that rumination can have a detrimental effect on your physical health, too, mostly through two factors.
Firstly, rumination may result in the magnification of perceived symptoms. For example, ruminating over a mysterious ache can make the pain seem more intense.
Secondly, rumination can actually cause physical symptoms, like raising your blood pressure.
Constant worry and anxiety can also shorten your lifespan, according to a 2018 study. People who are prone to worrying are also more prone to anxiety and mood disorders, as well as engaging in unhealthy coping habits, which can also take several years off their life expectancy.
5 ways to stop overthinking
At this point in the article, you’re probably wondering how to stop overthinking and I don’t blame you. Although it may seem harmless at first, overthinking can have some serious consequences. The good news is that overthinking can be overcome.
Here are 5 methods to stop overthinking.
1. Schedule time for worrying
A lot of my students are perfectionistic worriers who have a hard time shutting off their thoughts. Something I have found to work quite well for them is setting up a weekly “Worry Hour”, for example, Saturdays from 1-2 pm.
People are often acutely aware that they are overthinking, but can’t stop it, which creates even more frustration.
Setting aside time for worrying means that you allow yourself to worry, just at a later time. Once the worrying time arrives, you may find that the things you wanted to worry about no longer bother you.
If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to set aside 20-30 minutes each day or every other day for worrying, instead of an hour a week. When you find yourself overthinking during the day, try to put your thoughts on pause and make a plan to get back to them during your designated worrying time.
Not only will scheduling your worrying reduce overthinking, but it will also give you more control over your thoughts and emotions in general.
2. Practice mindfulness
Speaking of control over thoughts and emotions - mindfulness is a powerful tool for a happier mind and less overthinking.
Mindfulness is all about being in the present and not letting your thoughts run amok. Practicing mindfulness daily will help you let go of worrying over the past and the future, and focus on the here and now.
We published an article specifically about mindfulness and how to get started with it.
3. Distract yourself
Just like a magician uses a distraction to stop you from figuring out his tricks, you can distract your brain from spiraling thoughts. The trick to a good distraction is finding something that keeps your mind occupied, but isn’t too heavy.
Some possible distractions might include:
- Your favorite movie or series.
- A book of short stories or poems.
- Physical activity like yoga or running.
- Conversation with a friend.
- Drawing or crafting.
It’s often hard to find a good distraction when you’re already deep into the overthinking spiral, so preparing some distractions in advance is a good idea. Even listing possible distractions can help you pick one when you need it. Try to find different distractions for different situations: a movie might work on a quiet night at home, but it’s probably not an option when you're in school or in the middle of a workday.
4. Journal about your thoughts
Sometimes all it takes is to see our thoughts written down to make sense of them. When the buzzing in your head gets overwhelming, grab a pen and paper and dump the thoughts out of your head.
Just the act of having to write your thoughts down can make them clearer and less overwhelming, but if journaling doesn’t bring the answers you seek, at least the thoughts won’t be only in your head anymore. Writing them down allows you to forget about them.
Think of this as clearing the RAM memory of your computer. If you've written it down, you can safely forget about it and start with an empty slate.
5. Make a plan and take the first step
One of the best ways to stop worrying is to take control of your situation. While complete control over whatever’s troubling your mind is often impossible, you can still set a goal and take the first step towards it.
If you find yourself overthinking, consider the things that you can control in this situation.
Then set an actionable goal and plan the first three steps you can take toward it, making sure that the first step can be done in the next 24 hours.
For example, imagine that you’re worrying over an upcoming job interview, second-guessing your qualifications. You want to leave a good impression and convince the board that you are the right person for the job with your skills and relevant experience. The three steps you can take towards this goal might be:
- Set aside an hour in the evening to research the company and the position, so that you know your future tasks.
- Prepare key talking points based on your research that highlight the skills that will help you fulfill the tasks.
- Pick out and prepare your outfit for the interview, washing and ironing it in advance if you need to.
The “first step in the next 24 hours” rule is especially useful if you’re prone to get lost in your thoughts. Another way to use this rule is to ask yourself, “Can I do something about this in the next 24 hours?”
If the answer is yes, do it. If the answer is no, postpone your thoughts until the designated worrying hour.
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Overthinking, worrying and rumination are not only unpleasant thought patterns, but they can have serious consequences. We all get lost in thought sometimes, but overthinking shouldn’t be the norm. Luckily, overthinking can be overcome with conscious mindfulness, a little distraction, and taking control of your time and actions. It’s time to stop overthinking everything and start living!
What do you think? Do you feel better equipped to deal with your tendency to overthink everything? If not, what did I miss? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!