Tips From a Therapist to Stop Overthinking
Overthinking, or rumination, is the act of dwelling on a thought, idea, or memory an excessive amount. If you were in a room of 100 people and asked “who here has ever been guilty of overthinking?” I am sure 98% of the room would have their hand raised. You’re not alone!
Overthinking can be a side effect of anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mental health ailments. We run through the same thoughts or the same memories over and over and over again until they invoke such a sense of anxiety or regret that it can be hard to handle. Believe it or not, there are ways to combat this behavior.
I have a number of clients who come to me week after week discussing what their topic of overthinking was that week. I have compiled a list for you, my lovely readers, to help you reduce your ruminative behaviors and get back to mental clarity.
TIPS TO STOP OVERTHINKING
Write out the thoughts
Sometimes when thoughts are racing through our mind, we may allow ourselves to let the thoughts continue because we’re afraid we’ll forget them. Maybe you’re thinking about this big project you have for work that you’ve been stuck on. This constant stream of thought could possibly lead you to a good idea that you wouldn’t want to forget! To settle the chaos, write down the ideas that come to you, and then put them away. You can rest assured knowing your great ideas are safe somewhere you can access them later.
Creating distance from our thoughts can provide us with some relief from the anxiety. Instead of enmeshing with the thoughts that are coming, create some distance by looking at the thought rather than from the thought. To do this, try to notice the thought rather than engaging. If you are constantly running through an incident earlier that day where you fell down the stairs and are feeling anxious and embarrassed, change your outlook. Say to yourself “I am having the thought that I am anxious and embarrassed.” By doing this, you are looking at how you’re feeling rather than saying you, as a whole, are however you’re feeling.
Question the Thoughts
Question the reality of the thoughts. When you have a thought, take a moment to take a step back and ask yourself “how much of this thought is founded in truth? Could this actually happen?” By questioning the basis in which the thought is founded, you create more distance between yourself and the thought. Next time you find yourself overthinking something, ask yourself if the thoughts you are having are realistic.
Rephrase & Ask if it’s Helping
Another great way to create distance between yourself and the thought is to rephrase the thoughts. By reframing, you are allowing yourself to see them in a different light. If you are having the thought “my friends are embarrassed by me because of x, y, z” take a step back. Change it to a “I’m having the thought that ___, and this is Helpful/unhelpful because ____.” Asking yourself how this thought is helpful allows you to notice if your overthinking is going to be something that propels you towards a goal.
For instance, if you are having thoughts about wanting to be better at something and you know the steps that it would take for you to get there. If you just haven’t done it yet, then the thoughts could be helpful if their presence motivates you to take the necessary steps. However, if you are having the thoughts about wanting to be better at something that cannot be improved through practice or training, (think physical appearance) then these thoughts are unhelpful and do not serve you.
Ground Yourself In the Here & Now
Grounding is the act of pulling yourself out of your thoughts and into the present moment. When we are overthinking, we are spending our time caught up in our thoughts rather than noticing what is actively happening around us. To pull yourself down into the here and now, try one (or a few!) of the following:
- Square breathing: Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds (repeat 3x or as much as desired)
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Release the tension from your muscles by scanning your body (starting with your toes) and paying full attention to each body part while mindfully releasing any tension. Here is a helpful guided relaxation:
- Engage your senses: Try to name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Listen to a guided meditation
If any of the above techniques don’t seem to be working for you, and you are feeling immense burden from your overthinking, try using a distraction. This isn’t something I typically recommend to my clients, because I often find reframing and questioning to be more effective in the long term, but this will work in a pinch.
Find something else to do! Ideally, find something that engages multiple senses. For instance, just watching TV may not be the best distraction because you are only engaging visually (and I’m sure we all know it’s easy to get distracted while watching TV). Try doing something that involves your hands and that requires your attention. Get creative! Try a new recipe, paint something (it doesn’t have to be “good”), write in your journal (recommended!), work out, do some yard work, anything goes!
I would also highly recommend reading some self help blogs about happiness! Here is a great blog post by Sam Neame, a high performance coach from London. It has fantastic tips for The Most Effective Ways to Feel Happy.
If you find yourself constantly thinking about something that has yet to happen (e.g., a presentation you have to give this week), a way to reduce this anticipatory anxiety is to plan ahead. Make a game plan of how you are going to prepare for this event, including the week leading up to it, the day of, during the event, and what you will do immediately after. Plan for any potential issues that may arise, and try to think of solutions ahead of time to help you feel better in the moment.
At the end of the day, there are some things that we just have to accept. There are things we cannot change and spending excessive time ruminating about these things is not only unhelpful, but induces unnecessary anxiety. When you find yourself thinking a bit too much about something that you cannot change (I.e., something that has already happened), try to just accept that this has already happened and there is no going back. There’s no need to waste your time beating yourself up over it.
In sum, we’re all guilty of overthinking something at some point in our lives. It can be difficult to pull ourselves out of that pattern. Try some of the tips above and let me know how they worked for you!