We all worry from time to time – but when does worrying become overthinking?
Overthinking is simply what it says on the tin – thinking too much – in particular obsessing about the same thing over and over again projecting outcomes we simply cannot predict or past events we cannot change. Going over the same thought again and again, analysing the simplest of situations or events until all sense of proportion has gone. The overthinking brain cannot translate these thoughts into actions or positive outcomes, so leads to and creates feelings of stress and anxiety – often in the extreme.
While thinking about past actions can sometimes help you move forward in life, overthinking can have the opposite effect and lead to depression and regret. Likewise, overthinking about future events often leads to stress and anxiety.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
As humans, we have the extraordinary ability to reflect on our actions. There’s much to be learned from our decisions, so it can be useful to go over past situations to find the lesson(s) in them.
When it comes to the future, anticipating what’s to come and making plans and goals for ourselves can be really helpful. Doing this can help us to grow and develop, and be more successful, but it’s also easy to end up overdoing this type of analysis as well. In fact, overthinking can have precisely the opposite effect, leading to constant worry and a feeling of being stuck or unproductive.
This can become a self-destructive behaviour with negative effects on our mental health. Overthinking can become chronic and is the kind of toxic habit that may end up leading to other problems, such as anxiety and depression. Overthinking and anxiety work together hand in hand, exacerbating the feelings of stress and helplessness.
Like many traits of anxiety and depression, overthinking actually comes from our primal brain and is just one of our many primitive preservation instincts. The primitive mind will always see things from the worst possible perspective. This is because the brain is being hyper-vigilant, trying to keep us alive.
If you aren’t sleeping well due to overthinking, tossing and turning whilst going over and over events, you are likely to miss out on vital REM sleep, perhaps waking up during the night, or not able to get to sleep until the early hours by which time it’s time to get up and start the day with low energy and low mood.
How to manage overthinking and stop worrying
If you struggle with thinking too much, these nine tips could help you free your mind and live in the present moment more.
1. Find your triggers
Overthinking is a habit, so there’ll be something that sends your brain into overthinking mode. It could be at bedtime as you take stock of the day, or it could be asking yourself a “what if?” question, re-reading a message from someone, or looking at family photos (a big personal trigger of mine) for example.
2. Be aware of your responses
Recognise how you respond to these triggers; be aware of anxiety as it appears and ask yourself – “is this is in my head?”, or “how productive are these thoughts?” It could be helpful to journal these questions and allow your thoughts to flow freely. The answers to these questions may help you to see things in a new light.
3. Identify the positive intentions driving your overthinking
It is a well acknowledged principle of human behaviour that all our intentions are positively motivated. We usually overthink because we want to protect ourselves or others – a primal instinct, as mentioned above.
So think about what positive intentions are causing you to overthink in relation to a particular subject – what is the end outcome you’re hoping to achieve, or survival instinct that’s kicking in?
4. Find happy and useful distractions
Telling yourself “you shouldn’t think about that” may have the opposite effect whereby you just obsess more and more about the object of your anxiety. The more you try to suppress those thoughts, the more nagging they become, so instead give your mind something else to focus on. This could be any number of things from picking up a creative hobby that has a challenging element, exercising, or calling a friend. For a longer list of positive distractions and ways to practice self-care, have a read of my blog on the subject.
5. Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
It is possible to train your mind to think ‘what if’ to create best-case scenarios for visualising a positive outcome. However, when you’re stressed and overthinking something, it’s often more helpful to train your mind to think about the worst-case scenario. Once you come to terms with whatever the worst-possible outcome is, and know that it probably won’t even turn out to be half as bad as you’re imagining, you can start to feel more peaceful knowing that – for example – you probably won’t die, lose a friend, lose your job, or end up in prison. (Imagine these as worst case scenarios and suddenly nothing you have to face into will seem so bad.)
6. Pay attention to – and manage – all that you absorb
The amount of information that enters our minds on a daily basis can contribute to the snowball effect of overthinking. We all now consume more information than ever before in human history – all forms of social media, instant news updates on our phones, work colleagues or clients able to reach us 24/7, and so on…
It’s important to read / hear positive and constructive information, but best at allotted time slots in your preferred formats so that you – and only you – are in control. Turn off your notifications if you can and, set an alert at the start and / or end of the day to check your emails, news, and social media.
7. Reflection vs obsession
Thinking about the past or future isn’t necessarily negative or unhelpful – as long as you are aware of your thought patterns. There’s a difference between reflecting and obsessing, and this is an important distinction if you want to learn how to stop overthinking. Choose a time to reflect on things that matter to you but don’t give your thoughts free reign. A helpful exercise for practicing reflection is to journal your thoughts.
8. Relaxation and meditation techniques
Controlled breathing exercises may help your brain slow down and shift your attention somewhere other than your worries.
Here is me sharing one of the most effective breathing techniques for peace and calm:
Meditation helps you to re-centre, reconnect, quiet your mind, and set yourself up for a great night’s sleep. I offer fortnightly online meditations – for more information click here.
9. Live in the present
Mindfulness techniques can help you to focus on the present and make the most of each moment, bringing enjoyment instead of the anxiety triggered by overthinking.
Practice breathing deeply and scanning your body from head to toe very slowly, observing any tension in your system, and simply breathing it out and letting it go. This is a powerful exercise for enhancing your awareness and levels of peace and tranquility.