Being an overthinker sounds as though it might be a good thing. Surely thinking about things is useful and productive? But overthinking does not mean you are very thoughtful, it means you get stuck in unhelpful thought patterns.
A person who thinks a lot might go to an event and reflect on how they felt during it and what this means about how they might do it differently the next time. An overthinker will go to the same event and start to worry that they did it wrong, or that they said something dumb, or that someone saw them and thought they were an idiot. This sets up an endless loop of worry and fear.
These lines of thought are not just a nuisance, overthinking can have a serious effect on your health and wellbeing. A study conducted by the clinical psychology department at Liverpool University in 2013 found that this negative loop of thinking increases your risk of developing anxiety disorders, and can cause insomnia which can send your stress levels soaring and harm your physical health. This, in turn, increases your tendency to overthink which sets up a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
How Can You Stop Overthinking?
The chances are that overthinking is a habit that has been with you a long time so it can take some time to tackle it and stop doing it so much but here some ways you can start to do that.
1. Tune in to it. Awareness is the first step to stopping overthinking. So start noticing the way you are thinking, and if you realise that have begun to rerun events in your mind over and over, and are second-guessing what people thought, or are predicting that things you cannot control will go horribly wrong, acknowledge what is happening and that this is not helpful.
2. Challenge the thoughts. Once you’ve started ruminating about something it is very easy for the negative thoughts to take over. So, for example, missing a call becomes a conviction that you have ruined a relationship and will never speak to that person again. Or one perceived misstep at work could lead you to be convinced that you will be fired and end up homeless, etc. Learn to recognise when you are catastrophising, or letting your mind go to the worst possible outcome, and do a reality check. Once you reflect on what really happened and what the most likely outcomes are you can help yourself out of those frenzied thought patterns.
3. Be solution-focussed. Forget the whys of the situation and concentrate on the whats. Instead of constantly thinking about why this is happening and running all the possible negative outcomes over and over in your mind, think about what you can actually do to resolve, remedy or rescue this. Try to imagine what other people might do in similar situations and think about what feels appropriate for you to do to rectify this. So you can learn from a mistake and avoid a similar problem popping up in the future rather than living in constant fear of missteps leading to catastrophe.
4. Put a positive slant on things. In other words: don’t think of what can go wrong, but what can go right. Very often, your overthinking is caused by fear. And this fear brings to mind all the negative things that could happen. So the next time you sense that your thoughts are starting to spiral in that direction, try to pause them and concentrate on bringing to mind a positive outcome. Start listing and try to picture all the things that might go right and keep returning to these positive images.
5. Change up the timeframe. Your overthinking is such a habit that your mind naturally goes to the place where any small niggling doubt or worry becomes much bigger and way more negative than it originally was or ever needs to be. So when you catch yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself: “Will this matter so much in five years?” Then ask: “What about next week?” A very simple future-check can help bring perspective back and shut down the overthinking.
6. Make time to reflect. Mulling over problems for days on end is exhausting and leads nowhere, so put aside 10-20 minutes a day to do this thinking. Use the time to let yourself worry, ruminate, or mull over whatever you want, but when that time’s up move onto doing something or thinking about something more productive. If you realise that you’re overthinking at other times, remind yourself that you have that 10-20 minutes set aside for it later.
7. Mindfulness. It’s impossible to rehash yesterday or worry about tomorrow when you’re really present in the here and now. Mindfulness takes practice, like any other skill, but over time, it can really help you to cut down the overthinking.
8. Get Active. Thoughts, as you well know, can be very persistent and just telling them to stop is often counterproductive and can just make you worry more. So try to affect a reset by going for a run, a walk, a yoga class or calling a friend for a chat or finding something absorbing to do that will not let those thoughts in and not give your brain time to return to the overthinking loop.
9. Get it on paper. Another very good way to get the overthinking out of your head is to write it down onto paper. Not only are you putting it down, but you can look at the thoughts from the outside and realise how repetitive and unhelpful they are.
10. Pack them away at night. Put your worries away at bedtime so that you can rest. This is not as easy as it sounds, obviously, but actively tell yourself that things always look worse at night and that you will think about them again in the morning with a clear head. Then try your mindfulness techniques, or breathing exercises, or good old-fashioned sheep counting to fill your mind with something other than the negative loop of thoughts while you relax into sleep.
If you feel you need some support in bringing about the changes you want to make in your life and dealing with overthinking and negative thought patterns, call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] and the reception staff will book an appointment with one of our therapists. We have centres in Clapham and Tooting.