by Nicole Leatherman: If you overthink, you’re not alone—you’re human…
Every single person ruminates at one time or another. Why? Humans have an unquenchable need to know things and feel in control.
You prepare and prepare some more to try and avoid unwanted surprises or challenges. The challenge is, however, that life automatically comes with endless challenges. Like a game of Whac-A-Mole, when one problem is solved, another one pops up. The New York Times best-selling author and personal development coach Mark Manson says, “Don’t hope for a life without problems. There’s no such thing. Instead, hope for a life of good problems.”
Human beings’ boundless quest for answers is an attempt to master problems before they arise and feel a sense of certainty. It’s a survival tactic. And it really isn’t an issue when an occasional situation—or your job—requires you to think of every possible outcome to determine what could happen, like if you’re a mathematician focused on probability theory. Or, if you’re part of a team that’s creating a natural disaster preparedness plan, thinking long and hard about every scenario and the end result could save lives.
But if you chronically spend hours thought-spiraling about things that don’t require extensive analysis—like whether or not to order your dog crunchy or chewy treats—that might not be the best use of your mental energy and could eventually turn into anxious thoughts.
An overthinking disorder doesn’t exist, but chronic overthinking is linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression disorders. It can also interfere with your problem-solving skills, mood, and sleep quality.
If you find yourself unable to get out of your head on a regular basis, consider adopting some or all of the following tactics to fall out of the vicious cycle and protect your health and well-being.
Be Aware of Your Thoughts and Take Control
You have thousands of thoughts daily. Most of them seemingly pop into your mind without permission. Some enhance your life; others are destructive.
What you choose to keep in your mind largely influences your happiness, according to Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author who blends psychology and the science of happiness with Buddhist teachings. It’s within your power to be aware of what thoughts enter your mind and then to make a conscious decision to let go of those that do not serve you (e.g., rumination on jealousy, anger, hatred). By first recognizing what thoughts fill your mind, you can stop overthinking before it starts and avoid negative thoughts that will lead to a feeling of fear or stress.
Punt Perfectionism Out of Your Life
Perfectionism oftentimes comes with a sidecar of overthinking and worrying. Instead of focusing on all of the things you’ve done right, you triple-focus on the .01 percent you didn’t completely nail, and then repeat until you perfect it. The problem: Perfection doesn’t exist so you’re chasing an illusion. Obsessing over false ideas can cause psychological distress. Instead, let go of perfection, make it a habit to be kind to yourself, and accept your personal best.
Focus on Facts
Zeroing in on facts about situations and people allows you to see things as they are. It frees you from obsessing over vague assumptions, which are often incorrect, and conserves your mental energy. If you don’t have the facts, ask for them. When you remain objective, you tend to make better decisions and find ways to solve problems with more ease.
Stop Trying to Be a Fortune-Teller
A small caveat: If you’re a practicing fortune-teller in real life, enjoy your craft! However, if you’re pretending to be one, know that you cannot think your way into predicting the future. You have now, the present moment. You have memories, too, and they can help inform your thoughts, beliefs, and actions, but life is occurring at this moment.
It’s not productive to spend countless hours worrying about what may happen in the future. It will be here fast enough and you can count on knowing, at that time, what it will bring to your life. This is an obvious, but not easy “how to stop thinking about something” step. You can map out the future within reason—plan an upcoming vacation with family, save money for retirement, etc. But the reality is, even with all the planning, you will never truly know how something is going to be until it actually is.
Borrow Someone Else’s Mind
Last year, I experienced a difficult professional situation. The details are irrelevant here. What’s important to know is that I was consumed by my thoughts—and emotions—related to the set of circumstances. I needed a distraction and an outlook from a mind that wasn’t my own because I had already spent countless hours spiraling on every last detail. It got me nowhere other than to negative thoughts and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, I found fresh viewpoints in a new friend. His mind processes things differently than mine and he was able to provide me with new perspectives. His way of looking at things not only helped me get unstuck, but I also learned valuable lessons from him that will help me to not overthink similar situations in the future.
If you’re going rounds with your own thoughts, try getting a new frame of reference from someone—friend, family member, coworker, professional therapist—to help you get out of your head.
Set Time Boundaries Around Decision-Making
If you have an important decision to make and you have the facts necessary to arrive at the decision, set a limit on how much time you can spend weighing the details and options. Peter Bregman, the bestselling author of 18 Minutes and CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that is dedicated to helping people inspire their organizations to produce great results, recommends using a timer to make decisions. Once the time is up, the timespan for thinking about decision X or problem Y is done.
If you need several timed sessions to vet the issues at hand, that’s fine. But hold yourself accountable for how long you spend ruminating during one sitting. After you’ve had adequate time to review the information, make the decision and move on.
Give Your Body and Mind What They Need
If you’ve ever tried to make a decision, especially a tough one, when you’re not getting adequate nutrition or sleep, you know how exponentially difficult it can seem. Even making smaller decisions or thinking, in general, becomes more challenging, and sometimes more prolonged, when your mind and body are deprived of what they need.
Do a quick check to be sure you aren’t running on fumes in the sleep, nutrition, hydration, or exercise departments before making decisions, starting work on a new project, having a tough conversation, or doing anything that requires your mental energy.
Write It Down
The next time you find yourself stuck in a looping thought reel, try taking the thoughts out of your head and putting them onto a computer screen or piece of paper. This can help for a couple of reasons.
- You’ve taken an action.
- Seeing your thoughts written down can help you organize and make sense of them more quickly so you can move past them. Research focused on people with major depressive disorder showed that regular expressive writing significantly decreased their depression scores.
Picture a Happy Ending
You’re less likely to overthink when you feel positive or happy about something. Oftentimes what you overthink is a perceived problem or negative situation. But what if your perception isn’t accurate? Or, if it is, what if it’s simply the perception of a mere snippet in time—a portion of the story, not the end or full outcome?
Envisioning a positive outcome can help you flourish, rather than unnecessarily overthinking something that will cause you to worry or stress. Note that this doesn’t mean you should spend countless hours trying to predict the future. It just means that you can ground your thoughts in positivity and visualize that everything will work out. Once you do that, let the thoughts go and trust. Sometimes things take longer than you want them to or they don’t work out the way you hoped, but acknowledging life’s grace allows you to have confidence that the universe will show you kindness, love, and eventually happiness again.
The steps for how to stop overthinking may not seem challenging at first glance, but they will take practice, so stay calm while approaching the process. When you overthink, try out these tactics and see how they work for you. You might have to experiment with them a few times before you notice results. That’s OK. It takes time to break and form a habit. Remember what Deepak Chopra, M.D., says: “You are not your thoughts.” You can control what you’re thinking. Feel hopeful. You’ve got this.