Simple Ways to Keep Yourself From Overthinking
“What if I had done that differently?” “Why is she looking at me that way?” “He must have asked me out by mistake.” “I should never have said that.” “I’ll never be as successful as she is.” “What if things go wrong?” If these are the types of thoughts that swirl through your mind over and over in an endless circle, you might be an overthinker.
Symptoms of overthinking
Thinking, in and of itself, is a good thing. Thinking about how to solve a problem best, setting goals for yourself, or being curious about an unfamiliar concept are examples of proactive and generally useful thoughts. This kind of thinking leads to productive outcomes: you find a solution, visualize an achievement to work toward or gain insight into something new.
But thinking excessively about things over which you have no control, obsessing about things in the past, or imagining the worst thing that could potentially happen in the future are all negative thoughts. They can be highly detrimental. If you’re used to thinking this way, one simple question leads to an unfavorable possibility. That, in turn, leads to a tragic scenario, and soon you’re caught in a vicious cycle of your thoughts.
This is called overthinking, and it can be exhausting. It saps your mental energy. Although it’s not technically a mental health disorder, overthinking can contribute to stress, anxiety, and perhaps even depression. At the very least, your negative thoughts keep you in a perpetual bad mood.
Rumination and worry
There are two types of overthinking behaviors: rumination over things that happened in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future. Rumination is different from reminiscence. When you reminisce, you look back fondly on happy events or experience moments of joy from remembering someone from your past. Rumination is looking back on something that happened and wondering how it could have gone differently. It’s also dwelling on why it went the way it did and thinking of all the reasons it was probably your fault. When you reminisce, you enjoy the moment, then get on with living your life. With rumination, you can’t let the thought go, and feel the only way to deal with it is to rehash it.
Worrying about the millions of potential worst-case scenarios that could occur in your future keeps you from enjoying what’s happening in the present moment. It can keep you from trying new things, going to new places, or meeting new people. When you spend too much time worrying about the negatives, you don’t have time to imagine the positive outcomes.
Breaking the cycle
If you’ve recognized yourself as an overthinker, for goodness’ sake, don’t start worrying about how it’s going to ruin your life in the future. Similarly, fight the urge to ruminate about why you’ve never self-diagnosed yourself in the past. It’s time to break that vicious cycle!
You’ve already taken the first step in overcoming obsessing: you’ve admitted you have a problem. Now, the next time you feel your critical inner voice begin asking the “what-if” questions, take note of the situation. What triggered your overthinking hamster wheel in the first place?
The best way to combat negative thoughts is to turn them into productive, positive thoughts. Challenge yourself to reframe your ruminations into problem-solving exercises. Instead of asking yourself, “Why did I react that way?” ask yourself, “What is a better way to react if this happens again?”
Similarly, you can convert worrying into proactivity. For example, instead of stressing about what could go wrong if you happen to run into your ex while you’re out with your friends, create a plan for dealing with the situation positively. Tell yourself that you’ll politely say hello, walk away, and continue enjoying your evening.
Do things differently
Another solution to overthinking is to create a distraction. Listen to a meditation app, turn on a podcast, listen to music, or watch a mindless reality television show. Distracting yourself impedes your negative thoughts and forces you to replace them with something else. Sure, maybe now you’re thinking about the latest antics of housewives. However, that’s better than beating yourself up over something embarrassing that happened to you last year.
Some people worry, ruminate, and stress the most at the time when they should be most relaxed: bedtime. They can’t sleep, so they start thinking about why they can’t sleep, how they really should be sleeping, and what’s going to happen if they don’t get enough sleep. Again, it’s a vicious cycle that leads not to sleep but insomnia. At times like these, using a mindfulness technique like meditation will help you to relax and clear your mind for what’s happening in the present moment — which, hopefully, is peaceful sleep.
Individuals who strive for perfectionism are often chronic obsessive thinkers. However, perfection is an unrealistic and impractical goal. Instead of worrying about how things should be in an ideal world, imagine the best scenario in the real world. Instead of being a perfectionist, be someone who improves every time by continuously learning and making small adjustments along the way.
If you must think…
Again, thinking in itself is not a bad thing. Even thinking about your past mistakes and preparing for adverse outcomes in the future can be OK. That is, as long as you’re thinking this way in moderation. One of the best ways to control these thoughts is to give yourself a time limit. Set a timer on your phone or oven for five minutes or less. When your time is up, stop thinking and get on to something else.
If you still can’t stop your obsessive rumination and worrying or unending negative thoughts after trying any (or all) of these exercises, consider making an appointment with a mental health professional. A licensed counselor, therapist, or psychologist can help you explore the root causes of your overthinking, and work closely with you to find personalized solutions or coping mechanisms. Asking for help isn’t admitting that you have a problem; it’s admitting you’re strong enough to find a solution.