Overthinking and ways to manage it
Have you ever found yourself not being able to stop thinking about something? Maybe you keep replaying an argument you had or a situation at work or a problem in your personal life. The same thoughts keep going round and round in your head and each time they do you feel even more worried and distressed? To varying degrees, we all experience this phenomena at some points in our life, that catchy tune or line from a song that gets stuck on repeat in your head. However research suggests that brooding too much on negative events can lead to experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety in your life. Interestingly some research even suggests that the psychological response of continued overthinking about a negative event can be more detrimental to someone's ongoing mental health than what has actually happened to them. One of the most distressing parts of overthinking is that becoming stuck in a negative thought cycle can lower your mood, leading to more distressing thoughts and so on. Here are some ways to help manage overthinking and rumination. You may find some more helpful than others so use those that you find helpful for you.
Become aware when you are overthinking If you are prone to overthinking, make a commitment to noticing when you are overthinking. Part of the trouble with ruminating is that we can identify so closely with our thoughts that we give them far more attention and energy than they actually deserve and so get lost in them. The act of noticing that you are ruminating and being able to simply say to yourself, “Okay, I'm overthinking now” can help you to distance yourself from your thoughts. If you can notice and accept what is happening, and not judge yourself for it, you can relieve some of the energy in your mind. By realising that we are overthinking like this we can step out of reactive thinking and loosen the hold our thoughts have on us. In doing so we regain some of our ability to respond to what's happening.
Don't engage in the content of the thoughts, observe them Often when we are overthinking, the reason we have difficulty letting go of the thoughts is because they are linked to an emotional reaction. It can feel like the thoughts cause us to feel distressed, angry and/or they are upsetting. Because of this, our thinking can then easily become skewed. For instance, remember a time when you were really angry or upset; how clearly were you able to think then in that moment? I’m guessing that when you look back on it you’d probably say not very clearly. When we are emotionally unsettled we can think that our thoughts are trying to tell us something real or true about ourselves and that they need our attention, and more thinking! More thinking though only ever serves to reinforce the cycle.
Unfortunately are minds are such that trying to stop thinking about something tends to lead to a proliferation of more thoughts. Instead a more skillful response is to observe rather than engage in the thoughts. Notice them, allow them to be present and with time they will pass. One way you can do this is to visualise the thought as a leaf floating down a stream or as a cloud passing by.
Meditation Developing a meditation practice can really help increase your ability to allow thoughts to pass through your mind without getting so caught up in them. Meditation can be difficult to start, and that is usually part of the process in getting better at it so don't despair if it's hard at first. Attending a meditation class is a good way to learn this skill. Otherwise there are lots of guided meditation videos on YouTube. I find this one particularly helpful for overthinking:
Do something active that requires your attention When we are overthinking we are taking our attention and awareness away from our bodies and the outside world and withdrawing into our minds. Do something active that requires your attention externally such as reading a book, painting, writing, going for a run. These are all ways you can take your attention away from your thoughts and into your body.
Bring your attention to your senses If you are in an environment where doing something active isn't possible or is difficult such as being on a crowded train, focus your attention on your senses. Notice things such as the sounds you can hear, what you can see or your felt bodily sensations. What do your clothes feel like? Which part of your body feels comfortable now? Notice your breath. Breathe deeply and slowly from your belly. Seek professional help If overthinking is interfering with your life so that it's seriously impacting on your work, relationships with others and how you feel about yourself you may want to seek professional help. Counselling can help you develop your self-awareness around and develop your ability to manage overthinking so that it doesn't rule your life.