5 therapist-backed ways to overcome overthinking
Chaithra is a freelance content writer with a love for existentialism. She is passionate about...
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Nilom Shah, Counseling Psychologist Nilom B Shah is a Mental Health...
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‘It’s already 11.15 am. The meeting would have started. What will my manager think? I better prepare myself for some tongue-lashing. What if this affects my appraisal? Of course, it will. What if I remain an associate developer for the rest of my life? What if I am never meant to enjoy good things in life?’
Do you hear yourself say things like these? Do you constantly second-guess your decisions?
We’ve all been there before. Obsessing over every tiny detail on how we could have said or done things better. It’s normal to have self-doubt, but your insecurities and second-guessing can start to weigh on your mind to the point that you find it difficult to move forward. This is called overthinking.
In this research paper, the authors note that overthinking “typically references ruminative, intrusive, and anxious thoughts, and results in a range of perceived complications, overlapping with common psychiatric constructs, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”
Researchers have found a strong link between overthinking and how you feel (Segerstrom et al., 2000). Additional research found that worrying about the future, especially, has been linked to anxiety (McLaughlin et al., 2007). What’s worse? According to 2013 research, published in the ‘Journal of Abnormal Psychology,’ obsessing over our defects, faults, and issues increases the chance of developing mental health issues.
Clearly, studies show that overthinking is not conducive to our mental well-being. But what can we do about it?
MyndStories spoke to Nilom Shah, our Lead Content Reviewer, and a practicing therapist, to find out how to settle our overthinking minds.
Obsess over the solution, not the problem
Nilom believes that overthinking is not as bad as it is made out to be.
“Although it may seem like a negative thing, overthinking usually stems from the need to be perfect – and perfectionism has led to some of the greatest scientific discoveries, musical compositions, and literary works. Perfectionists tend to believe there’s only one “right” way to do things which adds to the pressure. Of course, it’s important to strike a balance and not let the quest for perfectionism become debilitating,” she explains.
There are two aspects to overthinking
Problem-solving and planning are active ways to deal with the stress of overthinking.
Endless rumination, on the other hand, is when you think about things over and over, analyze them, and play them back in your mind without coming up with a solution or a sense of closure. Overthinkers feel they are helping themselves by repeating their issues in their brains, which leads to analysis paralysis.
For example, if you’re worried about losing your job during a recession, it’s better to plan your finances, take action, upskill, and appear for interviews. The key is to focus your obsession on solving problems instead of dwelling on the negative. Sometimes, just realizing or being aware that you’re ruminating can help you stop and move on to something else.
Heal the disease, not the symptom
“Overthinking is merely a symptom, not the actual problem. Next time you are stuck in an overthinking rut, dig deep. Keep digging until you find the source – the why,” says Nilom.
The human mind is an endless learning machine.
It keeps track of every event, good or bad, that has happened to you. Why? Your brain is constantly trying to keep you safe from any potential harm – whether that’s physical or emotional. This includes criticism, rejection, failure, illness, and so on. If you’ve had a bad experience in the past, your brain does everything in its power to prevent that in the future. This often translates to endless cycles of overthinking, the brain’s coping mechanism against impending danger.
Once you figure out the real reason behind the obsessive thoughts, you can work on the actual issue – fear of abandonment, unworthiness, fear of failure, etc.
Off your mind and onto the paper
“Once you deal with the root of the problem, the symptom will go away,” says Nilom.
New research estimates that we have around 6,000 thoughts daily. Most of them are recycled thoughts, which means we’re constantly reinforcing past thinking, which leads to more actions based on that perspective. And then, of course, those actions reinforce the same perspective until it becomes a deeply ingrained belief. It’s a vicious cycle of unwanted thoughts.
Getting your thoughts out of your head and writing them in a journal can help you make sense of your thoughts and feelings.
For starters, it allows us to express our feelings rather than bottling them up, which is proven to be damaging to our health. So many of us have unseen emotions swarming about our minds in pictures and feelings that we haven’t shared with others. Our anguish is turned into words that exist outside of ourselves when we write.
On a mental level, writing requires us to sequence our experiences, allowing us to investigate cause and effect and build a cohesive narrative. Through this process, we can step back from our experiences and start to analyze them from fresh angles, which leads to realizations about both the self and the outside world.
Nilom has a suggestion on how we can add mindful journaling to our daily habits.
“Allow each thought to emerge naturally and, as it forms, write it down without judgment. For example, “I shouldn’t have quit my job.” As you write, you’ll likely notice counter thoughts arising. Jot these down, too. Doing this can help you get a more well-rounded perspective on the situation and understand it better.”
Researchers found that journaling can help reduce intrusive thoughts, organize scattered memories and be beneficial in a variety of ways. As your stress decreases, you’ll be able to think more clearly and decide which thoughts are worth your time and which aren’t.
For some, journaling might be difficult to get started with. But be patient. After a week or so, you should feel more at ease with the routine and see some tangible shifts.
Open up to your loved ones
If you find yourself struggling with overthinking, know that you are not alone. Talking about our feelings with others makes us feel more connected to them and creates a sense of belonging, all of which help us cope with stress. We feel seen, understood, and accepted when we share our inner selves, and people respond with compassion.
“Talk to your loved ones about it and ask for their help. Explain that you are trying to gain better control over your thoughts, and ask them to point out when they notice you ruminating over past events. Be open to suggestions and work together to find a solution that works for you. This helps because we’re often caught in our narratives, and an outsider’s perspective is just what we need to shift our focus,” says Nilom.
Keep your circle small when you’re trying to think things through – too many opinions will just make your head spin. Just be careful of co-rumination (prolonged discussions emphasizing negative experiences), which can make the problem worse.
Reserve time for rumination
It might seem counterintuitive, but a set period of time ‘ruminating time’ each day can actually be helpful.
The cognitive-behavioral therapy strategy of ‘scheduled worry time’ recommends blocking out time to address worries head-on. The time has been set out just for you to evaluate what is causing you to feel worried, apprehensive, or concerned. This is a strategy that Nilom often suggests to her clients.
“Twenty minutes of uninterrupted worry, rumination, or mulling can help you recognize potential pitfalls in your plans and figure out how to do things differently in the future. When your time is up, move on to something else. And when you start overthinking things outside of your scheduled time, simply remind yourself that you’ll need to wait until your ruminating session to deal with those thoughts.”
We hope that these tips were helpful in reducing overthinking. But if you’re still struggling, please don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.