We as human beings have a habit of compulsive thinking that is so pervasive that we love sight of the fact that we are nearly always thinking. Thinking is consciousness and is one of the most important human trait. But when you get caught up in a vicious cycle of compulsive thinking about the past, future or get overly worried, it leads to stress, anxiety and indecision.
Thinking in itself is a good thing. Thoughts that are constructive and optimistic in nature, like thinking about how to solve a problem or accomplish our goals or familiarise about new concepts, are considered as proactive as they lead you to solutions and productive outcomes. They help you visualise your goals coming to fruition, or help you move forward or gain insights into something new.
Whereas, compulsive thinking about things from the past or catastrophic thinking about future often keeps you from getting things done and can be detrimental to your well-being as it puts you in a state of emotional and physical distress.
What is overthinking?
Overthinking which is also called rumination is the act of thinking something about too much for too long. You can overthink a small problem or challenge until it looks like a huge challenge, overthink something positive in your life until it doesn’t look positive anymore. When you overthink, you get caught up in a loop of negative thoughts where you may start blaming yourself for things that went wrong, worry about scenarios that may or may not happen.They also include regrets of actions and inactions of your past.
We all tend to indulge in overthinking every now and then. We churn over what we should have said or over-plan what we should do. Most of our thinking is relatively harmless as eventually something draws our focus and our thinking shifts, but other times, it can be distressing as we end up going round in circles without a solution, where we begin to second guess everything including our choices and decisions.
Overthinking vs productivity/personal growth
Over-thinkers struggle to find solutions to problems, possibly because of their negative outlook and ruminating behaviours. Such behaviours keeps you stuck on what you can’t control and influence. While introspection involves healthy self-reflection and exploration, rumination is more like getting caught up in a cycle of negative thoughts that are critical and demoralising. While introspection leads to self-awareness, insights, solutions and goal-setting, rumination can make one feel self-critical, self-destructive or self-doubting.
While many problems are resolved by giving them careful thought and deliberation, overthinking does not lead to new insights or understanding, instead it saps your energy, time, motivation and creativity. Overthinking zaps a simple moment happening here in right now out of all it’s joy by overanalysing and dissecting it. It can keep you from trying new things, open to new perspectives and opportunities or communicating with people. The more habitual your overthinking is, the harder it is to break it.
How to stop overthinking
It is important to think things through, but many use thinking as a means of avoiding action. Overthinking is a destructive thought pattern and rising above it can seem challenging if you are a perpetual over thinker. But as with many behaviours that harm our well-being, with determination and self-awareness, habit of overthinking is something that can be changed. Here are some ways to handle overthinking.
Pay attention to your thoughts: As William Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, it is our reaction to the event that causes overthinking. When you imagine a bad outcome to a past, present, or future event or situation, it results in stress, distress or worry. Paying attention to your thought patterns, you become aware of your self-critical thoughts toward yourself or others, and can identify what is triggering these thoughts.
Your first step is to identify ruminating thoughts and flag them as harmful. Once the thought becomes repetitive, convert it into a positive self-talk. Ask yourself, What am I anxious about ? What do I believe about this situation ? Does my thinking make any logical sense? Remind yourself that stress you are experiencing is because of the way you are relating yourself to these past events and you can always change the way you respond to such events differently.
Change your self-talk: Our critical inner voice perpetuates the cycle of overthinking. When you notice yourself, verbalise what that destructive voice in your head is telling you. Self-sabotaging and self-soothing voices lead you to the same undesirable outcome. Your critical inner voice might be the result of the negative programming you have taken on earlier in your age. Understanding where these attitudes come from can help you to separate them from your real point of view. Ask yourself, How am I talking to myself about this situation? How am I thinking about this? What assumptions am I making about this situation?
Write them down : Journaling is very helpful way to track what your critical inner voice is telling you. It not only strengthens the mind, but also gives you some mental space by moving them onto a page or onto a digital medium. One very helpful exercise is to write down these voices or thoughts as ‘you’ statements instead of ‘I’ statements. This provides an objective perspective and to see where your thoughts might have originated from in your past. It paves way for you to then respond to these thoughts from a realistic and compassionate perspective.
Practice mindfulness: One effective way to overcome overthinking is through mindfulness. When you are mindfully aware of your thoughts, they no longer control you. Learning to control or focus your attention can enhance an inner sense of calm and lead to increased self-awareness. Practicing mindfulness can help you to know your thoughts and react more calmly to them, without catastrophizing or allowing them to spiral out of control.
Mindfulness meditation helps declutter your mind, helps you to organise, analyse, and prioritise. Once you recognise the problem, you can work on finding a solution and avoid wandering amidst a host of unrelated and negative thoughts. Take some time to reflect to think your thoughts and mull over why you’re mulling them over. Reflecting on how they make you feel can help you to identify your emotions, leading to less rumination.
Shift your perspective: Reflecting on an important decision before making it is usually a good course of action. However, when we start ruminating on or overthink an issue in a negative sense, it can lead to stress. If you find yourself having an exaggerated focus on a specific problem, being consciously aware of it lets you see it as an opportunity for growth and change. By accepting that we have a great deal of control over our circumstances, we can view them as challenges and commit ourselves to stay the course through these challenges. If on the other hand, if we find ourselves overthinking a problem, seeing it as out of our control, we undermine our own strength or ability of working through them.
Change your perspective to make yourself empowered to overcome overwhelming and distressing thoughts. Shift your attention to solutions. Is your work stress making you ruminate? What can you do to reduce it? Are you stuck in pursuing your goals ? What steps can you take to get more clarity on the goals you need to pursue? What is the problem that I am currently experiencing? What opportunity might exist that could transform how I am thinking about this ? This shifts your perspective more towards solutions than problems.
Focus on what you can control: Attachment to past actions, thoughts or events clouds our judgment and reasoning, making us over-critical and over-analytical. When things don’t go our way, it is easy to get engaged in overthinking. We start to overthink on all the things that aren’t working in our favour, worrying about all the bad things that could happen which clouds our judgment. This makes you focus more on the ‘what if’ ‘I wish’ or ‘I should have’ rather than on things that you are more in control of in the present moment.
When you find yourself worrying, take some time to reflect on things that you have control over. Acknowledge what’s on your mind , and ask yourself, what is worrying me? What is within my control? What matters most to me and what can I do about it ? When we focus on what we can control, our thoughts empower us and trigger positive emotions.
Challenge your fears. Very often, fears that arise in our minds lead to overthinking. We fear not being good enough, we might make a mistake or what others might think. And such fears often stem from the imagination of ‘what might be’ that contributes to our overthinking. Recognise as to whether your thoughts are interfering with your ability to look at situations objectively. Ask yourself, Is there evidence that your thought is true?
Take small steps of action in the direction of your fear. When you are overwhelmed by inaction, Ask yourself, How is my thinking flawed ? Does my thinking make any logical sense? what’s the worst-case scenario what’s the best-case scenario? What’s most realistic or likely?
Distract yourself: To avoid the trap of overthinking, you can do things differently by distracting yourself when your mind becomes too loud by engaging in an activity that you really enjoy. Redirecting your attention to something else impedes your negative thoughts and forces you to replace them with something else. Try doing something that requires focus, a two to three minute memory game or puzzle anything that requires concentration can be enough to break the compulsive pull of your thought. Perfectionists are more prone to chronic obsessive thinking. Instead of worrying about how things should be, try to improve every time by continuous learning and making small increments along the way.
Questions for self-reflection
How often do you indulge in overthinking?
Do you tend to overthink things in stressful situations?
What is your preferred way of thinking when you encounter problems – is it problem or solution-oriented?
How often do you use thinking as a means of avoiding action?
Are you more often concerned with ‘what if’ scenarios rather than what you can control?
Do you often ruminate over your past mistakes or learn from them ?
Which areas of life you can benefit by not overthinking right now?
What is triggering your overthinking – is it your perspective, expectation or interpretation of the stressful situation?
How often do you envision positive outcomes for your future endeavours?
Do you let things out of your control make you anxious?
*Consider answering these questions through mindful reflection to strengthen new perspectives that you have gained through this post*
So, What are some things you do to stop overthinking situations you are in?
Thinking in itself is not a bad thing. But compulsive overthinking like ruminating over your past or worrying about future is. Such habit will leave you in a constant state of anguish and interferes with problem-solving and holds you back from doing something productive. Putting an end to rehashing the past, second-guessing and catastrophic thinking patterns is easier said than done and requires conscious practice. Only when you are aware of your overthinking, you can learn to manage it. The above framework can be a tool to operate more out of awareness when you find yourself overthinking about an issue or a situation.