Almost all of us get caught in the habit of overthinking at times. We replay our past mistakes and worry about the future in an effort to make sense of the world or to mitigate risk in some way.
While analytical thinking and problem-solving can definitely help us in life, becoming overly consumed by your thoughts can have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing.
Try the following steps to help you break the habit of overthinking.
1. Are you ruminating about the past or worrying about the future?
Most of our overthinking falls into two categories – ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. You might have a preference for one form of overthinking but many overthinkers do a bit of both.
It’s common to ruminate about minor issues such as forgetting to pay a bill on time or making a small error at work but our worries can also include constantly rehashing more significant setbacks such as losing money on a poor investment or dating the wrong partner for years.
Worry about the future works in much the same way. You might worry about something minor such as attending a party on the weekend or preparing a presentation at work. Or you may worry about big life issues such as how you’ll save enough money to buy your own home or become confident enough to make new friends.
Either form of worry usually includes self-criticism as well as fixed beliefs about our shortcomings (for example, “I’m hopeless with money/ terrible at relationships.”). These beliefs can limit the way we see ourselves and hold us back from creating positive and fulfilling lives.
What are your most habitual ways of overthinking?
- Rehashing past mistakes over and over.
- Worrying incessantly about the future.
- Replaying conversations or events in your head and wishing you had said or done things differently.
- Persistent worry about other people’s problems, particularly when you have no control over them.
- Having a nagging sense that there’s something you need to be worried about but not being sure what that is.
- Having difficultly ‘switching off’ or concentrating.
- Exaggerating problems by fixating on limiting beliefs or self-critical thoughts.
2. Remind yourself that your mind is having thoughts
Once you know your most common patterns of overthinking, mindfulness training can help you to step back from your thoughts and recognise that your mind is having thoughts, you are not the thoughts themselves.
It’s helpful to say to yourself, ‘my mind is telling me a story…’ and then get clear about the content of that story.
For example, if a friend hasn’t called you for a few weeks, you might tell yourself the story that you’ve offended or upset your friend in some way.
Realistic thinking is being able to recognise that very often people are wrapped up in their own lives (and maybe even their own worries) and unless you’re pretty certain your behaviour was insensitive, it’s likely that there’s nothing you need to worry about.
What are the stories your mind is telling you?
Are you thinking about the situation in an impartial way?
How would you view this situation if you were feeling completely confident?
3. Differentiate between overthinking and helpful thinking
Helpful thinking isn’t the same as overthinking. Overthinking, which often occurs as worry, is repetitive and unproductive where helpful thinking involves reflecting on a problem and gaining clarity about practical action steps that will help you to overcome that problem.
The difference between overthinking and helpful thinking is most easily identified by working out whether you have any control over your worries. Helpful thinking has an endpoint. It involves reflecting and analysing and identifying potential solutions to resolve the worry.
Try to shift your overthinking to helpful thinking by reflecting on the following questions.
Next time you’re worrying about something that has occurred in the past, ask yourself:
Is there a silver lining or something positive to come from the situation?
What did this experience teach you about yourself?
What would you do if you found yourself faced with a similar dilemma in the future?
If you’re worried about the future, ask yourself these questions:
Is this something you have direct control over now?
What are the possible solutions to this problem?
Is there something practical you can do this week to help minimise any risk of your worries eventuating?
When you recognise worries that are outside your control or unable to be resolved in the short-term, the following steps will help.
4. Schedule worry time
The habit of overthinking is like any other habit. The more you practice worry, the better you become at worrying. In the same way that we can become skilled at overthinking, we can also train our brains to reduce the amount of time we spend worrying.
Scheduling regular “worry time” is a CBT intervention that helps us to train our minds to contain worry to a certain time of day.
Set aside around fifteen minutes each day, either in the early morning or late afternoon (and ideally, not too close to bedtime) to write your worries into a ‘worry journal’. Choose the same time each day to signal to the brain that this is the time for worry (rather than all day long or in the middle of the night, when worrying usually peaks).
During your scheduled time, write down every single worry that has been in your head during the day.
Once you have listed all of your worries, look across the list and break your worries into two categories – concerns that you have some control over and those that are outside your control.
For each of the worries where you have some control, write down one manageable action step that will move you in the direction of resolving the worry and then schedule that action step into your diary.
For those worries outside your control, try the following steps.
- Do your best to put your worries aside at the end of your “worry time”. A relaxing meditation can help but if your worries still persist, write them onto a slip of paper and put them into a ‘worry box’ or ‘worry jar’ that you can close the lid on at the end of your worry time. If you feel the need to revisit those worries, take the slips of paper out at tomorrow’s scheduled worry time and reflect on them again.
- If a worry is persistent and nagging, try worrying the problem right out to the very end by asking yourself, “if this does happen, what would happen after that? And after that?” This might sound like a pessimistic approach but it can often help you to see that even in the worst-case scenario, you will actually be ok.
5. What’s the best-case scenario?
An overactive mind is inclined to focus on imagining worst-case scenarios and catastrophising even minor worries.
Instead of only thinking about what can go wrong, actively turn your mind to what could go right. Imagine what could be possible if everything was resolved easily.
What’s the most positive outcome you could hope for?
How would you think about this worry if you approached it from the most confident part of yourself?
What would the most positive person you know say about this situation?
What are the benefits of overcoming this kind of adversity?
6. Choose a positive mantra
If all else fails and your mind is still turning to worry, create a short phrase (or mantra) that will help to move you into a more positive state of mind.
In the same way that repeated worry becomes a self-perpetuating habit, repeating a positive mantra will help to balance the negative bias of the brain.
Try one of the following:
“No matter what happens, I will be ok.”
“I can handle this.”
“I’m stronger than I’ve been giving myself credit for.”