Trying to ward off the curse of overthinking seems redundant or maybe even altogether futile. Try as you might, sometimes you can't get your brain out of a feedback loop. One thought triggers another and you're free-falling but not in the cool, Tom Petty way. The struggle is real, and it's exhausting.
If you're an overthinker, you get it.
Overthinking is paralyzing.
As a writer, I can't tell you how many times I've stared at my computer screen and tried to sort my head out to get busy. Stare at the screen. Stare out the window. Back to the screen. Oftentimes, I have too much going on mentally to get focused on the task at hand, and it made me realize that so many people are stuck in this same place that we need to talk about what overthinking looks like and how to control the mental chaos.
The Skinny on Overthinking
According to Psychology Today, overthinking exists in two forms: ruminating and worrying. Ruminating, of course, is obsessing about the past, while the future consumes a worrier. Either way, you're just spinning your wheels.
There's nothing wrong with remembering lessons from your past as you face familiar situations. We're wired to draw from prior experiences. It's beneficial to survival, even. Can you imagine having to approach everything like it's the first time you've been there?
But when overthinking becomes routinely negative or obsessive, you're killing yourself. Kind of literally, actually, according to research. You get into those ruts and you can't function. You're not productive. Even basic adulting can fall to the wayside. At its extreme, overthinking can lead to depression, anxiety, and a slew of other mental health issues. A lot of people tend to turn to substance abuse to try and quiet the noise, which has its own consequences.
And anyone who has ever fallen victim to overthinking can attest to the sleepless nights spent counting down the clock: "If I can just fall asleep in the next three minutes..."
Obviously, a lack of sleep or poor sleep quality isn't helping anyone. There's nothing more fun than a night of bad sleep and waking up in a bad mood with a noisy brain that's now angry it couldn't rest.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to gain traction.
If overthinking is caused by obsessing about the past or stressing out about the future, then the obvious answer is to be present, right? Comical advice to give to an overthinker, I know, but it really is that simple.
If you Google "how to stop overthinking," you'll get a bazillion to-do lists back. Videos, too. Some folks narrow it down to three things, some ten. Some people give very specific action items, while others are more zen about it. Ultimately, though, everyone's talking about being present.
To kind of synthesize all the help out there -- you have to start paying attention to yourself. Here's a kind of "best of the best" list based on the various sources consulted and my own personal successes.
Things are going to pop into your head from time to time. Acknowledge them, realize you're on a circus ride and focusing on things you can't do anything about, and then hit the brakes. It gets easier with practice. In order to do anything about the cycle and situation or even the literal thoughts that you're obsessing over, you have to realize what's happening. So, start with acknowledging your thought process, weeding out what's yours and what's not, dismissing what doesn't belong to you, and going forward from there.
Once you realize you're in an overthinking death spiral, make an active effort to replace the thinking. Even if you don't believe yourself at first, keep doing it. Call out your thinking for what it is. Remind yourself you're fine, if you feel panicked by it. Sometimes, you can even reach out to others to help you get a handle on it and quiet it down. For example, if you're worried that you said or did something that hurt someone or got misconstrued, ask them and believe their answer. Allow yourself some peace.
Continue to substitute negative thinking when you acknowledge it by literally replacing the thought with something positive. It doesn't matter what the replacement thought is, so long as it brings you calmness and mental clarity. This also gets easier with practice.
Learn From It
The past is the past. We can't change it, so we have to accept it. What you can do, and what's actually helpful when you're stuck in that fog, is think about how you'll do things differently next time you're presented with a similar situation. Give yourself action items. If you're going to keep replaying something negative in your head like that, you might as well get some use out of it. Beating yourself up about it or just letting it make you stagnant is useless. Forgive yourself and make a promise to yourself to do better moving forward.
When it comes to the worrier stuck in the future that hasn't happened yet, take the lessons from the past and do the same thing. Think about the ways that you'll approach the issue next time it pops up. Think about ways to actively avoid the thing you might be worried about (or procure, if that's the case). Set goals. Action, not passivity. And stop freaking out about something that hasn't even happened yet.
Get It Out
Talking to someone helps a bunch. Whether that's a trusted friend, a therapist, or just writing in a journal, getting it out of your body is a great way to release it. Try not to whine, though. Instead, try to reflect and be aware. We want to develop healthy coping strategies for overthinking. Create action items to get you where you want to go. Create lists of things you've learned from the experiences. Change behaviors as necessary to get yourself where you want to be.
The process of talking/writing is therapeutic in and of itself. People need connections and need to feel heard. If you're not comfortable sharing, though, the journaling idea is a great way to find some calm. Don't worry about what it sounds like. You're not publishing. Just go for it.
The biggest thing is not to dwell. Say the thing and be done with it. Set a timer if you have to. If you're not done by the ding, come back to it tomorrow and set the timer again. Staying in the purge too long becomes its own problem in rumination.
We've all got our own ways, but when the noise is too loud in my head, I need external noise to cancel that out. I usually seek out my people and go talk about things that aren't a part of my mental tail-spinning. "Yes, please, tell me about the funny thing your cat did today. And you have pictures?? Score."
Movement helps a lot. Most of us overthink when we're sitting or lying down. Play your favorite jams and dance around your place like a goofball. Clean something. Those dishes your overthinking has caused you to avoid? Go wash them. Laundry? Vacuuming? Paint, write, draw, run, cook, sing, fish, binge watch something funny, play cards, read, play video games -- do anything that you enjoy and that can allow you to break through whatever you're ruminating over.
In the end...
In the end, you have to catch overthinking when it's happening, recognize it for what it is, and choose the best dismissal tactic for it. Make sure you pick a way that actually processes the issue and not just numbs it. Otherwise, you can anticipate it'll be back into your overthinking rotation soon enough.
If you can have a healthy conversation with someone about what's consuming you, go for it. Don't get codependent here, though, and don't pick fights.
If you can distract yourself long enough to come back to your thoughts rationally so that you give yourself the chance to create a game plan around them? Do that.
Ultimately, take a breath. Be still. Is it a crisis? Right now, in the moment of freaking out, are you dying? Be present. Gain some perspective around the thing. Realize that it's either done or hasn't happened yet, and stop. Shut the circus ride down. You're in charge.
Good luck, lovelies.
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