“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”
– Dalai Lama
News flash…if you have a tendency to overthink things, you’re simply being human.
Thinking things through can be a great thing of course. But overthinking can result in stagnation, frustration, exhaustion, anxiety and even illness. Ultimately becoming someone who self-sabotages the good things that happen in life.
Can overthinking harm your brain in any way? According to Neuroscientist Paul King:
- Certain types of thought can be unhealthy: obsessive thoughts, delusional thoughts, repetitive thoughts, and negative thoughts. These types of thoughts can create unstable wiring patterns in the brain, although the concern is primarily the functional outcome for the person engaged in that type of mental activity, not any physiological harm to the brain.
Our brains are hard-wired to constantly seek solutions to problems. When we face a crisis, or if we have an important decision to make, many of us fall into the trap of overthinking. You get stuck on a thought wheel that goes over and over again with no break and no insight whatsoever. It’s the kind of thinking that does nothing but perpetuate its own existence.
It’s important to recognize that we can use our own intellect and mental function to identify when we are “spinning our mental wheels” in vain and get out of this thought pattern.
Here are 8 ways to stop overthinking everything according to psychologist Dr. Kelly Neff:
1. Accept that You Have a Problem with Over-Thinking
The first step to understanding if you have a real problem is probably the most difficult. We can only fix what we know is not working and then of course, acknowledge that you have a problem. If you feel like over-thinking stops you from living a happy life, making decisions, getting things done, or forming meaningful relationships, then you may have a problem. If you find yourself spiraling into negativity and depression when a bad thing happens, you certainly have a problem. If you are not sure if you have a problem, ask your friends and loved ones to be honest with you. Because they are usually the ones who will see it even if you cannot.
2. Forgive Yourself: Our Brains are Hardwired This Way
Once you can admit that you’re an over-thinker, forgive yourself. Because the brain actually makes over-thinking a natural tendency. According to Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the leading expert in this field, “the organization of our brains sets us up for over-thinking.” This is because our brain weaves our thoughts and memories together instead of compartmentalizing them. So when something triggers a stressor or you get into a bad mood, it can unlock a ‘cascade’ of racing negative thoughts that have nothing to do with the original trigger for the bad mood. While the brain might automatically make these associations, once you’re aware, you can begin to solve the problem.
3. Breathe More
If our brains are wired in this ‘interconnected spider web’ where one bad event can trigger a tidal wave of negative thought associations, how can we break this pattern? The first and easiest thing you can do is BREATHE. Breathing will relax you, calm you, connect you to the present moment, and simply ground you. It sounds so simple but often when our mind starts to race to bad places, we become manic and frantic when what we need to do is relax the body and mind.
Try lying down and taking a two-second long deep inhalation in through the nose, followed by a four-second long exhalation out through the mouth. This breathing pattern increases the CO2 in the bloodstream, which can relax the body and calm the adrenal system’s response to the obsessive thoughts. Do this for 10 minutes or until the excessive thinking slows down.
4. Talk Less
So many of us over-thinkers can’t help but want to ‘talk it out’ when we feel stressed and worried. While talking about the worries can sometimes help, it usually will make things worse, especially if the person you are talking to is also an over-thinker, and you spend the entire time over-analyzing and dissecting every detail of every negative problem in your lives. You might end up working yourself up into a frenzy of negativity and feeling even more upset after the conversation. If you really feel the need to express your issues, you can always write them down, to clear them out of your mind and realize that your concerns might sound silly when you read them back to yourself.
5. Get Physical and Get Busy
It can be incredibly beneficial to do something physical, whether it is going for a brisk walk, playing with a pet or children, doing yoga, playing sports, swimming, or running. In addition to physical exercises, engrossing activities that stimulate the brain can also be effective for redirecting obsessive thought patterns. Playing cards, learning a language, or playing all different types of games can be great diversions or interrupters of these thoughts. Activities that are both mentally and physically engrossing are the best, because they require enough absorption to pull you out of obsessive thinking patterns and into a state of flow.
6. Practice Mindfulness
One of the big things that over-thinkers struggle with is the ability to live in the present moment. So consumed by the failures of the past and the worries over the future, the present moment does not get the attention and love it deserves. Lao Tzu said that “if you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are living in the future, and if you are at peace you are living in the present.” One of the best things you can possibly do is practice mindfulness, a form of meditation where you focus on the present moment without judgment. As the obsessive, worrying thoughts come in, you acknowledge them, and then let them go, energetically releasing them and clearing your space.
7. Surrender to the Universe
When we worry, we essentially hope to control the flow of life. This is because we’re attached to the outcome of a situation. We want things to happen a certain way, and we’re terrified that something could go wrong or that bad things could happen.
In reality, we have little to no control over the unfolding of events in life, at least not from the conscious standpoint. So, we can worry and obsess, or we can let go of our attachment to the outcomes. Surrender does not mean giving up. It just means you’re willing to go with the flow of the current instead of trying to swim against it. Surrender is a form of release and a form of peace. It means you’re willing to trust that everything works out as it’s supposed to: Trust that everything happens in its right time and place and you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
8. Remember, Your Thoughts Create Your Reality
We must be mindful of our thoughts because our thoughts have more power than we realize. If you obsessively fear losing your job, you actually INCREASE that possibility. The same thing goes for worrying about contracting a life-threatening disease or medical condition. The more energy you send in that direction, the more likely you are to unknowingly give permission to your body to manifest this condition. Like attracts like. So the more you worry about something, the more you will begin to attract exactly the energy you are worried about!
For more help on getting out of your own head:
There are plenty of reasons to stop overthinking. And as I was researching this topic, I became increasingly clear on a few things:
- Like any other topic, there are a ton of opinions and points of view on this subject. There is scientific evidence for some. But life experience is the basis for others.
- This list embodies all the key points necessary for someone to determine whether they actually have an issue with overthinking. But it should also help you take action and retrain your mind. Both realizations can allow you to release the grip of overthinking.
- Be patient and kind with yourself and remember your thoughts don’t own you and you aren’t your thoughts.
- In full disclosure, I caught myself overthinking whether I should post this article.
So what do you do when you catch yourself overthinking?
Have an extra 2 minutes to discover more about yourself? Take the quiz to find out if you’re happy or comfortable.
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Joshua Miller is a creative leader and impactful executive coach.
His career spans both the advertising world and the world of leadership. In advertising, he was the creative lead, responsible for the campaign strategy for Fortune 100 brands. Today, he is an innovator. He’s supporting the executive development and change management for many of the same companies.
Joshua studied at Syracuse University, NYU and Stanford. He combines that background with his deep knowledge of organizational behavior, performance and change management. He focuses on the analysis, design, development, delivery, and evaluation of scalable and global talent development solutions programs.
Joshua is a Master Certified Coach. He trained with the International Coaching Federation and CTI (The Coaches Training Institute).