“Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.” – Tony Robbins. Does this not ring so true? Our thoughts have a lot of power and they can either help move us forward or cause us to stumble back. Addressing rather than suppressing our thoughts can make us feel like a gigantic weight has been lifted off of us emotionally. When most people start to feel anxious about “doing” rather than just “thinking”, it’s likely because they are overthinking, a.k.a. thinking too much.
What is overthinking?
Is it too much thinking about one specific thing that didn’t go as well as you wanted it to? Is it worrying about the unknown, or thinking about what you would have, could have, should have done? Is it weighing all the pros and cons? Or, is it worrying over every single detail so that you don’t make any mistakes and can do things perfectly? Or all of the above? If any of this sounds at all familiar, keep reading.
Below we take a closer look at what overthinking is, why we do it, and what you can do about it to help yourself.
Your brain getting stuck in a loop
Overthinking is when our brain gets stuck in a cycle of repetitive and unproductive thoughts. Some other ways to describe it include “rumination,” looping thoughts of the past and present as well as “worry” about the future. Regardless of which specific words or definitions we use, we are talking about constant thought-loops that don’t seem to have a resolution or lead us anywhere.
Over time, overthinking can lead to various mental health problems such as anxiety, chronic stress, depression, irritation, inertia (tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged) and frustration.
Why do I overthink?
If overthinking is unhelpful, then why do we do it so much? We all have this tendency. There are so many reasons behind this impulse and here is a list of a few. Take a look and see if you identify with any of these points. If you do, we have more information to help you understand what to do about it.
1. A result of childhood trauma
You may have learned to overthink due to childhood trauma. A coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations during your upbringing may turn on overthinking. Now, this is your go-to aid. You might expect something bad to happen even when things are going well. Many of our clients describe this as, ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ because you are used to living in a state of crisis.
You might create the crisis by overthinking because this is your comfort zone or you might feel like it’ll help you be prepared to manage anything bad that might happen.
2. An attempt to gain control
We may also overthink because it gives us a sense of control over a situation. The feeling of being out of control is too uncomfortable and the looping thinking offers a state of doing.
In this case, coming to terms with not being in control will help to alleviate the looped thinking. The idea here is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
3. Trying to solve a problem
Those of us who are natural problem solvers may suffer from overthinking. It keeps us in “fixing mode”, and the feeling that there is a solution is what feeds the thinking. Facing up to uncertainty is a great way to move through overthinking. I personally like to focus on all the things I can control in my life and I start by focusing on my wellness routines. It gives me a sense of control as well as refuels me so I am better able to cope with difficult situations.
Those of us that have an emotional attachment to feeling worthy will often seek out perfection, and will think of endless ways to improve the situation. Practice being okay with being imperfect or being average and stop thinking that, that is not enough. The truth is that nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes and that is how we learn and grow and become better at something.
5. Avoiding conflict
Fear of conflict can lead to overthinking in a way that triggers avoidance of one’s authentic feelings making that person incapable of asserting themselves in key situations. This is highly unhealthy. It is important to stop thinking that you cannot handle healthy conflict.
How does overthinking seep into our lives?
Overthinking can seep into every aspect of our lives and here are some of the most common ways it will do so.
1. Excessive planning
We all have this tendency to plan ourselves into a knot. Why do we do this? We believe that if we think of every single detail, then we will be able to control the outcome. Wrong! How many times have we been to a wedding and it starts raining? Or we plan our kid’s birthday party, and they throw a fit, or we lose our luggage or phone?
Anyway, you get the picture. Planning is important but when it gets to a point of setting assurances for the unknown, it is time to stop and acknowledge that part of the fun in life is to work through the surprises that are thrown at us.
How do you know if you are over planning?
- Ask yourself: “Have I answered the key what, when, where, how, who, why”?
- Is more information really helpful?
- Instead of more planning should I explore and acknowledge my fears?
2. Monitoring for threats
Monitoring for threats is when we are vigilant about what might be around the corner to threaten our safety, our prosperity, our family, et cetera. When people read their partner’s emails or check their phone, this is monitoring for threats.
Over-thinkers will have thoughts of worst case scenarios. They will organize and spend excessive amounts of time finding potential threats and thinking about ways to avoid them. Perhaps you are worried that you are going to fail your interview, so you spend so much time in excessive preparation for the interview that you don’t respond to the email to book the interview and miss having the interview all together.
So what can you do? Focus on the facts. Rather than hyper-focusing on every possible threat that could occur, focus on what is in front of you right now. Remind yourself that if something comes up, you can cross that bridge when you get there. It is a huge waste of time and energy trying to solve abstract problems. Remind yourself that things will happen whether you plan for them or not and you can handle anything that comes your way. Work on building your confidence and the belief in yourself to be able to handle life’s twist and turns.
For those that have low confidence and need others to feel safe, seeking reassurance from others can be very triggering for overthinkers. They can fixate on negative thinking of how others perceive them.
They may ask questions like: “am I not liked?”, or “Is there something wrong with me?”. The best method to alleviate this type of thinking is to find assurances from ourselves. Find personal love and strength through what we think of ourselves and the things that we do for ourselves.
This takes some work, as we need to believe in ourselves and be okay with others not liking us.
4. Not feeling good enough
It’s possible you simply don’t feel like you’re good enough. This could be in many aspects of life. Maybe at work, you feel like you’re no good in sales. A good way to work through this is to practice making sales calls because active practice creates skill. You need to regularly prioritize active practice in order to make continual progress. Otherwise, you could be stuck never learning anything new. Or, maybe you try in a half-hearted manner and never reach your desired outcome.
Go your own way
These things happen in real life and I believe most people have the need to grow, expand their minds, and acquire additional knowledge. You don’t need to necessarily drive yourself crazy trying to complete your goals or to-do list, but a better strategy is to just make informed decisions and go your own way when it comes to your progress.
Put plans into action
All you can do is try to make a meaningful contribution, stop overthinking, or just stop thinking in general to put some plans into action. There are so many little things you could do to expand your knowledge and cultivate that feeling that you are learning and are completely capable, and definitely good enough. I recommend taking an online course, or reading a blog post to help get you on track. Whether your goal is to lose weight or eat healthier, to earn more money, become a better parent, or land more customers, you can buy affordable courses online from experts that have all the advice you need, and you can take them at your own pace.
By gaining knowledge in the areas that matter to you, you will have a better strategy designed to boost your outlook.
What can I do when I notice I am overthinking?
In order to start doing, you’ll need to figure out how to manage overthinking. What’s the first and most important step when you’ve noticed you’re overthinking? Being aware of it.
1. Notice when you are stuck
We are often on auto-pilot, but if you can identify that your thoughts are looping and fixed, observe your thinking and pause. Getting out of your head is key to breaking the vicious cycle of looping thoughts. The best way to get out of your head is to get out of the house/office or wherever you are and go out and do something different.
We get perspective when we remember there is a whole big world out there beyond ourselves. Even talking to and listening to someone else can remind you that your problems aren’t that big or as detrimental as you are making them out to be.
I like to ask myself if I will care about this thing tomorrow? Or, in a week? A month? How about in 6 months? In a year? In 5 years? If the answer is “no”, it is probably not worth the time, energy and attention that I’m giving it.
2. Notice automatic destructive thought patterns
A common trait of overthinking is automatic thoughts that occur after we have a strong reaction (feeling) to something. It is like a reflex and as if we are pulling our hand back after touching something hot. These are learned thought patterns that usually have themes.
Automatic thought patterns sound like:
- “I am going to screw this up”
- “I’m stupid”
- “I’m not likeable”
- “I can’t handle this”
First, identify your automatic thoughts. What are some common themes that you tell yourself?
Next, question your thoughts. Is there evidence to support the thought? Do you really believe what you are thinking? Is it possible that you are wrong? What are the facts that lead you to believe what you are thinking? Are these thoughts related to something that happened to you in the past? Is what happened in the past applicable in this current situation?
Then, try to reframe the way that you think. Staying focused on the facts of the situation can redirect your focus from your feelings and automatic thoughts to the reality of the situation.
Some examples of reframed thoughts:
- “I am getting good feedback on this project so I must be doing a good job so far”
- “I have a couple of very close friends who really care about me and want to spend time with me. So, some people like me”
- “I have felt like I couldn’t handle things in the past but, have always gotten through everything that has come my way”
3. Acknowledge your successes
What we think is how we feel, so why not celebrate all of the great things that you have accomplished in your life. Be proud of everything you have done so far and remind yourself of how very capable you are. You have handled tough situations. You have gotten yourself to where you are today.
Start working on setting daily reminders of celebrating milestones or successes, no matter how big or small. The feeling of success will offer you a feeling of being able to handle things that come your way so you don’t have to overthink. I like to write things out that I am proud of each and every day. It is best not to wait for huge successes but to let yourself feel good about yourself right now.
You can also do this for others. As we can all naturally have negative thoughts, you can be available to help others by acknowledging and celebrating their successes.
4. Learn how to handle your fears
Fear is a big catalyst in making us reach for harmful coping habits and attitudes. However, when we consider that fear is a life saving tool, we can reframe fear to help ourselves.
We feel fear when we are in danger, but if that perceived danger is in fact not danger but our own looping thoughts, then we need to use our critical thinking skills to weed through the actual cause of the perceived danger in order to find out more about our fear.
Asking open-ended questions about the unknown is a great way to calm fear and find some peace of mind:
- What is the worst outcome of this situation?
- What could happen if I go through with my plans?
- What if I succeed?
- What if I fail?
- Can I learn from the experience?
5. Be solution-oriented
A constructive way of dealing with the urge to overthink is to be solution oriented. When you start looping in your thinking, you can ask yourself questions like:
- What can I do in this situation?
- How can I help this along?
- Is there more that I can do?
Try to be accepting when situations are out of your control. If you determine that there are no solutions or additional actions that you can bring to a situation, then choosing to accept what is out of your control and letting things go is the best thing to do.
In these situations I like to get busy and focused on my next goal or project rather than being wasteful of my time and energy. Ask yourself what other areas of your life need your attention and get busy working on those things. Even just organizing a drawer or closet can redirect your brain to something more useful.
6. Manage your emotions
How do we manage our emotions? This looks different for all of us. While some of us may need to hit the gym for a HIIT session, others may need to lose themselves in a nature walk, while still others may want to turn to a nice, hot bath and a good book.
- Don’t get hooked. When we give our feelings time and space (by doing something to distract ourselves), then we don’t get locked in the emotion, and we tend to have a faster reaction time for critical thinking.
- Don’t personalize everything. Consider that what you are witnessing is not about you. We have a tendency to personalize every interaction and every situation, but that is often not what is really going on.
- Try to stick to the facts. Only focus on what you know to be true and not on what you are feeling. You may be able to gain a lot of clarity on a situation when you suspend your beliefs and assumptions of what is taking place.
- Find a way to move your body. Emotional tension is a natural reaction to overthinking and so it is important to find ways to relieve this physical stress.
7. Know your triggers
Learning what makes you anxious or triggers stress is important. For some of us, having to relocate is a trigger and the idea of having to break with routine and go to an unknown place sets overthinking into over drive. For others, family functions where you see toxic family members can set your temper and defenses soaring through the roof.
It is important to acknowledge and understand your triggers so you can use that insight to prepare and cope with them without viewing them as sources of danger. If you accept that they exist and that you can make use of certain tools to cope with them, then you won’t fall into the urge to obsess about their impact on you. If it is a person that is your trigger, then consider conversations that you could have with them and imagine your interaction with them unfolding without conflict. Set a time to take breaks from “exposure” and plan how and when you can leave the event.
When we work with our triggers we can lessen their blow. Nurturing insights into how to cope with our triggers is helpful when it comes to managing them.
8. Know what you can and can’t control
The idea that we can control situations if we try hard enough is a false hope in most circumstances. However, because we naturally fear the unknown, it makes sense that we would try to find ways to make it more predictable. This is an unrealistic expectation and actually adds undue stress on our thinking. Once you can come to terms with that fact you cannot control every outcome, you will start to find relief from the need for control.
Finding new language to define your control can be a good way to reframe your outlook. For example, “I have control of my reaction to this situation and plan to do my best.” Making progress in reframing will open up opportunities to improve negative thinking.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
At certain points in life, our looping thoughts can be too much to withstand and it is during these times that we should reach out for help. Working with a therapist can help you find better strategies, new ideas, and new ways of thinking about the future. They can offer some practical tools, listen without judgment and support your process.
Changing the way that we think takes time, so set realistic goals while nurturing self-awareness. Be kind to yourself and don’t give up because the time you invest will always pay hefty returns.