"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 being an over-thinker 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’re faced with 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:
- Accept that You Have a Problem with Over-Thinking
The first step to understanding if this is a real problem is probably the most difficult. We can only fix what we know is not working and then of course to acknowledge that you have a problem. If you feel like you can’t get out of your own head and over-thinking is stopping 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 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.
Forgive Yourself: Our Brains are Hardwired This Way
Once you can admit that you are an over-thinker, forgive yourself, because the brain is actually wired to make 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” because our thoughts and memories are intrinsically woven together, not compartmentalized. So when stressors are triggered 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 be wired to make these associations, once you become aware you can begin to solve the problem.
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.
So many over-thinkers, can’t help but want to ‘talk it out’ when we are feeling 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.
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.
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.
Surrender to the Universe
When we worry, we are essentially hoping to control the flow of life because we are attached to the outcome of a situation. We want things to happen a certain way, and we are terrified that things 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 that our worrying will directly impact the outcome in the way we want. So, we can worry and obsess, or we can accept all that IS and let go of our attachment to the outcomes. Surrender does not mean giving up; It just means you are willing to go with the flow of the current, instead of trying to swim against it and getting repeatedly bashed into the rocks. Surrender is a form of release and a form of peace, because it means you are willing to trust that everything will work out as it is supposed to: Trust that everything happens in its proper time and place and you are exactly where you are supposed to be.
Remember, Your Thoughts Create Your Reality
We must be mindful of our thoughts because our thoughts have power, more than we realize. If you obsessively fear losing your job, you are actually INCREASING the likelihood of getting fired, not decreasing it. Same if you are 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, and so the more you worry about something, the more you will begin to attract exactly the energy you are worried about!
There are plenty of reasons to stop overthinking and as I was researching this topic I became increasingly clear on a few things:
- Like every topic for every article out there, there are a ton of opinions and points of view on this subject. Some backed by science while others are more lifehack related.
- This list embodies all the key points necessary for someone to not only understand if they actually have an issue with overthinking but begin to take action on retraining your mind in order to release the grip of over thinking.
- 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 for at least 4 minutes before publishing it.
So what do you do when you catch yourself overthinking?
Not-your-typical Personal and Executive Master Certified Coach.
Joshua Miller is a creative and impactful leader. His career experience has spanned both the advertising world and the world of leadership and organizational development. In advertising, he was responsible in delivering campaign strategies for Fortune 100 companies. Now he innovates and delivers results when supporting executive talent development and change management for the same clients.