How to Protect Yourself From Overthinking

kid sitting outside looking puzzled

If you overthink, you obsess about mistakes that were made yesterday and feel distress about plans in your future. It can take shape as significant worry over performance at school or at work, as well as an invasive concern about how others perceive your actions and what you say. Often, this transforms relatively harmless conversations and interactions into endless loops of thinking, leading a person to experience distress, anguish and obsession. If this compulsion to overthink sounds familiar, continue reading for ways to reduce anxiety levels and contain some of these negative thought patterns.

Identify Your Ruminative Thoughts

When a person ruminates, they chew on the words or experiences playing over in their mind. It is not surprising, therefore, that this label is derived from how cows digest their food: By chewing, swallowing, and chewing again. While it is an effective way for cows to obtain the nutrients they need, it isn’t quite as helpful a way for humans to digest their thoughts. Rather, ruminative thoughts are exhausting and can make a person more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

If you are unsure whether you are ruminating over something, consider the examples below for some common overthinking patterns:

  • Hesitancy and inability to contribute to conversations because you are thinking about potential responses to your statements before you even speak them
  • Constantly comparing yourself to people around you, to see how you stack up
  • Fixating on worst-case scenarios involving yourself and/or your loved ones
  • Feeling concern over your future goals and ambitions, so much so that it leaves you feeling dismayed over whether they are even possible
  • Reliving traumatic experiences over again in your mind — particularly in vulnerable moments or situations, such as falling asleep for the night
  • Lacking an ability to slow down vague, racing, irrational thoughts

Although people believe they are problem solving through rumination, it does not result in any real or actionable solution. In reality, problems sometimes intensify when you dwell on them. The worst thing, these repetitive thoughts don’t allow for new, healthier perspectives to take hold. Additionally, overthinking can lead to emotional distress and the possibility for developing unhealthy coping mechanisms.

5 Strategies to Stop Overthinking

It isn’t easy to put an end to endless rehashing and second-guessing, but there are ways to better manage negative thinking patterns when they pop up. It takes practice and patience, but small changes can help to limit your uncomfortable thoughts.

1. Try to practice mindfulness and meditation

It might seem obvious, but when you strive to live in the present moment, it is harder to spend time worrying about yesterday’s events or feel anxious about tomorrow’s schedule. Start to become aware of the “right now” by practicing your focus. This skill builds over time and eventually helps reduce overthinking.

2. Notice when rumination happens

Acknowledging when your thoughts are no longer productive is the first step in stopping the associated uncomfortable feelings. When you start to notice yourself replaying events in your mind or worrying about another person’s perception, take a pause and recognize it isn’t helpful. Eventually, the goal becomes letting go of thoughts that do not serve you.

3. Distract yourself to get out of repetitive thinking patterns

Redirect your attention to something that demands your full focus — whether that is a puzzle, brain-teaser or drawing. By using a distraction each time the repetitive thoughts take shape, you are able to lessen their intensity over time and even reduce the amount of time this unhealthy thinking occurs.

4. Keep your focus on problem-solving

When possible, seek solutions to the problems you are experiencing rather than ruminating on them. Explore how you can learn from a mistake to avoid future problems, and instead of asking why something happened, focus on what you can actually do about it.

5. Journal your thoughts

Carve out time each day to journal some of your repetitive thoughts — it actually helps in letting them go. When you put your worries down on paper, you allow your brain to move on and feel less pressure to keep them bottled up.

These strategies are simply a jumping off point in overcoming overthinking — which is why it’s important to not put pressure on yourself to manage these thoughts all on your own. While small adjustments can help, sometimes professional help and support is needed. It is important to consult a professional therapist to help you manage the uncomfortable thoughts if they persist.

Reframe How You View Problems

It is natural to reflect on important decisions before you make them — whether you are making a large purchase, changing jobs, or making a choice about a personal relationship. But when you start obsessing over your decisions, it becomes negative and unhealthy.

The next time your focus lands on a specific problem, and you are unable to move past it, try to think about how you perceive the problem. One of the best ways to introduce more constructive thinking is through viewing challenges or obstacles as opportunities for growth. Recognize you have control over your circumstances through shifting your viewpoint — it is a healthy way to build resiliency and slow down overthinking.

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