How to handle overthinking


July 15, 2019
Filipe Bastos

Overthinking is exhausting. At times, we spend so much time worrying that we’re unable to focus on anything else. Life would be much easier if we had control over our thoughts, right?

Funnily enough, overthinking is an attempt to gain control, but it does not work. Excessive worrying gives us the illusion of being in control. But it actually paralyses us; our worries become so overwhelming that we find it hard to take action.

The most effective way to solve problems is to relinquish the desire for control. But if you’re an anxious overthinker, how can you learn to let go? In this article, we’ll introduce a couple of different solutions.

What is overthinking?

Imagine you’ve got to give a speech at work, but you feel very nervous. Instead of preparing the speech, you spend hours wondering “what if?”

What if I mumble? What if I go red? What If no one listens to me? What if my boss fires me? What if I can’t pay the mortgage and I lose my house?

But “don’t worry,” you tell yourself, “everything will be fine.” Besides, you’re never going to get this speech written if you don’t snap out of it.

So, you sit down to prepare your speech. But as soon as you put pen to paper, the “what ifs” start all over again… Before you know it, you’re stuck in a vicious circle of worry.

Does it sound familiar? Psychologists call this rumination. People with anxiety and depression ruminate regularly, but we all ruminate from time to time.

Why do I overthink?

When you ruminate, you are trying to gain a sense of control. If you’re nervous about giving a speech, worrying about all the potential pitfalls will help you feel more prepared. However, overthinking will only give you a momentary sense of control.

Overthinking and irrational thoughts

If you pick apart your ruminating thoughts, you’ll see that most of them are irrational. For example, it’s unlikely that you’d get sacked for giving one bad speech.

Although ruminating thoughts are exaggerated, they can offer great insights. According to psychologists, ruminating thoughts reveal our insecurities.

For example, if someone worries about losing their job, perhaps they feel underqualified or unsupported at work. Or, perhaps they have low self-esteem and don’t feel capable of doing a good job.

Does overthinking help or hinder us?                                     

Worrying can be helpful to a certain extent. If you worry about losing your job, you’re more likely to show up on time and therefore less likely to get fired. But overthinking is counterproductive.

According to a study on Psycnet, women who ruminate tend to delay seeing their doctor when there is something wrong. In contrast, women who don’t ruminate see their doctor at the first sign of illness. This goes to show that overthinking doesn’t mobilise us; it paralyses us.

Overthinkers are good at asking “what if”, but they are not good at asking “how can I solve this?”.

What is the solution?

When we’re stuck in a cycle of worry, we become frustrated. We try to stop worrying but this doesn’t work, so frustration often leads to anger. Unfortunately, the more we try to control our thoughts, the more we seem to suffer. Mindfulness meditation can help us to respond to our worries in a more productive way.

Mindfulness meditation teaches us to observe our thoughts rather than control or deny them.  Observation helps in two ways:

  1. We gain a top-down perspective on our thoughts which makes them seem more manageable.
  2. We begin to develop healthier patterns of thinking.

If it all sounds a bit fluffy then don’t worry; here are 3 practical tips to help you manage your ruminating thoughts.

  • Define your ‘worst-case scenario’

When we overthink, we tend to focus on the worst possible outcome (CBT therapists call this catastrophising). When this happens, calmly observe your thoughts; don’t try to ignore or deny them. You need to observe your thoughts so you can reframe them.  

So, if you’re worried about giving a bad presentation at work, the worst-case scenario might be getting fired and losing your house. As mentioned, ruminating thoughts tend to be irrational, so they should be scrutinised. Try to pick apart your worst-case scenario…

Ask yourself: If I do get fired, might I be able to find another job? Do I have friends and family that could support me?  Would my mortgage lender give me a couple of months grace? If my company fires me for giving one bad presentation, is that the type of company I want to work for anyway?

If you try this exercise, you’ll see that, even in the worst-case scenario, you could cope. This realisation is important.

People who ruminate tend to lack self-esteem and confidence. Trusting yourself will help to build self-esteem and prevent overthinking.

  • Take action (no matter how small)

Remember, excessive worrying doesn’t solve problems because it stops you from acting. Try to actively solve your problems, rather than worry about them.

So, if you are worried about giving a presentation because your public speaking skills are poor, sign up to a public speaking class. Or, if you are worried about losing your job because you have lots of debts, contact a debt advice charity.

When you take positive action, you acknowledge that “I have a problem, but I am taking steps to solve it.” This quietens your inner critic and reduces the need to worry so much.

  • Let go of control

When we are stuck in a cycle of overthinking, we feel powerless. The more we try to control our thoughts, the more power they seem to hold over us. There are two ways to overcome this.

Firstly, accept that you cannot have complete control over your life. Even after giving an amazing presentation, your boss might still fire you. Some things are beyond your control but that’s OK. Trust that you’ll be able to cope with your worst-case scenario.

Secondly, mindfulness meditation can help you relinquish control. This is because mindfulness encourages you to observe and accept your thoughts. At the point of acceptance, your thoughts become less controlling and more manageable.

Mindfulness practice might not feel useful to begin with but stick with it. With regular practice, you’ll become more tolerant and accepting of your worrying mind. From there, you’ll have the strength to activelysolve your problems.

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