In her 2002 book, Women Who Think Too Much, Yale psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema distinguishes between overthinking and plain old worrying by stressing the temporal difference: Worriers worry about the future. Overthinkers fret about the past, replaying what they’ve done, what they could or should have done, what others have done, etc.
Overthinking can occur as a consequence of a decision that needs to be made, big or small, and is typically exacerbated in stressful situations. It’s not limited to decision making however, as it can also rear it’s ugly head whenever something has the ability to cause any level of anxiety or worry.
Whenever you find yourself overthinking, the most important thing that you need to do is to change the channel in your thinking immediately. The solution is simple, but action and practice is needed. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it every time, overthinking kicks in. Here are some ways, you can change your current thought process:
Avoid situations and people that can lead to overthinking. Look at your past situations – ask yourself, “which situations are going to keep me up at night unnecessarily”. Or think about how something makes you feel prior to participating. This takes some self-awareness. Try to avoid the people, places, and things that will put you into overthinking state.Talk to yourself. Every time you find yourself overthinking something, especially when it’s negative, think instead, “This isn’t helping. What would help is…” and replace it with a positive affirmation.
Distract yourself. Get out, do something, and get your mind off of the thing you can’t stop thinking about. You just have to be willing to give it a shot. Exercise; spend time with your family; or get involved with a project that aligns with your core values. If you’re able to focus your energy on something that matters to you instead of on the repetitive monotony of unhelpfulness, you may find yourself thinking less and less about the thing you want to avoid. Therefore, find your favourite distraction and do it!
Enforce a time limit to your thinking and document your thoughts. Give yourself permission to overthink, but only for 15 minutes. Set a timer, grab a pen and paper, and for the entire 15 minutes, write down everything that comes to your mind. Don’t stop to correct yourself, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing. You’re just letting yourself get it all out. When the 15 minutes are up, destroy the paper and move onto something fun.
Turn overthinking into a next action in a project plan. One big reason for overthinking is not knowing what comes next in order to make forward progress. When you consider that overthinking is usually endless unstructured thinking on something, the key is to turn that energy into structured thinking. Determining what the next possible action is you could take can free you from thinking about everything else at once. Crystallize your thoughts into a list of next actions and take the first step.
Work through the “what is the worst thing that can happen” question. Overthinkers have to stop projecting the worst of what could happen. Ask yourself the question – and then be OK with the answer, coming up with appropriate responses if necessary. This is an amazingly freeing step as almost immediately, a light bulb in your head goes off. If the worst case scenario isn’t actually that bad, and if you know how you’d deal with it if it came to that, anxiety about that thing may disappear completely.
Think about the big picture. After some practice, if you ask yourself, “Will this matter in a month/6 months/1 year?” and the answer is “No” or “Not really”, then what’s the point in thinking it to death? If you do, in fact, determine that it will matter in a year, you can use this opportunity to leverage post-traumatic growth. How has this experience changed you? What have you learned from it, or how will you approach it differently next time?