Welcome to the second post of the overthinking series (here’s the first post). In this post we discuss tips & strategies to curb the habit of chronic overthinking, analysis paralysis, & indecision fatigue.
“Let me tell you all about the latest therapy for overthinking.” She said to me with a wry smile. “It’s call STOP IT therapy. It is the only therapy that really works for overthinking. You just stop doing it.”
Thank you Karen. Appreciate your insight. Obviously, if it were that easy to stop, I would have stopped, and my suffering would have ended years ago.
But when it comes to overthinking, Karen, unfortunately, is somewhat right. Hard swallow. I know.
The hard truth is that overthinking is a habit, and we are creatures of habit. While it’s tempting to think “it’s just the way I am” or “I’ve always been this way,” overthinking is an action that is somewhat in our control. The tendency to resort to thinking about problems or overthinking problems is often driven by underlying emotions & needs that haven’t bubbled to the surface. Things we aren’t fully aware of. Identifying these needs is key to stopping the nasty habit.
People who overthink are more likely to have one or more of these: an anxious disposition, a greater tendency to worry, a higher perfectionism drive, a greater fear of failure, a greater need for control or security, or may tend to personalize or internalize the outcome of their decisions (e.g., if this decision isn’t ideal, it means I’m not worthy; or that people will think poorly of me and that will mean ____ is true about me).
Equally, the tendency to overthinking might not be just a ‘you problem,’ it might be a reflection of what is going on around you by way of family dynamics or the interplay of other systems. For example, if you’re struggling with a decision, perhaps you’ve already decided what’s best for you, but that outcome might not be supported by the people around you. Others may try to change your mind, or make you doubt your choice, or persuade you to compromise, which increases your uncertainty & motivates your decision to continue thinking. It’s important to recognize when you’re trying to please others or avoid conflict with your choices. There are some problems that we cannot think ourselves out of, no matter how hard we try.
If you can’t identify what’s driving the overthinking & need relief, try these tips.
1. Set a timer
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Think hard until the timer goes off. When the timer goes off, move to another activity. Be firm with yourself about stopping. If you’ve not made any further progress in those 10 minutes, it’s telling you something important, i.e., that more thinking isn’t helping you resolve the issue. In fact, it may be making anxiety & stress worse, giving you headaches, upset tummy, or affecting your mood. If you feel compelled to carry on thinking, schedule another 10 minute session the next day. This will give your brain some time to re-energize & rest. When you accidentally slip into ‘overthinking mode,’ gently remind yourself that you’ve already scheduled time to worry/problem solve this issue.
A second way to use the timer is for ‘speed overthinking,’ where you furiously think about the issue for 10 minutes. When the timer is up, you force yourself to pick the best solution. Decide then & there. Move on with your life. This activity helps you learn to trust your initial instincts so make quicker & more confident choices in the future. With practice, you may learn that your initial problem solving instinct is ‘good enough’ & far less emotional taxing than days of overthinking. Clearly, this activity is better suited for less involved choices like “should I buy a blue or a red car” not problems like, “should I move to France and start a new life with, erm, what was his name again?” But it protects your mental energy & stops problems from wearing you down, which is a win.
2. Call a friend
Perspective & support matters when it comes to overthinking. Calling a friend to complain about the problem can give you an outlet for your feelings and help you identify any emotional drivers of indecision. Perhaps some friendly conversation might take your mind off your own problems, giving your mind a little break. Equally asking for a trusted friend’s perspective or insight might be helpful. But ultimately, nobody can make the right decision for you.
Writing can slow down your thought process, which may provide a problem-solving edge because you can see the problem more clearly & completely when it’s on a piece of paper. Writing down your thoughts/fears/concerns/worries about the problem acts like a ‘mind dump,’ which allows the problem to leave your mind and gives your brain more resources to work on the solution. When you journal, try to draft a few ideal solutions, consider pros/cons of your potential solutions, & work through why you’re struggling with one choice over another. Journaling is another helpful way to tap into the emotional undercurrent driving the impasse or the desire to continue thinking. For example, there may not be a perfect solution and an imperfect decision may be triggering to someone who is looking for a more ‘perfect’ solution, because their sense of worth is wrapped up in the problem.
I know, the idea observing your thinking when you can’t stop yourself from thinking thoughts you don’t want to think seems, um, cruel. So don’t practice it when you’re in the throws of an overthinking episode unless you find it helpful. But do practice meditation & mindful thinking for 10 minutes a day, before bed. A lot of people say they can’t meditate because they can’t stop their thoughts from coming. Meditation isn’t the act of stopping yourself from thinking. It’s a practice where you watch your thoughts come & go. You begin to separate what is going on in your mind from things you need to react to ‘right here, right now.’ I mean, there is no other place I’d rather be too. Our thoughts help us navigate space that is not ‘right now’ and therefore, as helpful or comforting as thinking might appear, excessive thinking is a total waste of precious mental energy.
There is so much research showing that our modern brains are far too busy and this needless busy work causes unnecessary suffering. We think thousands of thoughts each day. We spend so much of our lives wrapped up in moments that have already happened. So many moments are spent planning, organizing, predicting, etc., that we are not fully present ‘right now.’ The thing is our mind didn’t develop to handle everything at once. Our mind works best when it pays attention to & reacts to what is needed ‘right here, right now.’ Anything more can overload the brain and trigger anxiety. That’s why many effective psychotherapies integrate mindfulness concepts like ‘increasing contact with the present moment’ and ‘mindfulness’ for a reason. That reason is that getting stuck in our minds doesn’t serve us and it allows us to give our thoughts way too much power over us. It doesn’t benefit us to be prisoners of our own minds, full of regret for things that have already happened, or worry about things that haven’t happened yet. Overthinking is a prison of the imagination.
Exercise is a terrific antidote to things that makes us feel anxious, such as overthinking. Exercise is a good mental distraction. Your brain will also benefit from an oxygen boost & a hit of adrenaline, which will improve cognitive performance & decision-making speed. Lastly, it’s really hard to think about your problems when you’re on the 47th burpee. Just saying… 😊
6. Distract yourself
Do something that makes you happy & takes your mind off the problem. Maybe treating yourself to lunch, a warm bath, listening to music, browsing the shops, dinner with a friend, a massage, a hobby, playing an instrument, a new pair of shoes. Anything that uses your non-thinking brain, five senses, & makes you feel more like yourself.
7. Have a nap
Just like the physical body, the mind is less efficient when it’s tired. If you’re struggling with overthinking or have reached an impasse, have a break. Let your mind rest & recharge to improve its efficiency. A 5-10 minute power nap is enough to reset your brain. Bear in mind that you don’t need to fall completely asleep or deeply asleep for a nap to work. A doze works too. The idea behind a daytime power nap is to reduce sensory stimulation, calm mental activity, and re-energize the mind. Try to close your eyes & listen to 10 minutes of relaxing music in your bed, back of the car, on the sofa, or hiding under your desk. You deserve a break.
8. Consciously overthink it
Probably the least popular option, but I’ve got to admit it’s effective. You may start by blocking off a morning, or even a whole day, possibly the entire weekend, just to think about this one problem. Spend every single moment of your allotted time going through every possible solution. Don’t stop. Don’t take a break. When you’re tired, and your mind is drifting, remind yourself how important it is to solve this problem right now. So don’t let yourself stop thinking about it yet. Let this problem fully take over your mind. Since you’ve blocked off this time, you owe it to yourself to think of every possible outcome until the time is up. Think of what could go wrong. Think of what you could do. Think of how it would benefit them or you. You could think about red or think about blue. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try. Sorry that narrative was conflated with a Dr Seuss book. Now where was I?
9. Change your surroundings
You’d be surprised by how much your contextual environment influences your thinking. For example, research in cognitive psychology has shown that memory works better when we are tested in the same environment where the learning happened. That there are clues in our environment that trigger the brain to remember & recall things differently.
Equally, when we move environments, we give the brain other cues to work differently, and this can offer a creative advantage to problem solving. Now I won’t bore you with the neuroscience but changing your environment matters. So, when you’re feeling stuck with the problem, go for a walk outside, work in a coffee shop, go someplace you’ve never been, change your routine, do something you’ve never done, allow yourself to daydream, and maybe your ‘ah-ha’ moment will happen when you least expect it.
10. Ask yourself if more thinking will help
Really, you know the answer, don’t you? Part of you knows what to do and part of you isn’t fully convinced. What if that never changes? What if you need to decide before you have complete conviction? How will you know if you’ve made a good decision? How will you know if you’ve made a bad decision? What’s holding you back? What are you worried will happen? What is the worst decision you could make? Is your top decision better than the worse decision? What is your ideal outcome? Is the ideal outcome possible? What is the best possible outcome? Are you allowed to make imperfect decisions? Are you allowed to choose for yourself? What are the consequences of this decision? Can you live with those consequences? Is this decision going to be something you remember in a month? In 5 years?
While overthinking tends to have a negative association, there are benefits to being an overthinker. I know right? Hope for us all. Find out what those are in the next blog post.
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