The classic definition of overthinking is, “To think about something too much or for too long.”
Whilst it's human nature to think things through when making a decision or evaluating a situation, overthinkers often spend a prolonged amount of time analysing, commenting and repeating the same thoughts over and again.
Overthinking is different to problem-solving or self-reflection.
Problem-solving involves thinking about a solution, whereas overthinking involves dwelling on the problem. Self-reflection is about learning something about yourself or gaining a new perspective, whereas overthinking involves dwelling on how bad you feel and thinking about all the things you have no control over.
Overthinking can take many forms and these include spending a long time deliberating when making a decision (and later questioning the decision made), analysing all possible outcomes (no matter the probability of the outcome happening), trying to predict the future, attempting to read minds and reading into the smallest of details.
Overthinking is often associated with rumination which is defined as a, “Deep or considered thought about something.” There is a chance that prolonged rumination becomes a habit, which will likely make it harder to stop.
Perpetual rumination can induce thoughts which are negative for mental health and can lead to stress and anxiety as a focus becomes on worrying about the past or future.
For example, overthinkers may spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about low probability events with negative outcomes, focus on mistakes or mishaps that have happened in the past (“should haves”, “could haves”), and develop a self-perception complex by caring too much what other people think of them.
How to address overthinking?
If you recognise that you tend to get caught up in overthinking, don't despair. You can take steps to reclaim your time, energy, and brain power.
Take control of your emotions
To begin tackling overthinking, you first need to learn the skill of stepping back from your thoughts and observing them as an experience, rather than getting swept away by them. Thinking about thinking, and noticing patterns in your thoughts is called metacognition.
The way you respond to your thoughts can sometimes keep you in a cycle of rumination, or repetitive thinking. Any time you find yourself doubting or feeling stressed or anxious, step back and look at the situation and how you're responding. Self-awareness is key to changing your mindset.
Let go of the past and live in the moment
There are generally two types of overthinking, ruminating about the past and worrying about the future.
Those who understand how to stop overthinking know that the past is just that. It can’t be changed. Try and look at the bigger picture and put things in a wider perspective. Will it matter in 5 years? Or even in 5 weeks?
Living in the moment is also key to learning how to stop overthinking. Focus on the moment and the positives in life, like friends and family. A focus on the things you are grateful for will help squeeze out negative thoughts.
Focus on solutions
Once you’ve identified the reasons behind overthinking it’s time to do something about it. Don’t think that the underlying causes can’t be addressed. They can be. Be proactive, not reactive.
If your overthinking is caused by stress at work, rethink your career path. If it’s caused by being away from family and friends, go and see them. If it’s caused by you not being where you want to be in life, set goals for yourself so that you can get there.
Taking steps to address the underlying causes of the overthinking should help remedy it, and eventually break you out of the habit.
Always remember, that if you are feeling down there is plenty of support available to you.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are many helplines and support groups that offer expert advice. You can find them here.
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