If you’ve ever gone over something that happened to you over and over again in your mind — often with a lot of self-criticism and black-and-white thinking — then you’ve ruminated, which is overthinking.
It's in our nature to overthink. For millions of years, a key to human survival was being able to detect threats. As a result, our brains are hardwired to focus on negative experiences over positive ones, as the former can teach lessons that help us avoid danger.
On balance, however, overthinking does more harm than good, especially if you’re already coping with depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Overthinking is distressing, time-consuming and ultimately counterproductive to problem-solving and learning the right lessons from our experiences.
There are ways to not feel overwhelmed by these thoughts. Clinical Director, Katie Torres, LCSW, at the Ascension Illinois Center for Anxiety & Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the Ascension Illinois Behavioral Medicine Institute's School Anxiety/Refusal Program shares three ways to help you stop overthinking.
Take 10 minutes to breathe
Set aside 10 minutes each day to practice looking “at" your thoughts as an outside observer, rather than "from" your thoughts as the person experiencing them. This approach can help create a healthy distance from your own thinking.
To begin, take deep breaths in and out, focusing on the sensation of your lungs filling with air, then deflating. Notice the thoughts that come and go in the background; picture them as leaves floating down a stream. If one of these thoughts "gets stuck" and stops moving down the stream, quietly take note that this has happened and return your focus to your breathing.
That's the beautiful thing about practicing awareness of the present: as soon as you recognize that you're not grounded in the moment, it gives you an opportunity to bring your attention back to it. Although we can't always control what we think, this technique helps us build confidence in our ability to defuse our most negative thoughts.
Divide and conquer your worries
There are worries we can control and there are worries we can't. Identifying which is which is the first step to addressing or accepting them.
Journaling is one of the best ways to get your concerns out of your head and onto paper. Write down your worries and determine whether you can affect it.
For concerns that are within your control, focus on problem-solving. For example, if you find yourself dwelling on a big project at work, break it up into smaller tasks and come up with a schedule to complete a certain number of them each day. Identify your barriers to working on that project and then look for ways to remove those barriers. The simple act of making a plan of action is helpful and gives us a much-needed sense of control.
For concerns beyond your control, focus instead on acceptance. Shift your thinking from "why did this happen?" and "what if something awful happens?" to "how can I make the best of this situation?" and "how can I come to terms with how things are?" Even if our present reality is difficult or uncertain, taking steps to accept that reality is always possible… and helpful.
Get back to doing the things you love
Even in a heightened state of anxiety, we are capable of doing and accomplishing quite a bit. So focus your time and energy on behaviors and activities that align with your values — create art, take up a project around the house, talk to a loved one. Resist the urge to wait until you're feeling less anxious; the best time to start is always right now.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion, not one we need to fear. When you need to stop yourself from overthinking about something that bothers you, take a moment to collect yourself, assess your concerns and redirect your energies to a pursuit that you find meaningful.
Personalized care for mental health
Regularly seeing a mental health specialist and receiving necessary care can be beneficial to emotional health as well as overall health and well-being. Your care starts with a conversation. Ascension Illinois care teams respect your preferences and listen to you. We work with you on a care plan personalized for you. If you’d like more help controlling your thoughts or emotions, we’re here to listen. Learn more about your options and contact us at ascension.org/ILbehavioral
A licensed clinical social worker, Katie Torres is certified by the Behavior Therapy Training Institute (BTTI) and has been treating Ascension Illinois patients with anxiety disorders and OCD for the past 12 years. To make an appointment please call 855-383-2224.