Times of stress or uncertainty can lead us to overthink many situations, issues, and decisions we face. We can find ourselves hesitating, analyzing, and second-guessing in what may feel like a closed loop. The options available may be clear, but we can’t decide which to choose. We keep coming back to the same topic and reviewing the same information without being able to decide which factors should be given the greatest weight. Or we may repeatedly return to heated conversations and embarrassing situations from the past, replaying them in our head and reliving our emotions.
If any of these experiences seem familiar, you don’t have to feel alone. In fact, in a recent survey including 10,000 people, 99.5% of the respondents reported struggling with overthinking. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents indicated their overthinking at times makes them feel inadequate. And more than half of the respondents reported that their tendency to overthink often leaves them feeling drained.
To be fair, taking time to reflect and consider is a good thing when there’s a need to gain a better understanding of a situation, or there are multiple implications and potential outcomes to be considered. Overthinking emerges as we become preoccupied, stuck, and unable to let go and move forward.
Researchers and psychologists divide overthinking into two categories: rumination and worry. Rumination describes times when we get stuck in negative thought loops about the past. Often these loops involve a problem, incident, or experience that we involuntarily and compulsively return to reanalyze and relive. Over time, excessive rumination can be associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Worrying typically is more future focused. Our overthinking is more likely to be associated with anticipation of something that we fear will be negative or harmful. Worry focuses on the “What if’s” of the future. Like rumination, worrying can lead to anxiety and stress. We can feel overwhelmed and become paralyzed in our thinking.
The end of the school year can be a powerful stimulus for overthinking. We may find ourselves looking back over the year wishing we’d made different decisions in response to specific incidents or experiences. We may regret that we were unable to reach a particular student. We may wish we’d accomplished more or engaged less in some behaviors. We may also find ourselves worrying about difficult decisions, adjusted assignments, and new challenges that lie ahead over the summer and in the fall.
The key question is what we can do to reduce the frequency and intensity of our rumination and worry. Here are five strategies we can use to help us counter the tendency to overthink:
Focus on letting go. The truth is we can’t change what’s happened in the past. Often committing to learn from the experience and not repeat it in the future is enough to allow us to move forward and leave the pain behind. A good way to counter worry about the future is to accept that some dimensions of the situation likely are beyond our control and worrying doesn’t help. Rather, we can focus on what we can control and influence and focus our attention and actions on these elements to make success more likely.
Interrupt overthinking habits. When we become aware that we’re slipping into overthinking, whether about something that’s happened or may happen, we can use an interruption technique, such as saying to ourselves, “Stop,” or “Enough.” Some people find that snapping a rubber band on their wrist can accomplish the same outcome. Sometimes just becoming aware and committing to shift our thinking is enough to break the pattern and begin reprogramming our brains to focus on more productive thoughts.
Uncover the source. Often uncovering the source of worry and fear, beyond the specific incident or potential circumstance, can be revealing and freeing. It may be that the sources of our overthinking are long held, but unexamined fears that have little relevance and limited value in our lives. It may be that social media, some news sources, or even some people may trigger our overthinking about the future. By becoming aware of the fears and triggers that drive our rumination and worry, we can position ourselves to make choices that dissipate their power over us.
Refocus attention. Engaging in exercise, spending time in nature, pursuing a hobby, and practicing relaxation techniques often can reduce our anxiety and replenish our energy. Whether caught in reliving the past or stressing about the future, just dialing down our anxiety can be a welcome relief.
Find an “awe” experience. Gazing at the stars and contemplating the majesty and mystery of the universe, studying the intricacies of a spider web, watching a great performance, or observing the innocence and curiosity of a young child can inspire a sense of awe and give us a better perspective. We may discover that the object of our overthinking is quite small in comparison to the wonders and miracles that surround us.
Our thoughts play a significant role in our mental health and happiness. Taking the time and making the effort to break patterns of overthinking can help us find better life balance and renewed peace and satisfaction.