The Greek philosopher Socrates once proclaimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, implying that it is only through self-examination that we can create a meaningful existence. While it’s vital to have a sense of our strengths and weaknesses, values, and goals, there’s a point at which ruminating can contribute to our misery rather than helping us.
Often we can find ourselves going over and over a conversation we had earlier today, last week, or even last year. “What did he mean by that? Why did I say that? Will she ever speak to me again?”
Or maybe we get caught up in what might happen in that staff meeting tomorrow, a blind date this weekend, or our final exams in two months. “Should I ask my boss for a raise? Should I wear the red dress or the black one? When will I ever find time to study for my tests?”
We spin our wheels, knowing at some level that obsessing is not the answer, but unable to stop our whirling thoughts.
How can we begin to free ourselves from the tyranny of overthinking?
- Ask yourself: “Is this a productive thought?” Will mentally rehearsing your upcoming meeting with your boss yet one more time help you? Or is it time to trust that you’ve prepared enough, and that at this point your best bet is to trust your instincts? It’s actually when we can relax a bit that we can most easily access our intuition.
- Put things into perspective. Will this issue you’re mulling over for the umpteenth time matter in five years? Or are you blowing the situation out of proportion?
- Know your body rhythm & plan accordingly. Are you a morning lark or a night owl? When do you tend to be at the top of your game physically, emotionally, mentally? If you focus best in the late afternoon, try to pick this time to work on projects that challenge you mentally, rather than attempting to do so at dawn, when the latter might cause you anxiety. If you’re a morning person, do your best to take on those conversations or assignments at this time, when you’re mostly likely to be effective. Also, taking care of important matters in the morning then allows you to go about the rest of your day with a sense of accomplishment, rather than having unfinished business lurking in the back of your mind.
- Focus on your five senses. For instance, notice five things you can see. Four things you can hear. Three things you can touch. Two things you can smell. One thing you can taste. Such attention can help bring you into the present moment.
- Give up on needing to be perfect or omnipotent. You will wait around forever for that day. We are always growing and changing, and there is always something more to learn. We are not meant to be perfect. We never know all of the facts – instead, we do the best we can with the information at hand. Try to do your best (knowing that this changes from day to day), then let the matter go.
- Accept that you cannot change the past. Maybe things didn’t go the way you wanted – learn the lesson, and let it go. Don’t let something from your past take up too much space in your mind.
- Accept that you cannot predict the future. However, it’s pretty safe to predict that obsessing about the future can rob you of the present.
- Exercise. Take a walk around the block or down the hall, to generate endorphins (feel-good hormones), work off any possible (probable) anxiety, and clear your mind.
- Consider what you might have to feel if you stopped overthinking. Is it possible that your constant ruminating and trying to figure things out distracts you from uncomfortable emotions or realizations? If this is the case, give yourself credit for trying to protect yourself, but also recognize that this method brings more harm than good.
- Beware analysis paralysis. You don’t always have to know why you do something in order to change the behavior. While some self-reflection is helpful and often necessary, overthinking can be an excuse not to take potentially uncomfortable action. Have the courage to take the next indicated step.
- Repeat calming phrases, such as I can deal with this; Relax; One moment at a time; Be here now; I am safe.
- Practice mindfulness and getting some distance from your thoughts, which do not define you. If a troubling subject crops up in your mind, label it as “worrying” or “I’m having the thought that…” Do not confuse a thought with the truth.
- Do only one thing at a time. Multi-tasking can contribute to anxiety. Sometimes sitting and being mindful can be a challenge, and most of us are not in a position (pragmatically and physically) to engage in meditation all day (weekend retreats aside). So at the very least, try to put all of your attention on just one thing. How many times have you been on hold on the phone or even having a conversation with someone while also trying to drive, cook dinner, or look something up on the computer? (I’m guilty of all three.) You can’t focus 100% on one thing when you’re engaged in several activities at once, so you end up splitting your attention between multiple items, and this can lead to information overload, which is a recipe for anxiety (and overthinking).
- Compartmentalize worry time. If you’ve determined that the object of your ruminating really deserves a lot of thought, make an appointment with yourself to think it through. Set a timer at the scheduled time, say for 15 or 30 minutes. During this appointment, worry single-mindedly on the issue. Make notes, if that helps. When the timer goes off, your worry time is over. If need be, plan another appointment for the next day or week, but in the meanwhile, let the worry go. You’re likely to learn that the world won’t come to an end.
- Acknowledge the problem, but focus more on the solution. Consider what could go right, rather than what could go wrong. Allow yourself to feel the associated pleasant feelings that course through your body.
- Help someone else. Often the best way to let go of overthinking is to turn our thoughts and attention to another person or cause.
No matter how long you may have struggled with overthinking and the associated anxiety, racing thoughts, and difficulty sleeping, by giving some of these methods a reasonable trial period you may gradually find that you’re able to live a mentally and emotionally freer and more tranquil life.