What if I said the wrong thing? How will I ever finish the assignment in time? Why aren’t they responding to my text?
Thoughts like these make us human, says Julie Pike, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “That’s what the brain is designed to do — to think our way out of problems and away from predators,” she explains.
Sometimes, though, those thoughts can spin out beyond our control. “We often find ourselves stuck in a spiral of predicting, playing out different scenarios and often catastrophizing,” says Sophie Lazarus, a psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus.
“As strange as it sounds, in the short term, this overthinking can give us a false sense of relief or the illusion of control. However, in the long term, this habit can have real costs to our well-being and engagement in our lives,” she notes.
Those consequences can compound over time, adds Linda Sapadin, a clinical psychologist in Long Island, New York. “Overthinking can ruin your day and also ruin your sleep cycle.”
Why We Overthink
If you overthink things sometimes, rest assured, you’re not alone. “Worrying and overthinking is part of the human experience,” explains Jeri Coast, a San Diego-based licensed clinical social worker and director of clinical operations at Lightfully Behavioral Health.
“Anxiety is the body’s normal reaction to stress when presented with potential danger or anticipating a future threat,” Coast says. She adds that it’s a completely normal reaction and happens to everyone.
However, sometimes overthinking goes much further than that and becomes a chronic problem. “Overthinking is another word for worry,” says Cheryl Carmin, the director of the division of health and integration at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Anxiety is a Goldilocks proposition — a little can be helpful, but too much can be a problem, adds Dr. Reena Trivedi, a psychiatrist at El Camino Health’s Scrivner Center for Mental Health and Addiction Services in Mountain View, California.
“While too much anxiety can make it difficult for people to function, anxiety also serves a purpose,” Trivedi says. “It’s OK to experience some anxiety when you face difficult situations and life changes, and it’s healthy to do so.”
This means that worry can be productive or counterproductive depending on the situation. For example, “when overthinking results in developing a plan or a strategy to solve a problem, it’s productive,” Carmin explains. “On the other hand, if you’re focusing on an issue and your mental energy is spent on spinning your wheels, you’re overthinking the problem and, ultimately, it’s unproductive.”
This overthinking is “usually significantly disruptive of your life efficiency and distracts you from those things in your life that are most important,” adds Dr. James S. Pratty, a psychiatrist board-certified in addiction medicine. He also serves as medical director of behavioral health for Brand New Day, a health plan based in Southern California.
If you feel like you’re overthinking everything, try these 17 expert-approved tactics to stop your unproductive thoughts in their tracks:
— Catch yourself.
— Look for patterns.
— Observe rather than chastise.
— Validate, then act.
— Set a deadline.
— Practice mindfulness.
— Turn to tunes.
— Challenge the thought repeatedly.
— Shock your senses.
— Get outside.
— Limit exposure to anxiety-inducing media.
— Give up perfectionism.
— Focus on the now.
— Reframe a worry as an opportunity.
— Learn what to avoid.
— Find support.
You can’t stop overthinking if you don’t realize you’re doing it — and very often, people don’t, says Pike, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders.
“You’ve been thinking about what he said or what your boss did, or you’re having an imaginary conversation, and you’ve been thinking about it for 15 minutes before you even notice,” she says.
But if you can learn to recognize the physical sensations and anxiety symptoms that come with stress — which may manifest as tension in your back, or a pit in your stomach — then you can work on halting the mental causes behind them.
“Make a commitment to use a tool to help your brain step back,” Pike says. Examples might include pausing to write down what you’re thinking and feeling or tapping over to a calming app on your phone that can help you get grounded in the moment.
Look for patterns
Because most of us are so busy during the day, we simply can’t overthink in the moment, says Nicole A. Hollingshead, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. A common time to stress out, though, is later on, after things have calmed down.
“If you can notice a pattern or time of day when you overthink, that helps you to create strategies for how to change this cognitive habit,” she adds.
The content of your worries might also conform to patterns that can help you combat it, Hollingshead says. For example, if you find that you’re frequently worrying about work, “acknowledge that this is a common theme of your worry,” she explains.
That way, you can begin working on ways to change your thought pattern and see if you can prepare for the thing you are worried about. For instance, if you’re concerned about not keeping up at work, you can develop strategies to maintain focus or recruit coworkers to help keep you on track.
The point is that often, under close inspection, you’ll see that the fear you’re obsessing over is largely unfounded. “Sometimes our unproductive and unhelpful worry is simply not true,” Hollingshead says.
Instead, she encourages you to think about the odds of the worry actually coming to fruition. “If the odds are low based on your personal history, then you can remind yourself that worrying about something that has low odds of being true will interfere with your ability to perform well and is simply not true.”
Observe rather than chastise
When you do notice that you’re overthinking, recognize it, but be gentle with yourself. If you’re having an anxiety attack, try to see that what you’re experiencing are just thoughts. For instance, turn “I’m a bad parent” into “I notice I’m thinking I’m a bad parent.”
“Step back and observe your thoughts rather than believing your thoughts are facts,” Pike says. This mental reframing adds a layer of distance between your identity and your thoughts, thus separating them and clarifying them as beliefs that can be changed.
This strategy helps provide some sense of control when it might otherwise be hard to feel like you have any.
“Telling someone to stop doing something is not as helpful as encouraging them to do something else,” says Dr. Ernest Rasyidi, a psychiatrist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. “Instead of emphasizing the attempt to stop worrying, the focus gets put on trying to do positive, manageable things.”
For example, “give yourself permission to do something other than focus on the issue, and make a plan to revisit the worry later in the day,” Carmin suggests. “This allows you to separate the content of the worry from the associated anxiety.” It’s that anxiety that fuels overthinking and makes it seem so urgent.
If you can come back to the issue later when you’re calmer, you’ll be able to think more clearly. You might be able to find a solution to the problem from a different perspective without spinning into overthinking.
Validate, then act
“Many people who suffer from anxiety suffer in silence alone because they recognize that their concerns may be unreasonable but they just cannot turn them off,” Rasyidi explains. “Validating the suffering that these people go through is one of the first steps to healing. After that, I often engage the patient in trying to help put together a solution that works for them.”
When you notice that you’re overthinking or feeling anxious, Lazarus recommends asking yourself why you’re worrying about a particular problem. Is it a problem you can act on or solve, or are you trying to control the uncontrollable?
The answer can help you see a path forward. “If you find yourself trying to control the uncontrollable, be kind to yourself. This is a very human impulse,” Lazarus says.
She adds that “acknowledging that we just can’t control some things is hard,” but doing so can lead you to alternative courses of action that can help calm you. “Try doing something soothing or productive — take a shower, go for a walk or talk to a friend,” she says. Or engage in relaxation exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, which “can also be helpful in calming down the body and mind.”
Set a deadline
Overthinking is like a book with no periods, paragraphs or chapters — it doesn’t know when to stop, says Sapadin, author of the book “Overcoming Your Procrastination: Advice for 6 Personality Styles.” It’s up to you to set those boundaries.
To do so, tell yourself, ideally out loud, “just another 10 minutes” with the nurturing, not punishing tone of a parent, Sapadin suggests.
Rasyidi agrees that giving yourself some designated “worry time” can be more helpful than trying to stop overthinking altogether. He says he often instructs patients to “actually set aside a dedicated chunk of time, maybe 15 minutes in the middle of the day where a person is actually encouraged to worry. They’re allowed to worry as much as they want, but only during that allocated time.”
The thinking here is that you can indulge that impulse for a finite period of time to get it out of your system and keep it from creeping into other parts of the day. Rasyidi says you can work on reminding yourself that you can set aside a worry and come back to it later during the dedicated worry time.
Hollingshead recommends an even shorter set time for worrying, and she suggests setting a timer for two minutes. For that designated period, focus on what you’re worried about and really identify the issue. When the timer goes off, ask yourself three questions:
— Have I made any progress toward solving this problem?
— Do I understand something about the problem or my feelings about the problem that I did not understand before? Have I gained a bigger perspective or understanding of the issue?
— Do I feel less self-critical or less upset than before I started thinking about this issue? How does worrying about this make me feel?
If you can’t generate solutions to the problem or gain a better understanding of it, then it’s probably “unproductive and unhelpful worry. Label it as such, and then either choose to actively continue to worry or choose to do something that makes you feel good,” Hollingshead says.
She recommends “getting out of your head and focusing on an activity that is pleasurable or important, such as exercise, being with others or being engaged in a hobby or work activity.”
However you decide to limit your worry time, it’s important that you do. If you let the ruminating go on, you’re only making it easier for your brain to return to that dark place later, Pike points out. “Ruminating (rewires) the same neural pathways over and over again; we’re creating deeper grooves in the record we’ve already played.”
Pratty says one of the most effective ways of combating anxiety is to practice mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness means being present in the moment and noting what you’re feeling. “This is an incredibly powerful technique that needs to be done two times per day, lasting about 10 minutes (each time),” he says.
Regular practice of mindfulness can help you build greater awareness.
Pratty suggests breaking mindfulness sessions into two main phases. “The first part of the mindfulness exercise is the use of meditative reading,” he says. He recommends poetry, song lyrics or religious text.
The second five minutes should include breathing exercises. Take a deep breath in through the nose, and then let it out slowly through the mouth. “Mindfulness allows you to take a break from the problem and then more efficiently think through options to deal with the issues that are causing stress and anxiety,” he explains.
Turn to tunes
Listening to a song you like is one of the best ways to move your mind along, Sapadin says. Just like any creative endeavor you enjoy, “music taps a different part of the brain,” she says. “It’s almost like the part of the brain that’s overthinking can’t do that if you’re really into the music and your body is swaying to the music.”
Pike also suggests turning to music for a mental pickup. “Pick a theme song (to sing) that embodies the theme of what you’re thinking about,” she says. How can you keep brooding when you’re belting “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”?
Look for songs that can help shake you out of a funk, rather than dark or depressive songs. Although sad or anxious musical choices can be validating, they can also reinforce your negative emotion. Instead, choose songs that are in opposition to what you’re experiencing to help shift your emotional framework. The goal should be to shake things up and get you out of a negative emotional stew.
Dr. Matt Angelelli, chief of psychiatry at Orlando Health in Florida, says that exercise is a critically important means of managing anxiety and worry. “The very first thing I would encourage for somebody who’s not doing well with worry and rumination is to exercise. It’s one of the best medicines for everything in mental health, especially depression and anxiety.”
The exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be strenuous or lengthy, either. “It can be yoga or stretching,” he says. Even just going for a walk around the block when worry strikes can help you clear your mind and settle your racing thoughts.
“There’s something in movement. We’re meant to move. Our whole body was designed to move our minds around so we can interact with others. There’s something that’s released throughout the body during exercise that causes an improvement” in overall health and wellness, Angelelli explains.
Challenge the thought repeatedly
Facing a fear head-on can also help. If you’re afraid of, say, elevators, a psychologist may encourage you to approach, enter and eventually ride them until they’re no longer threatening. You can do the same thing with a thought, Pike says.
“Boil the essence of the thought down to 10 words or less, and repeat that thought over and over again until you get bored,” she recommends. Repeating “I bombed the job interview” is better than saying, “I said the wrong thing. The other applicants are better. My references were poor,” Pike says.
That’s because your brain treats each new thought as an independent threat. Consolidating and repeating the worries allows your brain to check that box as nonthreatening and move on.
Carmin says challenging worrisome thoughts is a useful method of addressing anxiety.
For example, can you determine whether you’re being objective — is this truly a problem or does it ‘feel like’ a problem?” asks Carmin. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? And what’s the probability of that worst-case scenario occurring?”
Sometimes writing these things down in a journal helps you see more clearly what’s causing the worry, which can help you neutralize it more effectively.
Shock your senses
If being in your head doesn’t feel good, be in your body.
“Thinking is a mental activity, so the best thing to do is start doing something,” Sapadin says.
Anything that uses the senses can work, from smelling some lavender oil or doing pushups to biting into a lemon or dunking your hand in a bucket of ice. “It flips your brain into, ‘What’s this? That’s very cold,'” Pike says.
If you have more time, distract yourself with a hobby you enjoy, says Sapadin, who recommends making a list of five activities you’d like to do more. “People who struggle with overthinking often don’t make time for fun activities,” she explains.
Reconnecting with nature and getting some fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for easing anxiety and boosting your mood, says Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director for behavioral health and social services for L.A. Care Health Plan in Los Angeles.
And it doesn’t have to take a long time either. “Spending 20 minutes a day in natural surroundings has been shown to foster a sense of well-being. If you have a chance to exert yourself while you’re outside, even better,” he says.
Angelelli recommends going for a short walk with someone you like being around to get social interaction, fresh air and exercise all at the same time. “Going for walks is highly therapeutic,” he explains. “If you go for a walk with someone, you can talk it out.”
Limit media exposure
Whether it’s social media, television or radio news or even just gossip from coworkers, unhelpful chatter can get in your head and ratchet up your overall anxiety level, often about things you have no control over.
Angelelli says it’s important to look at “what thing you do every day that makes your worry worse,” such as watching a lot of cable news. It doesn’t matter which side you support; all media has been designed to hold your attention by making you engaged, emotionally charged and anxious.
“I would encourage people to pick a newspaper and read that instead of watching things in the news,” Angelelli says. “When you’re reading, you can see the slant and you get to decide how much you’re taking in about what’s being said.”
Brodsky also recommends limiting social media use to once per day, “and be thoughtful about your sources. Facebook and Twitter are not exactly known for accuracy.”
Give up perfectionism
Overthinking and perfectionism go hand in hand, says Sapadin, who notes that ruminating about a creative endeavor — like writing a chapter or completing a painting — is more common than spiraling thoughts about practical matters like where you put the keys.
“You need to appreciate that crafting a perfect product or being perfect isn’t possible — that’s a recipe for creating anxiety, and it’s just not fair to yourself,” Sapadin says. Instead of beating yourself up for imperfections or avoiding projects you’re afraid won’t be perfect, come up with new ideas, make mistakes, regret them and move on, she says.
Focus on the now
Brodsky says that while we often don’t have control over circumstances, we do have control over how we spend our time. It’s important to recognize that you do yourself “no favors by ruminating on what happens in the past — memories — or what might happen in the future — fantasies. By focusing on the present moment, we avoid missing out on the daily experiences of life.”
Reframe a worry as an opportunity
“Anxiety can be reframed to your brain as excitement, and this can help stop the hesitation and allow you to stop overthinking and get started on the task at hand,” Trivedi says. She tells her patients to use the phrase, “I am excited about what’s ahead,” instead of “I am anxious about what’s ahead,” as this can change the way you approach a task.
“If you need to clean your garage, instead of giving yourself the negative message that you dread cleaning it, tell yourself, ‘I’m excited to clean my garage,'” she explains. “This reframed message helps change the way that your brain approaches the task. You hesitate less and can focus on getting started.”
Being anxious, scared or overwhelmed can feel paralyzing. “People get stopped by this anxiety because they never get past the part of just thinking about it. They become indecisive and start procrastinating. When you tell yourself you’re excited, you have positive associations with that task, so you are inclined to do them,” Trivedi says.
She adds that “many people see anxiety as a bad thing, but keep in mind that it can also serve an important purpose when it comes to functioning.”
Learn what to avoid
Pratty recommends avoiding alcohol and other substances when you’re feeling anxious, as these substances can mask what you’re feeling and actually lead to a bigger problem down the line.
Trivedi agrees, noting that unchecked anxiety can “affect your physical health and lead to risky behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, recreational drug use and can even be a risk factor for suicide.” It’s best to act when anxiety interferes with your daily activities.
Ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away is also not the best approach, Pratty says. Instead, address the issue as soon as you can to prevent it from snowballing into something worse.
And Hollingshead notes that all of the approaches suggested will likely take practice to perfect. “These tools and strategies are changes in our habits,” she says. “These techniques are not an innate trait that you were either born doing or not doing.” Learning to stop overthinking takes practice. “It’s OK if it’s hard, but keep trying,” she adds.
Not every worrisome moment is an anxiety attack or a sign of an anxiety disorder. While everybody overthinks sometimes, not everyone is so consumed with or distressed by unproductive thought patterns that their daily lives and happiness are disrupted. But if you are or think you might be, it’s probably time to seek help.
“If anxiety is impairing your ability to work, get along with others or take care of yourself, you should seek professional help,” Lazarus says. “Breaking old habits can be hard, and having the help of a professional can support you in gaining the awareness and skills to manage your anxiety.”
Coast adds that when you’re struggling with overthinking, it can make you feel stuck or unable to take any action at all. “It can be hard to get the thoughts out of your mind or concentrate on anything else. When this prevents you from taking action or interferes with your daily life or well-being, this is when speaking with a mental health professional would be beneficial.”
Consider talking to a mental health professional who specializes in anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. Some self-help books, meditation apps and online cognitive behavioral therapy programs can also teach you long-term strategies for managing anxiety. Some individuals may benefit from taking anxiety medication to manage their symptoms.
Angelelli says that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, a class of widely used anti-depressant medications, can be helpful in easing anxiety disorders. While it’s not entirely clear exactly how they work, SSRIs change the balance of serotonin — that’s the feel-good chemical — in the brain. “People who have high levels of serotonin have a high sense of well-being,” Angelelli says. These medications can help you achieve that.
It’s important to learn to manage anxiety and worry effectively because while techniques like distraction can help everyday worriers in the short term, they can make symptoms worse in people with anxiety disorders. If you’re always relying on short-term distraction techniques, you may not be dealing with a deeper issue that’s creating these anxiety symptoms, and that can worsen over time.
Brodsky adds that “there’s never a wrong time to talk with a mental health specialist.” If you’re in crisis, get help immediately by contacting the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also access more information and mental health resources from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Beyond seeking professional help, simply reaching out to friends and family for support can help ease anxiety and overthinking, Angelelli says. Sometimes, a supportive friend can help you put worries back into their appropriate perspective.
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Proven Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Ease Anxiety Now originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 01/19/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.