What overthinking does
If overthinking leaves you exhausted, that's because it literally drains your energy. "It can lead to disruptions in sleep, trouble socializing, and difficulty making decisions," Goodman says. "It may also have a negative impact on self-esteem, especially if the overthinking is directed at the self." Overthinking can have physiological effects as well. Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN, CFMHE, a licensed clinical forensic neuropsychologist, says overthinking can amp up your cortisol (aka the stress hormone), mess with your digestion, and—in severe cases—lead to anxiety and depressive disorders.
The reason it's so dangerous, Goodman says, is because overthinking is fear-based instead of solution-focused. So when you start overthinking, you get stuck on something, look for other things to worry about, and don't do anything to remedy the problem. It then becomes a vicious cycle because the more you obsess over something, the worse you feel, and the worse the overthinking gets. The irony, according to Dr. Ho, is that our brain actually believes overthinking is a good thing, and that it's being productive and solving a problem. In reality, that couldn't be further from the truth.
What causes overthinking
It's hard to pinpoint just one cause of overthinking, says Goodman. Overthinking can be symptom of major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, and external factors may also trigger the overthinking pattern. (For example, if you interact with people who frequently question your abilities, you may start overthinking things and lose trust in yourself.) Or if you've just got too much going on, that's another recipe for overthinking. "Being overwhelmed and dealing with burnout may also contribute to higher levels of anxiety and worry, leading to more rumination," Goodman says.
How to stop overthinking
When you notice yourself overthinking, you can interrupt the pattern by bringing awareness to your physical environment. "Plant your feet firmly on the ground, sit tall in your chair, and really lean into the back of your chair, noticing how it feels on your back," Dr. Ho says. "Grab a cuddly item like a blanket or a soft jacket. This will get your mind oriented to the present moment very quickly."
Another way to ground yourself is to use your senses to notice what's around you. "Start by listing five things you hear, then four things you see, then three things you can touch from where you're sitting, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste," Goodman says. "This will help bring you out of your thoughts and into the present moment."
Thank your mind
It may sound silly, but thanking your mind can also help stop the overthinking pattern. Remember, the mind thinks it's trying to protect you, so taking your power back starts with acknowledging it for what it's doing. Dr. Ho recommends giving your overthinking mind a name too to make it not so serious. You can say something like: "Thanks for your help, Betty, but I got this!"
Set aside time to worry
Scheduling a designated window of time to worry may seem counterintuitive when the goal is not to worry, but it works. "In many cases, when you get to your ‘worry time,’ you may have even forgotten why you were worried or what you were worried about," Goodman says. "Scheduling it allows you to validate your concerns, create a time in your schedule to manage them, and stop the current overthinking loop."
Try the "yes, but" technique
Dr. Ho suggests trying the "yes, but" technique. "Recognize the not-so-good, then link it with a 'but' followed by something you have been doing to move toward your goal," she says. For example: Yes, I didn't finish that work project, but I did make some progress, and I have time next week to finish.
"Distractions have a bad reputation, but they’re actually a great tool," Goodman says. "When you're in a thinking spiral, it's important to cut it off and get out of it." Music, TV, exercise, calling a friend, or cooking are all easy ways to redirect your mind and interrupt the overthinking pattern. Whether you queue up your favorite playlist or take a walk—or maybe both!—you should be able to shift your thinking into a different place.
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