A way out of the OVERTHINKING trap!!!

…..I’d been sitting here for almost half an hour, staring at the blank screen hoping to write something, the first thought that came to my mind was, “it needs to be perfect”, I kept thinking about what would be perfect and whatever came to my mind just wasn’t good enough. I kept thinking and different thoughts kept coming to mind, and I just froze.

The moment I realised that I’m getting in that spiral, I just took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that “it is okay if it is not perfect, why does it even need to be perfect, I just need to start, I can always edit things”. This simple reminder gave me the freedom to write whatever came to my mind fearlessly and finally I am publishing the blog.

What is overthinking?

Everyone overthinks things once in a while, although sometimes some people just can’t ever seem to quiet the constant bombardment of thoughts. In such cases, the inner speech usually involves unhelpful thought patterns;

  • Ruminating1 involves repetitive thinking about negative information or past events. For example;
    • “I shouldn’t have asked that question in class today. Everyone must have been looking at me like I was dumb.”
    • “I could have just stayed at home. I would be happier if I would have just stayed there and not gone out.”
    • “My relatives always said I wouldn’t amount to anything. And they were right. I can’t do even one thing right.”
    • “My friend didn’t say hello to me while passing me in the corridor, what could it mean?”
  • Worrying2 comprises of negative—sometimes catastrophic—predictions about the future. For example;
    • “I’m going to mess it up tomorrow when I give that speech. My body will shake, I will start sweating, what if I get stuck and become more and more anxious, and everyone will see that I’m incapable.”
    • “I’ll never get better. It doesn’t matter what I do. It’s not going to happen.”
    • “My friends are going to find someone better than I am. I’m going to end up alone.”

People spend hours going through these random thoughts and events, analysing them and stay stuck in their heads. And It’s not just words that people get stuck within their lives but sometimes, images too. People may envision their loved ones dying or replay a distressing event in their minds like a traumatic violent video they saw a news channel. Either way, the tendency to overthink everything holds people back from doing something productive most of the time. As people start overthinking about important issues in their lives, they can get stuck in indecision, avoidance, and procrastination which leads to even greater personal distress.

Research suggests that rumination is a major risk factor for the onset of major mental health issues like major depression and anxiety symptomatology across different age groups.3

Managing anxiety and ways to stop overthinking

1. Determine your control4

When you find yourself getting zoned out and overthinking, take a deep breath and step back to analyse the things you have control over. If you don’t have much control over the situation, the best you can do is to prepare for it. You can’t control how others behave, but you can control your response, your effort and your outlook. When you focus on the things you can control, you’ll be much more effective in changing the outcome of the situation.

2. Identify your fears

Sometimes, overthinking may not be such a bad thing, but something that challenges us to confront our fears. What is crippling is the “what if” thoughts. So how do we respond such thoughts? 

Take a step back and ask yourself,

  • “Why is this particular thought bothering me?” 
  • “What am I afraid of?” 
  • “Would I be able to deal with it myself?,”
  • “What can I do to prevent it?”
  • “What can I do if it happens?”

For example, overthinking may look like “I wish the school speech wouldn’t come. It’s going to be bad. I hope that I don’t get embarrassed. Why do such things always have to happen to me? I can’t handle this.
At the same time, problem-solving may look like, “I will practice in front of the mirror a few times, make notes for myself, I’ll go to the stage and take a few deep breaths first to calm myself down. If I make a mistake or forget anything, I can always refer to my notes.”

3. Create a plan to manage your stress

3.1 Positive affirmations

Using positive statements in various situations can help avoid falling in the trap of overthinking. 

Preparing for a challenging situation

As you are about to enter a situation or face something that you find overwhelming, for example if you’re about to start a presentation, you can help ourselves to prepare with positive statements such as;

  • “It’s not going to be as bad as I think.” 
  • “It won’t last long and I can cope.”
  • “I am getting better and need to rebuild my confidence.” 
  • “If I do get bad thoughts, I know they won’t last long and I can cope with them.” 
  • “It’s better to do it than not to do. Worry doesn’t help.” 
  • “I might enjoy it if I go.” 
Coping with a stressful situation

Reaffirm your confidence and safety in challenging yourself help activate your “fight” mechanism and improve performance;

  • “Concentrate on what I have to do.” 
  • “I know I am going to be OKAY.” 
  • “The thoughts always pass.” 
  • “Relax and think positively.” 
  • “One step at a time.” 
Reviewing and acknowledging your achievement

Even when things don’t go according to the plan, it is important you still take time to review the situation and acknowledge yourself for what you have achieved and the efforts that you have put in. Every small step is progress and part of the process, so try to focus on the positives rather than the negatives.

  • “I coped with that.” 
  • “I achieved that; I am getting better.” 
  • “I handled that; it should be easier next time.” 
  • “I can be pleased with the progress I’m making.” 
  • “I did that well.” 
  • “If I keep this up, I’m going to get really good at this.”  

3.2 The 54321 Grounding Method

First, take a moment to become mindful of your breath. Just taking a few deep breaths invites the body back into the moment, slowing everything down and becoming aware of the surroundings. Here is how you can do it;

  • Look For 5 Things You Can See: Notice the wood grain on the desk in front of you. Or the precise shape of your fingernails. Become aware of the glossy green of the plant in the corner. Take your time to really look and acknowledge what you see.
  • Become Aware Of 4 Things You Can Touch: The satisfyingly rough texture of the car seat. Your cotton shirt against your neck. If you like, spend a moment literally touching these things. Maybe notice the sensation of gravity itself, or the floor beneath you.
  • Acknowledge 3 Things You Can Hear: Don’t judge, just hear. The distant traffic. The voices in the next room. As well as the space between sounds.
  • Notice 2 Things You Can Smell: If at first, you don’t feel like you can smell anything, simply try to sense the subtle fragrance of the air around you, or of your own skin.
  • Become Aware Of 1 Thing You Can Taste: The lingering suggestion of coffee on your tongue, maybe?

Repeat this process as many times as necessary. Take your time and notice how you feel afterward.

3.3 Count your blessings

Be thankful for what you have, practise gratitude. It is an acknowledgement of value irrespective of monetary worth. You can introspect about it in your own thoughts or write it down, or talk about it with your loved ones, ones you are thankful for what they have done for you. Research shows it is an effective stress management activity and helps people with a heightened level of meaningfulness and engagement in work5.

3.4 Practise optimism

It is a process to cultivate a habit of thinking a certain way, working on looking at the bright side of life. For example, you can try doing it by having a notebook in which you can write about the best possible future for yourself, or by thinking about the positive aspects of a situation.

3.5 Avoid social comparison

Your struggles and achievements are unique and different from that of other people around you. Try not to dwell on your issues and not compare yourself to others. You can use strategies such as engaging yourself in a healthy activity when you start to have such thoughts.

3.6 Practise kindness

You can practice kindness by showing compassion and doing good things for others. This can be practised with anyone, friends or strangers or your own self, directly or anonymously, spontaneously or planned. Find a way to learn kindness today and every day.

3.7 Develop healthy relationships

Relationships are an important aspect of our life. Pick a relationship and try working on strengthening it. For example, by investing time and energy in healing, growing, confirming, and enjoying the particular relationship that you want to work on.

3.8 Do things that interest you

Increase the number of experiences at home and school/work in which you “lose” yourself, things that you feel passionate about. These are activities in which you feel a “flow” while doing them. For example, activities that you find challenging and absorbing, it can be, reading, sketching, painting, exercising, cooking, travelling, watching movies/series/ documentaries, gardening and so on.

3.9 Replay happy moments

When we overthink, we usually tend to replay negative thoughts and stressful memories in our minds that overwhelm us. You can put a break to that by consciously thinking about the good things in your life or around you. For example, remembering good times, reviewing an old photo album and sharing memories with a friend etc.

3.10 Set goals for yourself

Goal-setting and committing to it is an important component of success, whatever you are aspiring to reach, whether in your career or your personal life. Although try to set realistic and achievable goals. If you aspire too high, you may not be able to achieve it, you may become frustrated and give up. And if you aspire too low, you will not be able to push yourself to reach your full potential. Try picking just one or two goals that mean a lot to you and spend time and effort to achieve them.

3.11 Practise forgiveness

A lot of negative thoughts that people overthink about, may result from holding onto negative emotions and resentment that they have for other people and sometimes their own selves. By practising forgiveness you can work on letting go of the negative emotions or that anger and hate. For example, you can practice it by keeping a journal or writing a letter of forgiveness.

3.12 Practise spirituality

Take sometime to appreciate nature and existence. You can practice spirituality irrespective of whatever faith you may have, it necessarily doesn’t have to be religious.

3.13 Care for your body and mind

Engage in physical activities, practise meditation, enjoy humour and set healthy boundaries. For example, exercising, keeping a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep/ rest, laughing and smiling.

3.14 Learn

Pick up a new hobby and Involve yourself in a healthy activity like, learning a new music instrument, and/or picking up a new skill like cooking.

3.15 Look at the bigger picture

You can try doing something to add to the greater good in any way possible for you. For example, doing something to protect the environment and living in a sustainable way. Environmental sustainability6 is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It may be helpful to provide greater meaning to your life and look beyond the issues that we face in our day to day life.

3.16 Seek professional coaching

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Positive psychology and science has evolved substantially in the past couple of decades. Seeking professional counselling can help you train your mind to not overthink and engage in positive tasks. It is like having a gym coach who can keep you on track and motivate you to achieve your desired goals.

Thinking too much just brings it back to me, me, me—but thanking takes my eyes off myself and my mistakes and puts them on others, on things bigger than myself. I can’t stand here very long without being humbled at how small I am and amazed at how big and beautiful our world is.

Elizabeth Musser

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