Overthinking (or ruminating, as it is scientifically called) is repeatedly analyzing the same thoughts, usually about an unpleasant event in one’s past. An overthinker feels helpless in suppressing or solving the thoughts that run through their mind in loops.
Now, everyone overthinks at times; that’s normal. It becomes an issue only when someone finds it hard to resist having the same thoughts over and over. Not knowing how to cut free, they often develop severe stress and anxiety.
In time, the overthinking person may even go into depression. In fact, research shows women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression because they ruminate twice as much.
Instead of ignoring it, take action as soon as you notice you cannot help thinking too much about the same things from your past. Find out below how to get over this harmful habit.
5 Helpful Ways From Science To Stop Overthinking The Past
Overthinking is a self-destructive habit. It reduces your ability to think clearly, make quick decisions, pay attention to others, and keep a calm demeanor. It can also make you procrastinate on your current projects and hesitate to start new ventures.
Chronic overthinking is a mental health risk. It might lead a person to feel so stressed that they are unable to function normally, if at all. The solution is to disrupt the thought cycles and take the actions needed to live a regular life.
An overthinker finds it too hard to turn thoughts into actions or outcomes.
To help you stop endlessly recycling the same thoughts, here are four of the most helpful strategies from science. Use one or more of these to get over your overthinking.
1. Distract Yourself Intentionally.
Women, more than men, need to master this strategy, as we will explain shortly.
As soon as you realize you are in overthinking mode, and replaying a past event over and over without reaching a conclusion, take this step:
Intentionally distract yourself from the present moment and the scene.
Distraction is diverting attention from the object of current focus and toward the cause of distraction. Intentional distraction is forcing your mind to think of something else, especially something pleasant.
Intentional distraction is hijacking your attention away from your repetitive thoughts, and thereby reducing the information overload in your brain. When you distract yourself intentionally, you forcefully shift your focus to things that are pleasant or at least non-anxious, away from your negative cycle of thoughts.
In a study, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and Jannay Morrow asked some depressed students to focus their minds on certain geographical locations and objects, like “the size of the Golden Gate Bridge” and the “shape of the African continent.”
After the exercise, which lasted 8 minutes, the participants became noticeably less depressed when compared to another set of depressed students who focused on their emotions or symptoms.
The authors concluded, “naturally depressed subjects who engaged in a benign, distracting task showed significant relief from their depressed moods, to a level equal to that of the nondepressed subjects.”
Incidentally, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale University professor of psychology, was a groundbreaking researcher on rumination. Her work helped explain why women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression.
She suggested it was because women were more prone to ruminate (or dwell on the sources of problems rather than solutions) than men. In a seminal 1987 paper, she proposed that this difference may explain the 2:1 ratio of depressed women to depressed men.
When depressed, men are more likely to engage in distracting behaviors. Women, however, tend to aggravate their depressed states by ruminating on them and overthinking the possible causes. So, it’s easier for men to tackle overthinking than women.
How to distract yourself: A simple way is to physically get up and go for a walk, or even go away somewhere else. You could also distract yourself mentally by doing something that engages your mind, like listening to an upbeat song.
2. Practice Being Mindfully Accepting.
The most difficult challenge for overthinkers is figuring out how to halt their train of thought, especially when they are aware they are overthinking. They become increasingly anxious as they helplessly watch their impotence in breaking their harmful habit.
Regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help one control their overthinking.
When you’re in a state of mindfulness, you do not attempt to suppress or cut down your disturbing thoughts. Instead, it trains the mind to accept the thoughts that arise without judging them or holding on to them and letting them go.
The overthinker in a mindful state no more tries to control, change, or reduce the thoughts. It is this letting go of the meddlesome thoughts that paradoxically reduce their frequency in the long run.
In a meta-study of 11 studies, Clinical psychologist Lilisbeth Perestelo-Perez, Ph.D., M.Psych., and others found Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can reduce overthinking significantly. The mindfulness methods were equally effective in controlling rumination as medication and CBT.
They also found the positive effects of mindfulness were present even a month after the end of MCBT.
3. Try Solving A New Problem.
Overthinking reduces the motivation to solve problems, as research shows. On the other hand, studies on depressive people staying stable after engaging in problem-solving suggest the same can hold good for rumination.
So, challenge yourself to look away from your loop of thoughts and put yourself up for finding solutions to the problems playing in your mind. Challenge yourself to find ways to solve the issue at hand.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested problem-solving may prove to be more effective after first lifting your mood with distraction.
So, you could throw in a distracting challenge for yourself — funny videos, Sudoku, yoga, juggling, or anything else you love to be distracted with — first. Then, you can focus your attention directly on finding a clear-cut solution to the present problem.
4. Practice Gratitude.
Rumination can be of two types: intrusive and deliberate. Intrusive rumination is the automatic re-experiencing of images, emotions, and thoughts associated with a specific incident. Deliberate rumination is an intentional process in which one tries to understand the cause and purpose of an incident.
People may experience intrusive rumination and intense emotional distress after a traumatic occurrence, but they may also simultaneously attempt to engage in deliberate rumination to ease their psychological distress.
Persistent intrusive rumination can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But deliberate rumination promotes post-traumatic growth (PTG).
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises. It manifests itself in a variety of ways, including a greater appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, a greater sense of personal strength, shifted priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life (Tedeschi, Calhoun, 2004).
Gratitude can help people find new purpose and meaning after a traumatic experience, as well as accept the painful experiences as a part of their existence. Studies show that gratitude promotes deliberate rumination, and therefore promotes PTG (Wood et al., 2010; Zhou and Wu, 2015; Kim and Lee, 2016).
Gratitude is a thankful and joyful attitude for the benefits and gifts received from other people and nature (Emmons and Shelton, 2002). Gratitude also refers to an appreciation for others and different aspects of daily life, as well as the ability to recollect positive prior experiences (Watkins et al., 2003).
A recent meta-analytic study found that gratitude is a significant predictor of PTG (Jang and Kim, 2017). Gratitude can trigger deliberate rumination and serve as a buffer against the psychological stress caused by intrusive thoughts.
Learn how to practice gratitude.
5. Build A “Thought Box.”
The “Thought Box” process is a greatly helpful way to reduce overthinking.
Set aside a little time in the day, say 20 minutes, when you will allow yourself time to overthink. Set up an alarm on your phone for the end of this interval. During this time, begin by telling yourself you have absolute freedom to ruminate until the alarm bell rings.
Then let your mind do all kinds of overthinking. There are no limits and no control over your thinking process. Call this your “Thought Box.”
Small addition: Keep a writing pad and pen handy. Note down a few thoughts from the bunch moving through your mind. Don’t stress if you have to write every thought in. Instead, be easy on yourself, and jot down just one or two streams of thoughts. It will be fine.
How does the “Thought Box” Strategy help?
- First, whenever you feel you’re slipping into your habit of overthinking during the day, remind yourself you have fixed up a time for it in your Thought Box, and stop overthinking right there.
- Second, by writing the thoughts, you force your mind to recognize you have already given your attention to a particular worry. So now, it is no good repeating it over in your mind since you have already noted it down on a paper.
24 Expert Tips To Stop Overthinking
While the above four strategies were drawn direct from published research, we also waded through 100+ posts on how to stop overthinking to bring you the best twenty-four ideas from the internet.
Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, suggests:
1. Notice when you’re stuck in your head
2. Keep the focus on problem-solving
3. Challenge your thoughts
4. Change the channel
Dinsa Sachan suggests:
5. Trick your brain with a replacement thought
6. Schedule a time for obsessing later
7. Pay attention to your anxiety and discomfort
8. Talk yourself out of it
Henrik Edberg suggests:
9. Put things into a wider perspective
10. Set short time-limits for decisions
11. Become a person of action
12. Realize you cannot control everything
Ryan Howes suggests:
13. Being aware is your first line of defense
14. Journal to get the thoughts out of your head
15. Remind your brain that you’re in charge
16. Don’t put pressure on yourself to handle it alone
Jessica DuBois-Maahs suggests:
17. Practice mindfulness and meditation
18. Notice when rumination happens
19. Keep your focus on problem-solving
20. Journal your thoughts
Jim Kwik suggests:
21. Catch yourself and stop yourself
22. Find a way to let the thoughts out
23. Set aside 10-15 minutes each day to reflect
24. Get busy and divert your mind to another task
Here’s entrepreneur and philosopher Albert Hobohm speaking to a TEDx audience on how to stop your thoughts from controlling your life:
Overthinking vs. Deep Thinking: Did Einstein Overthink
Short answer: Probably yes. Long answer: What scientific thinkers as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Marie Curie did more of was deliberation.
Deliberation is thinking deeply about something over a long time to reach a careful, conscious decision. Deliberate thinkers often collaborate with others to troubleshoot and expand their input-to-output journey.
The keyword there is output. The thinkers from any field — science, philosophy, politics, business — always think to reach a decision or conclusion.
In contrast, the overthinkers almost always do all the thinking on their own without reaching out for any collaboration. Also, as opposed to thinkers, their thoughts produce no output or action.How do you know it's overthinking, not deep thinking? Overthinking does not let you reach any final decision or take any action. Deep thinking does. Click To Tweet
Overthinking is one of the most vulnerable factors in your personality that puts you at a high risk of depression, often as soon as within a year of a negative life event. The researchers also see it linked to anxiety.
So, stay watchful and take notice early if you are overthinking things. Use the four methods above to arrest the irksome habit before it leads to other disruptive mental disorders.
However, if you find it hard to get over it yourself, please seek expert psychological help.
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Check out these 80 Amazing Quotes That Will Help You Stop Overthinking!
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
• Our story: Happiness Project
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