By: Lisa Philippart
In my last article, we covered what overthinking is, what it looks like, and where it comes from. Now let’s dive into the ways to stop overthinking. As with other unhealthy patterns in our lives, the key thing to realize is that overthinking is a habit. This means that “fixing it” will not happen overnight and will definitely take a sustained effort. It also means that your progress may be messy…taking two steps forward and one step back. It also means that there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. You will need to experiment with a variety of approaches to figure out what works best for you. So here we go!
Even though it’s internal, overthinking is a behavior. It’s something we do. And like all behaviors that stick around and become habits, it’s because they’re serving some function. Overthinking often serves as an emotional function. That is, it does something for your feelings, usually making you (temporarily) feel better. It is more helpful to look at the emotions behind the overthinking and ask yourself if there’s a better way to deal with them.
Almost always, taking the time to get curious about your emotions and validate them is going to be more productive in the long run than simply avoiding them with overthinking. One of the tricks overthinking does is convince us that we have to think more now. But unless it is a life-or-death emergency, you probably don’t have to think about that idea right at this moment. Why not schedule your overthinking for later? By agreeing to think about something at a later date, you not only validate your overthinking mind’s concern, but you also avoid the downside of getting lost in the overthinking. Then when you do return to those thoughts, you are doing it intentionally rather than reactively. The key to this exercise is that you treat the overthinking time like a real appointment. Put it on your calendar!
Thoughts generate emotions, which means the more emotion-generating thoughts you have in a given period of time, the more emotions you are going to experience. And while not overthinking is the ideal, sometimes just doing less of it can really take the edge off. This is where the idea of only overthinking on paper comes in. There are two big benefits to writing down your overthinking rather than doing it in your head. First, you can’t write nearly as fast as you can think. Second, seeing your thoughts on paper literally gives you perspective on them. When we see our thoughts on paper and in front of us, it’s easier to spot errors in cognitive distortions and bad assumptions.
You may have noticed that overthinking gives us the illusion of control. Unfortunately, feeling like you are solving problems doesn’t always mean you are solving them. A way to address this is to become more assertive. Assertiveness is the ability to speak your mind honestly and directly in a way that is respectful to yourself and others. It’s the middle ground between being passive (deferring to others) and aggressive (being disrespectful to others.) And fortunately, the capacity to be assertive is a skill that anyone can learn.
Earlier I mentioned cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that lead to excessive emotional reactions. How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel. The basic problem with overthinking is often a response to feeling bad emotionally. When your thinking is riddled with these cognitive distortions, you end up feeling worse. Which means you tend to overthink even more! Where does the cycle end? I encourage you to get good at spotting cognitive distortions in your self-talk. When you can point out that your thinking is not entirely accurate, you’ll be more likely to generate a more balanced and positive way of thinking.
Still not seeing anything yet that will help with your overthinking? Check out my article next time for part two.
By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor