By Sophia Godkin PhD
Think. Think. Think. It’s what our mind does. Some thoughts feel good. Some feel not so good. Some help us devise solutions. Others appear to create problems. Some last a few seconds. Others a few minutes. And many – especially the negative ones – latch on to those like them and create long chains of cyclical thought patterns scientists refer to as rumination.
Rumination, it turns out, isn’t just something that happens in your head. Sure, it’s been shown to exacerbate psychological stress, impair problem solving, and even produce more frequent depressive episodes, but it’s also been shown to prolong the stress response by increasing cortisol and blood pressure levels, thereby impairing the health of the heart.
The following is a list of simple ways that you can break the cycle of rumination and avoid overthinking. As you read, remember that while your mind can be like a speeding, runaway train full of all sorts of unpleasant thoughts, it can also be the source of much wonder, delight, intelligence, and unlimited possibility in your life.
1. Do something else. It’s easy to sit on the couch, legs crossed, and overthink. It’s less easy to overthink if you are passionately and exuberantly engaged in something that feels good to you. So get up and do something you love. Let new action give you new perspective. Get your mental juices flowing by starting a new creative project, go outside and get in touch with the wisdom of mother nature, or take a walk or do some exercise to transform the mental activity into physical activity. When you do something differently, it’s no surprise that your mind will respond differently. So you may find, as you move your body and creatively or masterfully engage your mind, that you are able to turn your attention to a new point of focus – whether a project, person, or situation. Congratulations, you have interrupted your overthinking process and from this neutral state of mind can now direct your attention as you wish.
2. Change topics. When something’s not going quite right in our lives, we oftentimes begin to have tunnel vision. All we can do is think about this one thing and nothing else. But if we change the topic of our mental chatter to something that feels just a little bit better and just a little bit clearer, suddenly our way of being changes. Now this might seem counterintuitive and you might find yourself saying “But if I’m thinking about a different topic, aren’t I still thinking?” And the answer is yes. Surely, you are still thinking. But once you start to think about something that feels less “messy” and not so extravagant and in desperate need of your attention (the reason you were overthinking in the first place), you create space. And from that space, any number of things that divert overthinking can take place – whether an inspired action, a creative stream of thought, or simply a generally lighter feeling.
3. Stop talking about it with everyone you know and meet. Oversharing is a common relative of overthinking, and it often doesn’t help. In fact, as your thoughts turn to words, they gain momentum. They become more real. So, if you want to share (and we do encourage sharing and seeking social support if you have a problem that needs to be addressed), be mindful with whom you share. Do you want your thoughts to gain momentum in the direction of more stress, worry, and overthinking? Then share them with someone who might make you feel better temporarily by agreeing with your concerns, but who may or may not be in a mental and emotional space themselves to help you, and may even confuse you. Do you want your thoughts to gain momentum in the direction of more clarity, peace, and resolution? Then share them with someone who can offer a new perspective on what’s happening, someone who can see a glimpse of something you haven’t considered before, someone who can dish out a dose of honesty and sincerity to help you grow.
4. Acknowledge what you are afraid of. Beneath every stream of endless thought lies a decision that needs to be made, and beneath every decision that needs to, but isn’t ready to, be made lies fear. So ask yourself, “What am I afraid of”? “What am I afraid will happen if I make this decision, or the other?” “What do I stand to lose (my status, self-respect, self-worth, freedom, power, friends, money, etc)?” Then question the validity of your fear by asking yourself “Will that really happen if I make this decision”? “What are some other options for what might happen instead?” and “If what I fear does happen, what will happen next?” By asking yourself these questions, you will stop your mind in its tracks. Where it once was catastrophizing and expecting the worst, you will now see the possibility of a good outcome. Where it once secretly predicted that you wouldn’t be able to handle the outcome, you will now notice resilience. There is no outcome that your decision can produce (within reason, of course) that you cannot handle and deal with. And when it comes to the things that you hold within you (your self-respect, self-worth, freedom, power), no one can ever take those away from you. And when you have those things, you don’t need the outside approval that comes from the things you irrationally fear to lose (status, friends, money).
5. Know that you can always go back and change your mind. We tend to overthink because we think we have to get it right, we have to get it perfect this time or else … (insert the fear-evoking thoughts your mind resorts to here). In actuality, no decision is ever final. You have made good decisions in the past and can make the best one for you right now. And if you don’t like the outcome of what happens, you can move forward and try a different route. If you all of a sudden see new options and possibilities, you can change your mind and easily go in that direction. In fact, that’s exactly what we often do without even realizing it. We make a decision and because we’ve done so, the thoughts in our mind begin to slow down. We usually know what our mind is saying, but less often do we know what our heart is saying. But now that we are no longer constantly thinking, we can begin to hear the voice of our heart – the voice that usually presents us with a whole new slew of possibilities that feel oh so good. So we pivot, switch gears, and decide to follow along with those new nudges. This is why any decision – our own or another’s – that appears to have been a one-time choice most likely actually took 4, 5, or infinitely more turns to get to.
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