"According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is extremely prevalent among U.S. adults, affecting 18.1% - 30% of adults in the United States (Anxiety Disorder General Statistics, 2015)." Anxiety can lead to repetitive thoughts or “overthinking,” a cycle that is difficult to stop. So, how do we stop overthinking? Before we get into solutions, let’s talk about what overthinking is.
What is overthinking?
“Thinking too much” typically refers to ruminative, intrusive, and anxious thoughts. For example, overthinking may manifest as fixating on a project at work or going over social interactions in your head over and over. Overthinking can also include worrying too much and the belief that continuously worrying will help you to prepare for what’s to come or prevent what’s to come (Nur, Islamiah, PsyD, 2022).
On the other hand, “overthinking” is different from being analytical and mentally prepared. In fact, being an inquisitive, critical thinker who is anticipative is a wonderful attribute.
“Overthinking” only becomes a problem when your thoughts are anxious, circular, or repetitive. So, when it comes to overthinking, perhaps it’s not the amount you’re thinking but the way you’re thinking. Let’s give an example.
Do you go over social interactions in your head over and over?
Did you know that doing this is valid, potentially positive, and completely normal?
“In nearly all educational, training, and work environments, young adults are tasked with handling varying amounts of responsibility and interacting effectively with other people. Thus, some of the most important skills that individuals must have in order to be successful is the ability to communicate effectively with others and to handle the stresses of their current position” (Bryen, Potts, & Carey, 2007;Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007.
When you’re thinking repeatedly about a conversation you had with someone on your commute home, this is normal and possibly helpful. But, to find out whether you’re doing it in a positive or negative way, you have to find out why you’re replaying the conversation. Are you truly trying to figure out something you want to understand about the situation, or are you setting up the scene to criticize your people skills, self-deprecate, and self-punish for errors?
Replaying conversations can be helpful. The more you replay the details of a conversation, the more you can interpret what happened, learn the behavior of people around you, and plan for future social situations. Indeed, there is a large success and social incentive for doing so. However, at what point does it stop? Once you’ve come to a conclusion, or you’ve figured out what to make of a conversation, let it go by diverting your attention. On the other hand, if you’re ruminating over a conversation to justify criticizing yourself, you need to divert your attention away from it too, preferably with something that makes you feel safe and comforted.
Set a limit on how much you ruminate and divert your attention.
If you’re going in circles and have gone over the situation too many times, you can get anxious, sad, or both. These feelings are a signal that you need to divert your attention.Diversion is a refocusing of attention, especially when you’re trying to turn away from thoughts that are that’s difficult to control. Diversion engages the mind away from repetitive thoughts. Is there an activity or pastime that really interests, entertains, and relaxes you? Maybe painting, drawing, playing an instrument, creating something, journaling, or re-watching a captivating movie/show could help you. These are just a few choices. Any healthy activity that engages your attention and quells fear and uncertainty is a good diversion.
Talk about your thoughts with someone.
Photocred: Serious stock photo
Speaking with someone you trust can lighten the load of figuring it out all by yourself. It can break questions and concerns into smaller parts, and this can make your ruminative thoughts feel less overwhelming. Talking to someone can also release the pent-up feelings behind your thoughts, and likewise, help you think clearer. Furthermore, bringing in someone from outside of the situation can help you realize things you hadn’t before. It’s also a good measure of accountability for how long you’ve been thinking a thought. Plus, feeling not alone is a great way to calm down and put your mind at ease (BetterHealth, 2022).
Speaking to a professional in therapy might be especially helpful for some as well.
Rest can literally just be cozying up in bed, sitting on the couch to watch a show, or doing something that does not require exertion. If you have anxious thoughts, diversion is important, but don’t exhaust yourself with activities, appointments, duties, and tasks because you're trying to avoid having the capacity to ruminate. Avoidance is a form of repression (Attard, Angelica, PhD. 2022).
Emotional repression is all about avoiding emotional discomfort (Attard, Angelica, PhD. 2022), but those thoughts still remain, and it's better to eventually face them when you’re somewhat or fully rested. Just remember to take care of yourself. Nervousness and repetitive thoughts are natural human reactions that are often necessitated by our environments. Our environment will sometimes feel stressful, and responding to that stress is human. However, we can help how we tend to ourselves, how we move forward, and the way we protect ourselves.
Anxiety Disorder General Statistics. (2015, June). Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-statistics-information.shtml
Bryen DN, Potts BB, & Carey AC (2007). So you want to work? What employers say about job skills, recruitment and hiring employees who rely on AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23(2), 126–139.