Have you ever heard the saying worry is like a rocking chair?
It gives you something to do but gets you nowhere.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
We all have the tendency to overthink from time-to-time. It’s normal. It’s just when we’re being bombarded by a barrage of incessant thoughts we can’t “turn off”, that it becomes problematic.
Like a dog that won’t let go of its bone, we just can’t stop ourselves from chewing over the same thoughts over and over again. It’s rehashing conversations from the day before (or six years ago for the ten-thousandth time), second-guessing your every move and catastrophising about the future.
It’s exhausting. And counterproductive.
Being excited about an upcoming date with someone you like can turn into anxious thoughts about whether they’ll like you or not. Then they’ll jump to fears of never finding love and using thoughts of failed relationships in the past to support the belief that you’re going to die alone.
And before you know it, you’re on the verge of a panic attack or sinking into the dark depths of depression as you desperately search for an excuse to cancel the date.
I don’t miss these days.
Why I need to stop overthinking
Interestingly, many overthinkers believe they’re actually doing themselves a favor by cycling through their thoughts. Unfortunately, the research says otherwise. All the signs point towards it having undoubtedly more of a negative impact on our wellbeing than a positive one.
Studies have shown that overthinking increases your stress levels, clouds your judgment, impacts sleep, kills your creativity, leads to further anxiety and depression and strips you of your power to make decisions a.k.a. analysis paralysis.
As David Spiegel, the director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford Health Care, puts it, “There are times when the worry about the problem is a lot worse than the problem itself.”
Questions to consider to break the habit
It’s important to ask yourself whether worry or overthinking is actually helping you.
- Is it really the same as problem solving?
- Is worry the same as taking action?
- Or is it an attempt to avoid taking necessary but uncomfortable action?
- If you can’t do anything about the situation at all and it’s an imagined problem, what are the consequences of continuing to worry about it?
By quietly and honestly considering these questions, you’ll find that what you thought was a helpful habit turns out to do more harm than good. Fortunately, there are a few ways to stop overthinking.
A fair word of warning though…
You won’t change this pattern overnight. It’s a habit you’ve developed and practiced thousands of times over the years. So you’ve gotten really good at it! But with any habit, you can unlearn it and learn new, healthier and more helpful ones.
A practical mindhack to stop overthinking
If you struggle with thinking clearly in the midst of anxious or depressing thoughts and developing practical steps to tackle problems, this tool is about to become your best friend. This is one of the simplest yet most effective tools to stop overthinking.
It’ll help you from catastrophizing about the future and ruminating over the “should haves” and “would haves” of the past. Over time, it’ll leave you more present, resilient to stress, your mind quieter and you feeling so much lighter, more at peace, happier and less stuck in your head.
It will, however, require conscious and consistent work from your side. But it’s effort greatly rewarded.
The Worry Tree
Notice the worry
The first step is to notice your worry. Pin it down. Because this has become such an automatic habit, even this step can be tricky. But the more you train your mind to become aware of it, the quicker you’ll get at breaking the cycle of overthinking.
Specify the worry
Is it a real worry or hypothetical – can you realistically do something about this?
If the worry is hypothetical
Hypothetical worries are all the “what ifs” or “should haves” like “what if my partner meets someone else and leaves me” or “I shouldn’t have studied xyz but abc instead”. There isn’t much we can do about these situations and the time spent and distress caused by overthinking robs us of our wellbeing.
If you can’t do anything about it, practice letting go of the worry (or postponing it) and then changing your focus of attention. I’ll share how you can do this in just a sec.
If the worry is a current problem
Make an action plan. If you can do something about it then that’s exactly what you’re going to do.
- What to do?
- How to do it?
- When to do it?
- Schedule it.
Then let go of the worry and then change your focus of attention.
7 ways to change your focus of attention
Learning how to change your focus of attention and redirect it away from your stream of thoughts is a practice. Remember that for when you get frustrated at yourself for falling into the trap of overthinking. Like building muscle it requires time, consistency and strong intention. But it can be done! Here are 7 things you can begin doing now to direct your focus away from your thoughts to something more helpful.
- Acknowledge your worry
Instead of fighting with your worry or pretending it’s not there, accept that in this moment, this is what you’re experiencing. It’s helpful to acknowledge the worry and to reassure yourself that if there’s something that can be done about it, you have a plan and will act on it. Remember, overthinking a problem isn’t the same as solving a problem.
2. Use the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness technique
There are few things as impactful as a daily mindfulness practice when it comes to thought and emotional regulation. And I can vouch for that. It’s played a massive role in my own healing from trauma and issues with anger, depression, anxiety and addiction. As a lifelong practice, it’s also a powerful tool to take your focus and mental strength to another level. However, if this doesn’t do it for you, this technique is fantastic to get you out of your head and to bring your attention to the moment. Where attention goes, energy flows. Wherever you are just stop and notice with your all:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can hear
- 3 things you can feel or touch
- 2 things you can smell or like the smell of
- 1 slow deep breath
3. Hop into a cold shower
If I’m really stuck in my head and all the mental jiu-jitsu I’ve been practicing over the years isn’t working, a cold shower generally does the trick. The shock of the cold on my body shoots me right out of my head in just a few short seconds. Try spend 5 minutes under the cold water but if this is too much to start with, go for 30s and work your way up. Take slow, deep, steady breaths and each time you get sucked back into your head, bring your attention back to the sensation of the water dripping onto your skin. Your body will also begin to release a “concoction of chemicals” that’ll leave you feeling so much better, clearer and more alive than before!
It doesn’t matter how you do it; just move your body every single day. Go for a run, walk, to the gym, follow an exercise class on YouTube, cycle, swim, play football with friends or even surf. Anything you can do to get your heart rate up for at least 20min will break you out of a negative state of mind, significantly reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression. If 20 min is too much, if you’re strapped for time or if you need something quick in the moment find a 5 min cardio workout on YouTube, sprint around your block, skip, do pushups or sit ups until you can’t anymore (even if you can’t do one).
The very act of using your body will help to shift your focus of attention from your thoughts to the activity you’re engaged in. Plus there’s the added benefit of all the feel-good hormones your body releases, leaving you on a high.
5. Dance your heart out
Spend 10 min dancing like nobody’s watching to your favourite songs. Seriously, give it your all. Move in ways that your body wants to move – even if it’s weird – and not in ways that are “cool”. The idea isn’t to post it to your TikTok page but to feel as good as humanly possible after a solid all-out jam session. Jump, roll around and shake every part of yourself. You’ll quickly forget what you were even worrying about in the first place.
6. Turn your anxiety into excitement with just three words
This is one of my favourite neurohacks. It’s simple, effective and leaves you feeling more confident and excited. The research supporting it is legit and I’ve used it many times! You can use it if you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming event or situation. All your need to do is focus on the positive outcomes you wish for and say out loud to yourself three times, “I am excited!”. Here’s a short article I wrote discussing why it’s such an amazing tool to use if you struggle with anxiety.
7. Spend time in nature
If overthinking’s getting you down, go for a walk in nature. And if there aren’t any natural spaces nearby, the park will work. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, ADHD, restore focus and improve wellbeing. You’ll feel the pull of your thoughts dragging you back in but the trick is to keep gently directing your attention to what’s going on around you:
- What can you see?
- What can you hear?
- What can you smell?
- Feel the temperature, warmth of the sun, mist or gentle breeze on your skin.
You’ll come out feeling like a new person. You know that feeling when your whole body takes a sigh of relief and becomes a whole lot more relaxed? That’s what we’re after.
To a worry-free life & peace of mind
Overthinking isn’t something you have to suffer with your whole life. The Worry Tree is just one of several tools that can help train the mind to approach problems and concerns in a healthier, more skillful and productive manner. And these 7 strategies will help you to direct your focus away from your thoughts and break the cycle of overthinking once you’ve used the Worry Tree.
And if overthinking is getting you down, reach out to us. Drop us a message here with your questions and we’ll get back to you. Or we can hop onto a free, no-strings attached call to explore the root of it and how we can help you completely change your relationship with your anxiety and fear so you can experience more freedom, happiness, peace and confidence. You deserve to find out just how strong and capable you truly are! Because when you do, your life will never be the same again. And our programs are the bridge to get you there.
We can’t wait to hear from you!
For parents of older teens & young adults
If your child struggles with anxiety and chronic over-worrying, have a look at our Ultimate Resilience program. It’s based on some of the latest research in neuroscience and psychology and is designed to significantly improve mental wellbeing and protect your child against stress, anxiety and depression. For many of our young clients and their parents, it’s been an absolute life-changer! You can see their testimonials and our program here.