Do you often find yourself analysing your thoughts, constantly replaying conversations or situations in your head? According to a recent study by a team of psychology experts at Queens University in Canada, the average person has over 6,000 thoughts a day. Whilst it’s normal to spend time thinking, if you find yourself over analysing or overwhelmed by your thoughts it could be because you’re overthinking.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when it is important to consider our thoughts. For instance, if we are moving house, or changing career. However, there’s thinking and then there’s overthinking. When we overthink, we tend to spend a long time mulling over our options to the point that we are either unable to make a decision or the opportunity is lost!
We also tend to focus on negative thoughts. Take moving house, mentally we may be thinking of all the reasons why we shouldn’t move, rather than the opportunities that this could present. We may go on lots of viewings but always find something wrong and feel demoralised that our dream house does not exist. However, the chances are we have spent so much time thinking about what is wrong with the house or what could go wrong with the move, that we find ourselves unable to make a decision and immobilised into a state of inactivity.
At the heart of overthinking lies the desire to control situations and foresee what will happen in the future. With the current coronavirus pandemic, it is understandable that some of us may feel we have less control over our lives and circumstances. This can lead to stress and anxiety, which are two of the main causes of overthinking. Therefore, it makes sense that in these times of uncertainty we can find our thoughts spiralling out of control.
However, we may also start to feel trapped by our overwhelming thoughts and spend so much time and energy trying to avoid problems we end up having no energy left to solve any problems that arise. This can start to affect our physical health causing symptoms including headaches and stiff joints.
So, what are the signs that our thoughts are spiralling out of control?
- Do you often have trouble sleeping, finding yourself tossing and turning trying to switch your brain off?
- Do you find yourself constantly replaying and analysing mistakes in your head?
- Do you analyse conversations you have had with other people in your mind going over the things you wish you had or hadn’t said?
- Do you spend a lot of time worrying about things you have no control over?
- Do you find yourself worrying about things that happened in the past or might happen in the future rather than living in the here and now?
If any of these sound familiar, you are not alone. Overthinking is very common. I certainly recognise a few! The good news is it is possible to break this habit and take back control of your thoughts, replacing confusion with clarity and enabling speedier decision making. So, next time you are feeling anxious and find your thoughts spiralling out of control, have a go at one or two of the exercises below. Remember, it takes time to break old habits, so persevere, once you do the exercise(s) for a while they will become new habits.
Learning to recognise when your thoughts are spiralling out of control is the first step in managing your habit of overthinking. Anytime you find yourself over analysing your thoughts and feeling stressed or anxious take a step back and look at the situation and your responses.
Focus on what can go right
Don’t think of what can go wrong, but what can go right. When you focus on all the negative things that might happen, it’s easy to become immobilised. Next time you sense that you are starting to spiral in that direction, stop. Think of all the things that can go right and keep those thoughts present in your mind.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a way to distract yourself with happy, positive, healthy alternatives. Things like mindfulness, exercise and spending time on a new or favourite hobby can distance you from your issues enough to help you switch off from overthinking.
Look at the bigger picture
It’s easy to make things bigger than they need to be but don’t let minor issues turn into significant hurdles. The next time you catch yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself how all the issues floating around in your mind will affect you 5 or 10 years from now?
Being ambitious is great but always striving for perfection is unrealistic and can be debilitating. The moment you start thinking “This needs to be perfect” is the moment you need to remind yourself, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress”.
Embrace your fear.
Overthinking is often fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown or because of something that happened in the past. Remember, some things will always be out of your control, learning to accept this will help you to manage your overthinking and just because things did not work out before does not mean that has to be the outcome every time.
Set yourself a time limit.
Set a short timer on your phone for five minutes and give yourself that time to think, analyse and make a decision. It’s okay to take time to think through tough decisions but most decisions shouldn’t take too long. Once the timer goes off, it can be helpful to write down all the things that are worrying you to get them out of your mind. Then throw away the paper and move on to something fun.
The fear that grounds overthinking is often based in feeling that you aren’t good enough, clever enough or hardworking enough. Rather than beating yourself up, practice being compassionate to yourself. Acknowledge your feelings and once you’ve given an effort your best, accept that you are enough and have done enough.
Ask for help
You don’t have to go it alone. If you find yourself feeling exhausted and overwhelmed with your overthinking, counselling can help you develop tools for working through your thoughts and changing your mind set.