How to Quiet an Overthinking Mind
We all carry a bit of anxiety around with us. Is our boss still annoyed because we could barely stay awake in yesterday's pre-dawn meeting? Will our friend hate us forever because we forgot to call them back two weeks ago? Whatever worries pop up in your mind, whether they're monumental or insignificant, it can be hard to quiet those nagging voices, but you can shut down your nonstop mind with a bit of relaxation, distraction, and action.
Like most people, you've probably heard the phrase "Think positively!" every time you've expressed your worrisome concerns. Yet when it comes to changing up your mindset when you're worrying a million miles a minute, staying positive isn't always possible.
As psychologist Dr. Kelly Neff of The Mind Unleashed writes, it's typical for us to obsess over previous mistakes, present-day stresses, and anything we think might lead to future troubles. When these anxiety-filled thoughts enter our minds, our minds immediately begin drawing connections and associating those moments with every other bad moment in our lives. Essentially our brains are wired to play connect the dots, leading us to think one tiny instance of negatively causes countless more.
Dr. Neff and her fellow psychologists refer to people who fall into this pattern of obsessing over negative thoughts as ruminators or over-thinkers. Women tend to overthink more than men—but everyone is susceptible to relieving their past woes. As Dr. Neff writes, "The more frequently this happens, the more likely the individual is to engage in this over-thinking pattern in the future."
In the same article, Dr. Neff remarks that the first step to calming your frantic mind is admitting that there's a problem. Sure, you've heard that a million times, too—but the key is recognizing just how much overthinking is impacting your day-to-day life.
As temptingly easy as it may be to bury yourself in unhappy, anxious thoughts, the best course of action is acknowledging when you're heading down a negative path. Once you've admitted that your busy brain is starting to ruminate on a lifetime of negativity, you'll be better able to remember that what's happening is completely natural.
Keep in mind that our brains are designed to entice a bit of worry and lead us to overthink—so feeling an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom each time you recall that embarrassing email you sent last month is perfectly natural.
Getting together with friends and sharing your feelings and worries might seem like the perfect way to both distract yourself and calm your mind. Yet chatting about your restless, negative thoughts will only make things worse.
According to Real Simple, when we talk with friends, we can leave with an even more dismal mindset. Though friends are great sources of comfort, they also tend to dissect and rehash every detail of old situations—which is exactly what exacerbates overthinking. The more you think about everything that's gone wrong, the more anxious you'll become.
Use your friends as more of a distraction rather than a sounding board. Rely on them to keep you active and engaged in other, more enjoyable things that keep the happy thoughts flowing.
Though it might be difficult to stop your mind from its incessant thinking immediately, you can change what you're ruminating on.
Bruce Hubbard, director of the Cognitive Health Group and interviewed in the same Real Simple article, believes breaking the overthinking habit is as simple as rephrasing your internal remarks. Though you can't simply flip a switch or tell yourself to cut certain behaviors out, you can place yourself in a better mental state.
Hubbard suggests switching from recalling all of your past negatives to acknowledging what the potential results are. For example, if you're relieving that time your friend yelled at you for canceling at the last second, stop and ask yourself what the consequences were. Did the friendship end? Is it an earth-shattering moment? Chances are, the repercussions were minimal—and you'll show yourself there's truly nothing to worry about.
Need to get out of your own head? Do so by literally changing your focus: choose an activity or two to distract yourself each time you feel yourself slipping into a ruminating mood.
However, sitting in front of your laptop or stuffing your face during reruns of The Bachelor aren't activities that can pull you into a positive mindset; rather, mindless activities will only encourage you to keep ruminating. In an interview in the aforementioned Real Simple piece, University of Kansas professor of psychology Stephen S. Ilardi suggests choosing absorbing and engaging activities that grab your attention in a different way.
Ilardi suggests getting your blood and endorphins flowing with activities that force you to move, such as a light jog or casual swim. Go out to lunch with a friend—as long as you don't talk about what's on your mind, of course—or even sit down before a challenging puzzle or engaging novel. No matter what you do, the important aspect is involving your mind in something completely unrelated to your worrisome thoughts.
Anxiety and worry are normal, and so is our tendency to overthink every little situation, choice, and action. Yet by breaking the habit with a few simple changes, you can begin to both free your mind and open yourself to a lot of good rather than staying stuck in the negative.