We all have bad thoughts from time to time. We cringe at the memory of that embarrassing moment, or worry about that big project at work. It’s normal. But for some people, bad thoughts about the past and the future seem to be on an unstoppable loop in their heads. This is overthinking.
Overthinking has two basic thought patterns that are destructive:
We exhume, replay, reanalyse, and relive negative memories, sometimes even imagining worse versions than the original. Because let’s be honest here, overthinking is not about getting stuck on a hamster wheel of happy recollections. This is the bad stuff: embarrassing moments, stupid things we said, mistakes we have made, or other upsetting things that have happened to us.
Rumination (also known as rehashing) brings up all the old feelings associated with the memory. Not just the fear, anger or shame, but also the tummy aches, head aches, and other physical symptoms. It is a habit that causes emotional as well as physical distress. Unchecked, they can lead to more serious health problems.
Rumination is just that — a bad habit. The more you rehash those old, bad thoughts, the more the circuitry in your brain shifts to accommodate those thought patterns. The more you do it, the harder the habit is to break. It becomes a bad movie in your head that you can not turn off.
Worrying is not problem solving as some over thinkers might tell themselves. It involves negative predictions about the future. These predications are often far worse than what is likely. They are often catastrophic. For this reason, this aspect of overthinking is called catastrophizing: thinking the worst case scenario will come to pass, even when evidence suggests otherwise.
Worrying, like ruminating, generates both emotional and physical stress. Worrying works us up into an anxious state over something that does not yet exist, and will likely never exist. It is a waste of your time and energy. Constant worrying also establishes neural pathways that make more catastrophic worrying more likely in future.
Putting a stop to negative thought patterns, like everything else, takes practice. It takes time to change the way you think, but with time and a little effort, those negative thoughts will abate.
Be aware of your thoughts. Step back and take notice of what you are thinking and how it makes you feel. Acknowledge that these thoughts are negative and unhelpful. Call them out: “This is rehashing, I am reliving the past. It’s gone!”, “This is catastrophizing, I am imagining the worst case scenario”.
Challenge your thoughts. Now that you are aware of such thoughts, question them. Will you lose your job if you call in sick? Unlikely. Does anyone care about that embarrassing moment that happened years ago? Probably not. Here’s a good exercise: try to remember an embarrassing thing a friend did. Can you? If so, how do you feel about it? Don’t let upsetting thoughts go unchallenged — test them, judge them, and dismiss them.
Seek solutions, not more problems. We all make mistakes, but rehashing them will not change anything. Instead, where appropriate, focus on solutions instead of problems. What steps can you take in the future to avoid this type of mistake? What constructive thing did you learn from the experience? (Hint: “I am really stupid” is not the right answer. “I project my fears onto others”, “I need to ask for help”, “I am overly sensitive to any kind criticism, even if it is helpful” are better.)
Stay in the present. Reliving a reel of your most embarrassing moments will only bring you down. Imagining a catastrophic future is likewise pointless. No one knows what will truly come to pass. So be aware of when you are straying from the present, and come back to this moment. Everything else is just a thought. Just. A. Thought.
Distraction action. An excellent thing about the present is that it is the perfect place to take action. Get busy and distract yourself with something that fully occupies your mind. Go to the gym, do a puzzle, write a letter, bake a cake, or reorganise your bookshelf. Worried about something? Write a list of steps to help you plan for it. Important event at work? Big assignment at school? Create a checklist of items and then knock them off, one at a time.
Give yourself time, literally. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all the things that are bothering you. Get it all out. Once time is up, set down the pen. You have two choices now: put the paper in an envelope, seal it, and then read it a week from now. How does it look? Does that stuff still matter or come true? Or, rip it up and toss it. Set boundaries for your brain — you can overthink now, but the rest of the time is off limits. Use this trick especially if you have trouble going to sleep at night.
Or, schedule some Worry Time. If you are besieged by bad thoughts all day, jot down a quick list. Then, pledge to give them your full at attention at 5pm (or whatever time suits). That way, you can push those thoughts aside for now, and really dig into them later. Take that time to really write down everything you are anxious about. Then do as above: read it later or toss it.
You are the boss. Remember, you can interrupt your thoughts at any time. You can call them out and — here’s the important bit — change them at will. While rehashing negative memories is harmful, research shows that immersing yourself in pleasant memories is a proven mood booster. Whatever strategy you choose to tackle overthinking, embrace the fact that you ARE the master of your thoughts.
Do feel like you simply can not turn your brain off, and that you are plagued by bad thoughts and memories? The BFDC can help. Contact us today.