Merriam-Webster defines Overthinking as “ To think too much about (something): to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful”.
Most everyone can at times have overthinking episodes where unpleasant thoughts and memories play and replay themselves over and over. Oftentimes, this can happen when trying to fall asleep, or when trying a quiet activity like meditation, where you are attempting to calm your mind and free it from thought. Stressors and past trauma can often trigger patterns of overthinking as well.
When these thought cycles start spiraling, it is oftentimes hard to break free from and move past them. Consequences of overthinking can include the inability to come to a decision, frustration, anger at and oneself at mistakes or bad decisions made in the past, just to identify a few. This often stems from a psychological need to gain or regain control over a situation or mentally striving for an often-unobtainable perfection.
The key to overcoming an overthinking cycle is understanding what you can control, and also learning how to prioritize what matters most moving forward.
Here Are 6 Steps You Can Take to Help You Break Free from a Cycle of Overthinking
- Identifying: The first step is to realize when you’re overthinking. Perhaps someone else will make you keenly or blatantly aware of this, based on their own observations and opinions. While that can be both irritating and enlightening, depending on your mood and how this is presented to you, it can be a helpful touchtone in spotting an overthinking cycle within yourself.
- Stepping Back: Take a step back and have a look to gain some perspective about what it is you are overthinking about and see if you have any control over it. Some things will by beyond your control. In these cases, it can be useful to redirect your thoughts on how you will handle the situation better in the future should it present itself again, and even about alternatives to how you are reacting to the situation at this time.
- Setting a Time Limit: Once you have identified an issue that has you in a cycle of overthinking, the next step is to set a time limit on how long you’re going to give yourself to solve the problem. Dwelling too long is counter-productive to resolving the issue at hand.
- Taking Action: If a situation or the desired outcome is within your control, or at least a best situational outcome can be identified and work towards, be in the moment, define the exact issue, and take the steps as best you can to identify the exact problem and the actions you can take to work towards best possible outcomes.
- Recognizing: Recognize the positive baby steps you took toward solving your problem, rather than getting stuck in a pattern of overthinking about it, even if you weren’t able to solve it completely. Realize that many people are not fully successful the first few times trying to overcome patterns of overthinking this way, but just knowing that there are alternatives to an overthinking cycle, can help you in moving forwards positive actions and outcomes in the future.
- Decompressing: It can often help to set time boundaries at night before bedtime to let yourself “overthink” as needed, maybe 5-10 minutes, but then “let it go” and move towards self-care before going to sleep- for examples listening to your favorite music, and/or taking a warm, relaxing bath or shower before going to bed.
Therapy can help heal that trauma so “our thoughts are no longer dictated by a past event, and we can make thoughts that are more based on reality today,” she said.
Knowing When to Seek Further Help
If you find yourself in patterns of overthinking for weeks or months on end, it may be time to seek professional help. There could be further underlying issues like past trauma or generalized anxiety disorder that may be identified and then successfully addressed with professional help that allows your thoughts not to be dictated by past events, but by constructive possibilities rooted in the present moment.