overthink overthinking

Slip Out from the Chains of Overthinking

You may be one of those who find yourself at the center of a psychological maze that keeps going and going and going. You might think that your thoughts will lead you to the center of a simple cognitive chessboard, but then you suddenly realize that you’ve lost your way in the neural complex of pathways in the mind. You may see this as just the way life is, but this isn’t what it’s supposed to be like living inside your own mind. If you use overthinking as a default response to regular life, this is quite the cringey cognitive conundrum.

 When you overthink, you’re typically spending more time dwelling on something that happened in the past or worrying about something that’s going to happen in the future. There’s a big difference between overthinking and productive thinking. Productive thinking is focused on finding solutions. Overthinking keeps you trapped and keeps you wrapped up in thinking patterns that are incessant and unrelenting, providing no way of escape from the maze. Reflective thought is actually a tool that leads you to objective insight, and this equational insight can help you solve problems. With overthinking, you’re led down a path — a path that has you feeling overwhelmed in a desperate and ineffective way. Overthinking doesn’t help you.

Identifying the Clear Indicators of Overthinking

It’s important for you to be able to identify the signs of overthinking, so that you can become more self-aware of the direction you are tending toward. Becoming aware of how this default thinking pattern is to blame for the stress you are feeling, just the acknowledgement of this tendency, will bring you to a new level of clarity for dealing with this weighty and debilitating cognitive burden. Here are a few things to keep in mind for helping you determine if you’re falling victim to the overthinking trap:

  • Spending large amounts of time worrying about things you can’t control.
  • Always interpreting people, situations, and circumstances defensively.
  • Ruminating on a troubling event from which you have difficulty moving on.
  • Continually engaging in negative thinking patterns as a baseline for thought processing.
  • Tending to default towards negative verbiage and imagining worst-case outcomes, projecting your imaginations onto anything and everything.
  • Replaying perceived mistakes and failures in your mind, even though they are irrelevant to the situation you’re currently in.
  • Allowing your insecurities to critically analyze every small detail in your daily experiences.
  • Consciously reliving embarrassing moments from your past, embedding your insecurities more brightly on your subconscious defense radar screen.
  • Struggling with sleep due to a worried mind that refuses to rest, an addiction to creating self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Straining for hidden messages or “meanings behind meanings” in the nuances of other people’s communication, basically throwing eggshells all around your ego and daring anyone to let you hear a hint of crunch.

Identifying these signals is key. These overthinking patterns wrap tight cords around your mind, restricting you from communicating with others. While you are in a conversation with someone, inside your mind, a clown on a unicycle is smashing cymbals together. Picture that for a second… Overthinking doesn’t allow you to connect with yourself, resulting in your inability to connect with others. You are caught in a cyclical prison of disturbing thoughts that keeps punching you in the gut. How do you grow your competence to regulate your mind, therefore, regulating your life? What can you do to develop the skills you need in this area? You need practice. Let’s look at some ways you can practice thinking correctly.

Embracing Awareness to Move on From Overthinking

You can choose to sidestep the tendency for mindlessly overthinking. Keep in mind though, a large portion of intrusive thoughts come to you uninvited, like unwelcome guests who walk around tracking mud everywhere, disrespecting YOUR house. Overthinking is designed by unwelcome intrusive thoughts that are usually of the negative variety – most of the time, intrusive thoughts are rooted in faulty thinking patterns that have strengthened by being practiced over time, and so they keep coming back and gut punching you. If you want to stop this repeating cycle, begin by observing your thinking patterns for one day, almost like a scientist observing a test subject.  When the intrusive thoughts barge in and begin to rapid cycle, take a moment to watch what’s happening. Don’t try to problem solve, push back, or try to think about anything else, just watch… keep watching. Understand that if you try to fight the unwelcome guest, the furniture gets destroyed, holes get smashed in the walls, the windows get shattered, it just becomes a bigger deal than if you just sat down and observed the intrusive thought traipsing mud all around. It will get bored and leave without the attention and reaction from you that it is trying to elicit. Since the unwelcome guest is already here, the object in the moment is to let it lose energy, deflate, hang its shoulders, and glumly exit your mind. You can then begin looking at the reasons for why unwelcome guests keep barging in.  

Taking on the observer role means being able to notice your thoughts as they are, rather than forcing them to be or not to be. Observe the feelings and sensations associated with the intrusive thoughts as they sit and swell at the heart of overthinking; prompting you to run or fight is a natural reaction of the subconscious as it is designed to sniff out threats to your safety. Your subconscious mind houses your insecurities, fears, and immediate needs. Since the subconscious mind is the most vulnerable part of you, it reflexively provides protection in the form of defense mechanisms. The ego aims to present the self as fully competent and in control.

We are all incompetent to varying degrees. When we are confronted with our incompetence to get our needs met, the ego pulls the shields down around self while raising the canons, loading them with blame and firing at anyone else but you. Here, the automatic defensive nature tends to take over, impulsively spewing pressured speech while you are wanting to run or fight so badly. During these moments, debilitating intrusive thoughts are likely to dominate your attention so much that it’s impossible to trace them back to where they began. Hence, the web of overthinking. When you find yourself about ready to light into someone, ask yourself, “Who am I fighting with?” You may find that you are projecting your internal conflict onto someone else. “But they are the one who needs to change, they are unloving and disrespectful!” You may be right, but are you more upset with yourself, that you have been incompetent at attracting the love and respect you desire from them?  

With practice, you could become an expert in observing yourself. In this way, you could learn about your thoughts and the conditions that underlie them, as well as their emotional impact and the consequences they tend to display in terms of defensive reactions. This practice of observing your thinking will reveal to you that thoughts can appear effortlessly and run automatically. They could even feel like little enemies crawling your brain with tiny paint brushes, painting a pessimistic picture of a person’s hurtful intentions. While you may have evidence that you rely on to create this picture, this is a passive picture that predicts your perceived weakness that is completely overrun by challenges in life. When you take on the observer role to gain awareness about the nature of your overthinking, it is likely you will see that your subconscious mind has been hijacked by the tiny enemies crawling your brain, perpetuating this overcome picture. Now that we are aware of the nature of intrusive thoughts, let’s take a look at why these unwelcome guests keep barging in.

Recognizing the Catalysts of Overthinking

Identifying the triggers that fuel overthinking is important for maintaining your emotional well-being. Overthinking is commonly rooted in negative experiences or fears, rarely focusing on positive aspects of life. You ruminate, looking for how the armies are closing in on the most vulnerable piece of you; your subconscious mind. To effectively break free from rumination, it’s important for you to recognize and comprehend what stimulates intense negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, or rage. These triggers can come in various forms – words spoken by others, observing specific actions, or experiencing certain situations. Understanding these catalysts is pivotal because they have the potential to initiate a chain reaction leading to prolonged periods of overthinking.

A few triggers that are commonly experienced include:

  • Past Trauma – When you have gone through events in the past, similar stimuli like sights, sounds, or smells can bring back those memories as an experiential flash of realistic impression. For example, if you experienced abuse during your childhood, you might feel triggered when you witness parents speaking sternly to their children. Similarly, a person who lost their spouse to a smoking-related illness might be affected by the smell of cigarettes or seeing someone smoke. These triggers often indicate trauma and can be effectively addressed by working through them. Resolving trauma through regular therapy sessions will help you recognize your triggers and develop predetermined thinking patterns to manage them when they arise.

  • Conflict Over Beliefs and Values – Your beliefs and values shape your behavior and thought processes over time. When you come across beliefs that contradict your own in areas such as religion or social justice, this can create a heavy cascade of emotions. Your beliefs provide a sense of security. When they are challenged, it may feel like a personal attack. Often, when your beliefs are questioned or challenged, you get defensive about having to prove what you believe.

  • Preserving Self – The ego is a concept that encompasses your sense of self, influenced by your thoughts, values, upbringing, beliefs, memories, desires, and habits. Its purpose is to maintain your identity and shield you from perceived threats to this identity. When your ego feels threatened, responses can range from engaging in heated arguments to resorting to physical aggression in some extreme cases. Though an unresilient and unbalanced ego can be destructive, the harmonized ego also plays a significant role in connecting with others. A balanced and resilient ego works wonders while embracing interactions with others and recognizing their value. Engaging in introspection and acts of service can contribute to nurturing an ego, enabling better management of triggers and reducing your inclination to overthink.

Catalysts to overthinking all stem from reactions from your subconscious mind, telling you who you are and what to imagine will be.

Transforming Your Mindset to Overcome Overthinking

Being caught in the cycle of overthinking almost seems like an invincible Chihuahua with razor sharp teeth, munching on your ankles, chopping you into feelings of despair and hopelessness. But hold up, recognizing now that overthinking is not a permanent state of mind, you can begin shaping and choosing your thoughts and emotions, overwriting the detrimental scripts that play on repeat in your subconscious mind. By shifting your mindset from resignation to realization, you begin noticing things that you can do that make your mind unattractive to intrusive thoughts. Your goal here is resolving the internal conflicts. Anything that you expose your senses to can contribute to intrusive thoughts showing up. If you want some things in your life to change, you are going to have to change some things in your life.

Ask yourself two questions on a scale of 1-10: What is my willingness to learn and what is my willingness to accept change? You must have a high willingness to learn ways of behaving and communicating that will let intrusive thoughts know they are not welcome to the party in your mind. As you become more aware of the catalysts of overthinking, you will learn to recognize that some of the choices you make are actually sending RSVPs out to intrusive thoughts. I know I just said this, but it is important: you are going to have to change some things in your life.

Reducing Information Overload to Reduce Overthinking

You are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information. Overthinking often stems from the constant influx of data through television, the internet, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Indulgence in media will shape your thinking whether you believe it will or not. The majority of media will carve deep grooves of insecurity and doubt into your subconscious mind, leaving you to conjure images of fear and conflict. This continuous flow of information fills your mind with trivial details, diverting your attention away from the realities of your life, causing you to dwell on irrelevant issues unnecessarily. I had a client who had a friend that was a mountain bike instructor. The instructor gives his classes an opening speech about what to expect on the trail. One of the first things he drills into the bikers’ minds, “When you see a rock, root, bush, tree, or any obstacle, always focus on the pathway around it, never focus on the obstacle. Wherever you focus your attention is where you are going to go.” The instructor makes a very good point. Look at where you are wanting to go and that is where you go. Reduce the information overload, so you can focus your mind on where you want to go and who you want to become.  

Appreciating the Present as an Alternative to Overthinking

Rumination can detach you from the vibrant and immediate world around you, causing you to miss out on fully engaging with people in your life. You may say, “Well, I don’t like fully engaging with people in my life.” Practice using your social skills to engage others on a comfortable, unexpectant, and unassuming level; many people who overthink project their fears onto their environment. You are hurting and looking for a sliver of assurance that will heal your insecurities while you are simultaneously feeling that others are looking at you with judgment and criticism. You are projecting your unwillingness to accept yourself onto others, blaming them for not accepting you. This internal conflict makes appreciating the present moment an impossibility. To counter this cognitive dissonance effectively, it is important for you to recognize your proclivity towards living inside your head, and actively begin taking steps towards reconnecting with the world around you. When you focus outside of yourself, you can look and become curious about experiencing more. Seeking to experience more can give you a variety of healthy sources of thought; this is what happens when you look outside of yourself and consider other ways of being.

It’s important to acknowledge and accept your reality as it can bring a sense of calm that will enable you to handle challenging situations more objectively. Or, on the flipside, you can choose not to accept your reality and continue handling challenging situations like a puppet on the strings of your emotions.  Remember, dwelling incessantly on your negative thoughts doesn’t lead to positive outcomes; it only intensifies feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. By looking outside of yourself, you can redirect your attention onto present experiences, growing your ability to appreciate life while reducing the tendency to overthink.

Transitioning from Negative to Positive Thinking

Intentionally reframing negative thoughts in your mind before walking through the door of an experience will allow new outcomes to be designed and encountered. For example, if you just lost your job and find yourself worrying about supporting your family, instead of succumbing to negative thoughts like “Why was I the one they chose to lay off?”, try exploring the potential benefits in a seemingly dire situation. Verbally ask yourself, “What can I do to make the most out of my free time?” or “How will everything work out in these circumstances?” This shift in mindset will shed light on the situation and help you to focus on what you are able to do, rather than what you cannot. This mindset shift will help you step away from unhelpful thinking patterns and create room for constructive, solution-focused thinking.

Utilizing Rational Self Dialogue Against Overthinking

Overthinking oftentimes arises from your fears of your incompetence being spotlighted, your ego giving you endless scenarios for why you should plan for things to always be a negative experience. When you catch yourself caught up in negative thinking patterns, engage in logical self-dialogue to understand the underlying causes behind those thoughts. Questioning and examining your thoughts can be beneficial in evaluating their validity and importance. When you look and can see that the basis on which your fears are founded are emotional underpinnings of insecurity, you will invite a comforting realization for easing your mind and reducing the tendency to continue overthinking.

Establishing Psychological Distance from Negative Thoughts

Creating psychological distance between yourself and intrusive thoughts will change your relationship with them. You will no longer let them associate themselves with people, situations, and responsibilities that you encounter in your life. It’s important to recognize that your thoughts don’t always mirror reality and they aren’t necessarily generated by your mind. Humans often misconceive thoughts as being consciously created, rather than understanding them as autonomous images and words that are crying for your attention. This misconception will lead you to overly identify with your thoughts, and begin self-disparagingly seeing yourself as overcome. This overcomeness is the mechanism that flips the switch on to your self-fulfilling prophecy.

The risk of becoming too attached to your thoughts is that it diminishes your sense of control, particularly when you are experiencing a deluge of sticky thoughts. Breaking free from patterns of negativity and overthinking is important. There are small changes you can make to learn how to detach yourself from your thoughts. This can be achieved by altering the way you verbalize these thoughts. For instance, when telling yourself “I am an absolute failure”, you can rephrase it as “I notice that I am having the thought that I am a failure.” Many will roll their eyes at this modification, but trust me, change the way you communicate with yourself and you will notice that change show up in how you relate to others as well. This subtle change in language and perspective allows you to view your thoughts as entities, thereby helping you maintain a healthy emotional distance. By embracing this approach, you can prevent the impact of thoughts on your mood or disturbing your peace of mind.

Still with language, consider how often to say “need” or “should.” When was the last time you heard someone say, “You need to do A, B, or C…” and you replied, “You know, I’m glad you said something. Thank you so much for telling me what to do.” I’m sure there are people out there who just love being told what to do (that is a whole other issue), but I imagine 9 out of 10 people will revolt against anyone telling them what they need to do our should do. This is even true with yourself. From now on, instead of saying, “I need to…” or “I should…”, say, “I want to…” Using the word “want” has a distinct motivational force. Plus, this exercise will help you clarify what you want to do. It will help you understand why you are doing what you are doing. Picture this, poopy diaper! “Oh crud! I need to change my kid’s diaper!” I think this sounds better, “I want to change my kid’s diaper, so that I can make them feel comfortable and cared for.” Language is so important! The thoughts that you play on repeat in your subconscious mind are due for a vocabulary update! These updates will begin creating distance between you and intrusive thoughts.

Making the Mindset Shift

Time to make the shift. Below are some strategies you want to keep in mind:

  • Keep Your Expectations Realistic: Often, overthinking is fueled by unrealistic expectations of yourself or others, expectations with slim margins. By creating amiable expectations for yourself and others, you can begin allowing sufficient time to achieve them. This will alleviate the pressure that leads to overthinking. Reassess your expectations to ensure they align with the person you desire becoming.

  • Accept or Change: Having a negative mindset will surely intensify overthinking. Challenges will come, yes, but challenge does not allow you to say to it, “You have to change in order for me to feel secure.” That’s not how life works. Your options are: #1. Accept how someone or something is and learn how to attract the change you desire, or, if you are unable to do this, #2. change your association with that person or situation by placing boundaries where you can no longer be impacted. An option that you do not have is not accepting how things are now and demand change that you believe will make you feel safe, secure, and fulfilled. True change does not occur without a true acceptance of current circumstances.

  • Stay Engaged with Life: Finding more healthy sources from which to generate thought will challenge the mind, allowing you to practice growing in competence. Engaging in activities that take your mind from negative thoughts is therapeutic. This mechanism focuses you outside of yourself. People often say, “But I don’t know how to do anything.” That’s ok, find something and start learning. This is where the rubber meets the road. What is your willingness to learn, and, what is your willingness to accept change? When you have a high willingness to learn and a high willingness to accept change, the way you interact with the world will change as you become curious about what other perspectives or experiences to entertain.

  • Recognize what is beyond your control: It might make you more comfortable to be in complete control of everything in life! When you realize just how much is outside of your control, zoom in your focus on the aspect of your life that you do have control over – your actions, your communication, and your choices. Self-control is very helpful. When you develop self-control to consistently engage life, life will begin responding to you in ways that are pleasing. Try it and you will see.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this article, we have explored techniques to break the cycle of excessive thinking. To effectively tackle and move past recurring thoughts that hinder progress, it is helpful to keep these important strategies in mind:

  • Practice Self Reflection – Develop an awareness of your thoughts to attain clarity.
  • Identify Emotional Triggers – Recognize the catalysts that trigger negative thinking.
  • Focus on goals and ambitions – Keep what you desire at the forefront of your mind.
  • Acknowledge Excessive Thinking as a Manageable Issue – View overthinking as something that you have control over, and that you can choose step away from.
  • Reconnect with Your Surroundings – Choose to leave the isolated pattern you have developed with your phone. Begin engaging more with others or your environment to provide new experiences.
  • Embrace Positive Thinking – Practice reframing your thoughts and realize you have a choice for choosing how you engage life in word, in action, and in thought.
  • Create Psychological Distance from Intrusive Thoughts – Change the language used to describe the relationship you have with your thoughts. Negative thoughts will come, no doubt, but it is how you associate yourself and identify with them is what gives them power. You are not your thoughts.

If overthinking has been a struggle in your life, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Almost everyone wrestles with hyper focusing on their thoughts at some point. By implementing these techniques, you not only break the habit of excessive rumination but also cultivate a mindset that is focused on designing the person you are choosing to become.

Leave a Comment