Worries and doubts are a normal part of life. It’s natural to worry about unpaid bills or major upcoming life-changing events.
“Normal” worry doesn’t get in the way of your daily activities and responsibilities. But worry becomes excessive when it’s persistent, uncontrollable and gets in the way of life.
While everyone overthinks certain situations once in a while, chronic over-thinkers spend most of their waking time ruminating, which puts pressure on themselves. They then mistake that pressure to be stress.
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Pressure is not stress…yet.
But pressure can convert into stress when you overthink (ruminate) past or future events. That overthinking habit becomes even more stressful when you attach negative emotion to those thoughts.
Extreme overthinkers are constantly re-living past events, playing past interactions and conversations in their heads and coming up with alternative lines, daydreaming about the future, regretting their past choices, and having an internal dialogue with their fears and succumbing to them.
“Ruminators repetitively go over events, asking big questions: Why did that happen? What does it mean?” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the chair of the department of psychology at Yale University and the author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. “But they never find any answers.”
In many cases, stress is caused by your reactions to setbacks, relationships and everything happening around you, not by other people or external events.
If you consistently focus on ruminating and make it a habit, it becomes a loop, And the more you do it, the harder it is to stop.
Overthinking is destructive and mentally draining. It can quickly put your health and total well-being at risk. Rumination makes you more susceptible to depression and anxiety.
Many people overthink because they are scared of the future, and what could potentially go wrong. “Because we feel vulnerable about the future, we keep trying to solve problems in our head,” says David Carbonell, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It.”
Extreme overthinking can easily sap your sense of control over your life. It robs us of active participation in everything around us.
“Chronic worriers show an increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning. Dwelling on the past or the future also takes us away from the present, rendering us unable to complete the work currently on our plates. If you ask ruminators how they are feeling, none will say “happy.” Most feel miserable,” says Nicholas Petrie.
Overthinking can trap the brain in a worry cycle. When ruminating become as natural as breathing, you need to quickly deal with it and find a solution to it.
“When an unpleasant event puts us in a despondent mood, it’s easier to recall other times when we’ve felt terrible. That can set the stage for a ruminator to work herself into a downward spiral,” writes Amy Maclin of Real Simple.
Chronic worrying is not permanent. It’s a mental habit that can be broken. You can train your brain to look at life from a different perspective.
You can tame your overthinking habit if you can start taking a grip on your self-talk —that inner voice that provides a running monologue throughout the day and even into the night.
The script you use to frame your life in your head has two significant effects — a positive outlook on life or negative perception about yourself.
If you tend to exaggerate your thoughts (also known as cognitive distortion), challenge your thoughts.
“You can cultivate a little psychological distance by generating other interpretations of the situation, which makes your negative thoughts less believable,” says Bruce Hubbard, the director of the Cognitive Health Group and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. This is called cognitive restructuring.
Ask yourself — What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen? If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?
If it’s a problem you keep ruminating about, rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you’re looking for,” suggests Nolen-Hoeksema.
“Instead of “I’m stuck in my career,” tell yourself or better still write, “I want a job where I feel more engaged.” Then make a plan to expand your skills, network, and look for opportunities for a better career.
You can also control your ruminating habit by connecting with your senses. Begin to notice what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel.
The idea is to reconnect with your immediate world and everything around you. When you begin to notice, you spend less time in your head.
You can also notice your overthinking habit and talk yourself out of it. Becoming self-aware can help you take control.
“Pay a little more attention,” says Carbonell. “Say something like: I’m feeling kind of anxious and uncomfortable. Where am I? Am I all in my head? Maybe I should go take a walk around the block and see what happens.”
Recognize your brain is in overdrive or ruminating mode, and then try to snap out of it immediately. Or better still, distract yourself and redirect your attention to something else that requires focus.
“If you need to interrupt and replace hundreds of times a day, it will stop fast, probably within a day,” says Dr Margaret Weherenberg, a psychologist and author of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. “Even if the switch is simply to return attention to the task at hand, it should be a decision to change ruminative thoughts.”
It takes practice, but with time, you will be able to easily recognize when you are worrying unnecessarily, and choose instead, to do something in real life rather than spending a lot of time in your head.
For example, convert, “I can’t believe this happened” to “What can I do to prevent it from happening again?” or convert “I don’t have good friends!” to “What steps could I take to deepen the friendships I have and find new ones?” recommends Ryan Howes, PhD.
Don’t get lost in thoughts about what you could have, would have, and should have done differently.
Mental stress can seriously impact your quality of life. An overactive mind can make life miserable.
Thinking too much prevents you from getting anything done.
Learning how to stop spending time in your head is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Like all habits, changing your destructive thought patterns can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. With practice, you can train your brain to perceive things differently and reduce the stress of overthinking.
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