Recently, one of my friends flaked on our plans (again). Even though I was annoyed, I didn’t want her to *think* I was mad about it. So I started crafting the perfect text to let her know I was chill. Then I rewrote it at least three times. About 10 minutes after I hit send, I called her because I was worried I didn’t use enough exclamation points or emojis to indicate my no-worries vibes. Those are 20 minutes I’ll never get back.
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The clinical term for this whole process of overthinking is rumination. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s categorized by “obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity.”
Why can’t I stop overthinking?
Spoiler alert: We’re not usually overthinking how amazing our lives are. Most of the time, it starts with our fear of the unknown, like, Will my friend be annoyed with me if she thinks I’m annoyed with her bailing again? (FWIW, she wasn’t.) From there, it spirals out of control and can interfere with getting shit done. And when those thoughts keep you from completing or enjoying everyday tasks, that’s rumination, my friends.
Because humans are scared of things they can’t control, which turns out to be literally everything, we try to overplan (read: overthink) to feel secure, explains clinical psychologist Tricia Wolanin, PsyD. As a result, we can obsessively think about literally anything.
Is overthinking a symptom of anxiety?
Although rumination is a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, per the American Psychological Association, revising a text a billion times doesn’t necessarily mean you have a disorder, says Wolanin.
However, if you ruminate frequently without a clear external trigger, like if my friend called me “rude,” for example, it’s possible this is a symptom of a diagnosable disorder, says Wolanin.
How to stop overthinking now
We asked the experts what you can do to emerge from that black hole. Here’s what they say actually works.
Freeze for a sec.
Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, and focus on your breath without changing it. Is it fast? Is it shallow? Then, home in on physical sensations, like tight shoulders or a knotty stomach, says licensed therapist Kimberly Wilson. As thoughts and feelings pop up, try to see them objectively, like you’re watching them on a movie screen. Continue breathing as normal, observing your thoughts until you feel settled enough to open your eyes and move on to all that stuff you have to do.
Use positive affirmations.
If your mind keeps circling back to whatever you’re overthinking, choose an encouraging mantra to repeat to yourself as those ideas bubble up, says Wilson. Worrying about that midyear review with your boss next week? Tell yourself, I’m doing my best or I got this until it sticks, she suggests.
Fight back those negative thoughts.
When the deep breaths and mantras aren’t enough, Wilson suggests arguing against the stress-y thoughts trapped in your brain. Ask yourself, Do I really know, beyond reasonable doubt, that I’m not going to get the raise because of that typo? Answer: Nope.
Sometimes, identifying the flaws in your logic unravels the entire web of rude ruminating.
When all else fails, shift your focus to something other than what’s going on in your brain. “Go for a walk, do a crossword puzzle, listen to a podcast, watch a movie. Just do something to distract yourself,” Wilson says. The less you focus on that mess in your head, the less power it has over you.
How to stop overthinking in the future
Now that you know how to squash those unhelpful thoughts in the moment, here’s what you can do on the reg to keep it from happening in the first place.
Do not scroll through Instagram before getting out of bed.
Give your mind at least a few minutes to ease into the morning, and go phone-free while you wash your face, make your coffee, and wake up, says Wolanin. This will help your brain learn to focus on what you’re doing in the moment, not the thoughts rolling around your brain.
Go do something in nature.
Take a walk outside and get a load of some green stuff. “Practice mindfulness and observe what’s around you,” says Wolanin. Mentally noting the color of the sky, the smells, and the sounds around you can reduce stress, according to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Do a digital detox.
Because Instagram FOMO sucks and Dr. Google just stresses you out, a once-a-week break from your phone can help your overthinking brain relax, says Wolanin.
If the thought of going an entire day sans tech freaks you out, start with a few hours and work your way up to a whole day.
Do something (seriously, anything) physical every day.
Exercise forces you to get out of your head and into your body, allowing your mind to release whatever it’s stuck on, says Wolanin. Also, those endorphins are legit.
Try that whole meditation thing.
Wolanin and Wilson recommend overthinkers get Zen—and research, like this study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggests that mindful meditation can reduce the intensity of rumination.
Not sure where to start? Download an app like Headspace, which guides you through exactly what to do without a shred of woo-woo.