We all have times when we worry, whether it’s about work, health, family, relationships or a host of other reasons.
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But is there a point when you can think and worry too much?
Overthinking is an unhealthy habit that typically causes more stress by focusing on the negative, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future.
Instead of problem-solving, you ruminate on an issue without coming up with logical solutions. It’s almost like a broken record of negativity that replays repeatedly in your head.
So, how you can stop overthinking?
Registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, outlines strategies that can help.
Why do I overthink so much?
Overthinking is a habit that can be hard to break.
It’s a vicious cycle of negative thoughts that builds and builds, or feels like you’re spinning down a rabbit hole. For example, you may start worrying about a specific situation at work, which leads to worrying about money, which leads to worrying about losing your job.
But why do you tend to overthink?
Overthinking can be a symptom of stress, anxiety or depression.
While overthinking isn’t a mental disorder in and of itself, it can be connected to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Those with GAD tend to worry excessively about many things and may experience the following:
- Worrying excessively about many unrelated things for at least six months.
- Difficulty controlling the worry.
- Anxiety that interferes with the ability to function.
Additionally, you may feel restless or agitation (as if you’re “revving”), have difficulty concentrating and experience impairments with sleep.
Types of destructive thought patterns
When we overthink, we usually become more anxious. This is often due to cognitive errors, which are basically errors in logical thinking, says Duke. Here are some examples of common cognitive errors.
This is when you imagine a worst-case scenario as the inevitable outcome of a situation you’re worried about.
“When we are caught up in overthinking, we typically go straight to the worst-case scenario and also overestimate the likelihood of that scenario actually happening,” says Duke.
You may feel like you’re struggling at work, or on the flip side, like you’re the employee of the month. It’s all-or-nothing thinking — there’s no gray area.
“Whereas in reality, most things in life are somewhere in between,” notes Duke.
A type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective for overcoming overthinking and recognizing cognitive errors.
“It helps one learn to first identify the errors, then to reframe the thinking in more logical and balanced ways,” says Duke.
This is when we experience a setback or failure and generalize that event across all situations. We may wrongly assume that things have — and will always — go wrong for us.
While anxiety tends to be more future-oriented, you may also struggle with overthinking about the past.
“Doing so is more connected with depression,” says Duke.
But you could be dealing with depression and anxiety at the same time. Experiencing two mental health conditions at the same time is called comorbidity.
“Working with a CBT-trained therapist can help alleviate both anxious and depressed moods,” says Duke.
How to stop overthinking
Duke shares some tips and strategies on how to stop overthinking.
Try talk therapy
Duke suggests CBT.
“CBT helps you learn how to identify then challenge and reframe your negative thoughts and also teaches how to cope with your worry and anxiety in healthier ways,” she explains.
Set up a worry period
Choose a time in the day to implement a worry period — aiming for about 30 minutes.
“During that time, you write down all your worries,” advises Duke. “Then, go through your list and highlight the worries that you can problem-solve, things you have control over.”
Then, spend some time brainstorming solutions. For the items you have no control over (like how someone else may react to a situation), work on letting them go until your next worry period.
“You’re really trying to only worry during your worry period. It takes a little bit of time,” says Duke. “But eventually what happens is you develop better control over your worrying.”
Rethink your “what ifs”
Do you constantly ponder questions like “What if I lose my job?” or “What if I get sick?”
While having these thoughts is normal, it becomes a problem when you focus only on the worst-case scenario.
“For every ‘what if’ worry, change this to an ‘if then’ statement where you come up with a ‘then I will do/say’ if that ‘what if’ or even worst-case scenario does happen,” says Duke. “Focus on having a concrete plan in place.”
Challenge your negative thoughts
You may think your boss hates you or you’ll never reach your fitness goals.
Instead of letting those negative thoughts take over, challenge and reframe them into positive, empowering thoughts.
“Ask yourself if that thought is helpful,” suggests Duke. “What is the evidence that my negative thought is true? Is there an alternative possibility? The goal is to try and have a more balanced perspective.”
“Healthy distraction can be helpful,” says Duke.
Activities like meditation, reading and taking a walk can help keep your stress levels down.
“It’s best to be proactive and build these activities into your routine,” says Duke. “They can reduce your baseline level of anxiety and make you less likely to overthink.”
But if you’re already too stressed and struggling to find relief from healthy distraction, it can then be helpful to share your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust.
“Resist the urge to keep things inside that are bothering you,” says Duke. “Try talking to a friend, family member or therapist.”
You probably know how to show compassion to your mother or a friend. But what about yourself? What does your inner dialogue sound like when you face a problem or challenge?
“It’s really about being able to extend love, kindness and forgiveness to yourself,” says Duke. “In doing that, you’re actually going to soothe your body’s internal threat system and you will have a clearer mind with which to problem-solve your situation.”
When to ask for help
While everyone overthinks sometimes, if you’ve been unable to control how much you worry and it starts interfering with your ability to function, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
You may also start experiencing physical symptoms like irritability, fatigue, concentration or memory difficulties and insomnia. Excessive worrying and stress can also lead to or intensify digestive issues, plus cause tension in your shoulders and neck.
“If you find that it’s difficult to control your worrying or it’s hard to concentrate at work or it’s hard to fall asleep at night, at that point, I would definitely seek professional help,” advises Duke.
One thing you will learn in therapy is how to not get caught up in your worrying, says Duke.
“When you’re in the midst of worrying, you don’t always recognize it,” she says. “With CBT, you will learn how to recognize that you’re spiraling and engaging in unhelpful rumination. You will practice writing down your negative thoughts, then challenging and reframing them. Essentially, you will develop an effective toolkit for coping with overthinking.”