What exactly is overthinking?
Overthinking is when you excessively analyze, evaluate, ruminate, and worry about certain things to a point where it starts affecting your mental health because you simply can’t stop.
There are two main sources of anxiety which lead to overthinking. The first one is ourselves. Unfortunately, some of us are just genetically predisposed to being more anxious than others. However, genetics may not be the only factor. We might become habitual overthinkers because it makes us feel like we’re somehow tackling the problem we’re overthinking about. Because the overthinking never ends, this doesn’t happen, but we still feel like we’re making some progress. This turns into a vicious cycle that can be hard to escape.
Another cause of anxiety is our environment.
There are two aspects to this. First, we need to consider our immediate environments where we spend the most time, like our home and office. The way these spaces have been designed can have a huge impact on our anxiety levels. If they’re cluttered, dimly lit and noisy, it’s going to make us more anxious. The second aspect is the broader experience we have in our socio-cultural setting through our interactions with the world. Something like experiencing racism or sexism might make us stressed and result in heightened anxiety.
There are many negative consequences to overthinking.
These include physical, mental, and even social harms that can become long-term issues. Some examples are racing heart, dizziness, feelings of fatigue, irritability, nervousness, headaches, muscle tension, etc.
Now that we’ve identified what overthinking is, we need to know how to combat it. There are many things you can do to de-stress and calm an anxious, overthinking mind that are simple, yet effective.
4As of Stress Management
The first thing you need to remember is a mantra called the 4 As of stress management. These are avoid, alter, accept, and adapt. Avoiding things entails simply walking away from things you can’t control. Some things are simply not worth the effort and are best removed from our environments altogether. However, if we can’t avoid it, we must learn how to alter our environment to remove the stressor. If we can’t alter our environment, we have no choice but to accept it. Lastly, if we can’t do much about the situation at all, we must adapt to it and learn how to cope with our stressor and reduce its damaging potential to a minimum.
Another popular technique is journaling. When we overthink, we have tons of different thoughts swirling in our mind, which can feel overwhelming. However, when we write these down systematically, we can analyze them and evaluate whether these thoughts are merited at all. To build the habit, you can carry a pocket journal with you around and write whenever you feel it’s necessary.
A third technique we have is called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This is highly effective at stemming panic attacks, and it does so by involving all five of our senses. So, whenever you feel panic overcoming you, look for five things around you that you can see, four things you can touch, three that you can smell, two that you can hear, and one that you can taste. Engaging your senses distracts your brain from the overthinking.
One of the biggest sources of our anxiety is poor time management. We tend to prioritize things that make us miserable and refuse to give enough time to things we really enjoy. We seldom take time out for adequate leisure and relaxation, so we must consciously do this in order to improve our anxiety levels. Some tips to follow are making regular to-do lists, prioritizing your tasks in the order of your actual preference, and breaking goals down into smaller pieces.
Another useful technique is to use SMART goals. This stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound goals. Note your goals down in very specific detail so you know exactly what to do. Then, set up criteria for measuring how you’ll know you’ve achieved this goal. Make sure that the goal is attainable; it shouldn’t be something outlandish. Assess how this goal is relevant to your value system and what purpose achieving it will fulfill in your life. Lastly, set a time limit for completing this goal so that you do it in a reasonable amount of time.
When It’s Spiraling Out of Control
There may be times where you feel that your anxiety is reaching a fever pitch or that it’s on the verge of spiraling out of your control. In such cases, you can rely on some tried and tested techniques to reduce your stress levels.
The first of these techniques is autogenic training. Through this, we aim to gain control over our thoughts and emotions through six different exercises. To practice the first technique, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Then, give yourself certain verbal cues like “I am completely calm” while breathing slowly and steadily. Feel the sensations in various parts of your body as you intermittently repeat the phrase to yourself. Though this technique might take some time to master, it’s simple and can be done anywhere, anytime.
The second technique is called guided imagery. Essentially, you find a comfortable position and think of a place which engages all your different senses like smell, sound, etc., in pleasantly stimulating ways. This can be any place, it just needs to be one that inspires relaxation. Picture it in as much detail as you can by making full use of your imagination.
Lastly, we have progressive muscle relaxation. This technique relies on the theory that physical relaxation leads to mental relaxation. So, the goal is to physically relax your muscles by first tensing them up. Again, sit in a comfortable position and go from head to toe or vice versa and tense different parts of your body before relaxing and moving on.
3 Adjustments to Attitude
Though this book lays down a ton of strategies to help you cope with anxiety and overthinking, the goal here isn’t just to learn some tips and tricks. It’s to have a more transformational impact by inducing a fundamental change in our attitudes and perceptions. There are five such attitudes which you need to incorporate into your mindset.
The first is to focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t. If you can control something, do it. But if you can’t, there’s no use worrying about it. In the end, there’s nothing you can do and the best strategy here is to simply accept that and move on. The second is to focus on what you can do, and not on what you can’t. This is similar to the first, but more specific. What are specific things you can and can’t do in certain situations?
The third attitude is to concentrate on what you have, and not on what you don’t. We often forget to appreciate all the good things we have at our disposal while focusing overwhelmingly on what’s missing. However, we can correct this by consciously thinking of the good things in our life. Similarly, home in on what you need and not what you want, because the things you want will never end and will never be entirely achievable. This will help you focus on things that are absolutely necessary. Lastly, live in the present, not the past or the future, because what ifs are the best way to fall prey to overthinking.