three steps to stop overthinking things (and have more peace of mind)
Overthinkers tend to think their biggest problem is thinking too much. In their mind their repeat some situations over and over again. They worry about outcomes of some actions and they struggle hard to find an underlying meaning to things that usually don’t have one.
One of the most common question I get from my client in my psychoterapeutic practice is how to stop thinking about something or someone. Their problem is not that they don’t know overthinking is unproductive and even harmful for their mental health, but that they don’t know how to stop.
There is a bunch of methods ranging from meditation, distraction to exercise. And although it’s important to nourish balance between physical and psychological health, it is, for true overthinkers, extremely hard to skip the thought process that causes you problem and deep dive into eternal bliss of cnt calmness with meditation.
That’s why psychologists suggest to go through your thinking process and even use it to your advantage. Here are 5 steps how you can do exactly that:
- Organize your thoughts
Your power to use thinking in your advantage will make or break your systematization ability.
(That’s not just for analytical types it’s for the “go with the flow” people as well. Letting yourself be guided by things from outside is a system too and it only works if you are fully aware of it.)
If we don’t have the thought through system anxiety is too great to be possible to control it.
We’ve got to build some sort of a thinking system to be able to use it.
Without the right system, we’ve got nothing but a bunch of random ideas controlling our life.
It’s like letting yourself be tortured by your thoughts.
You can learn a million techniques, but if you don’t have a basic structure they will just fall through.
…and the structure must be flexible.
Structure gives you stability, flexibility gives you room to evolve.
Very few techniques will work if you don’t have a certain degree of clarity developed.
When overthinkers hoard techniques to help them calm down, they are only increasing the amount of unstructured information that adds to the confusion.
***Special alert: There is a key difference between information and knowledge!***
Information is a loose mess. Knowledge is when they are arranged in a sensical matter.
That’s when they can be used constructively.
We must build the structure through knowledge. When you thread the information together, prioritize them and assign them a special place in your mind, that’s when you build the ability to do something with things you know.
Our thoughts are springing out constantly.
Without the system you have nowhere to put them, no leg to stand on when it comes to decisions.
We must create something of a good basis to be able to arrange our thoughts and know which ones to take lightly and which are worth considering.
Our thoughts can beat us every time if we take each ad every one of them extremely serious. It’s a state of constant drama show with extremely high stakes.
Our thoughts need to be put in place, reconsidered and prioritized.
*** Pro Tip ***
If YOU wouldn’t want to live in a soap opera all the time, assume you should arrange the thinking process accordingly.
Think about the intensity of your worries. Do you often end up saying I know but it’s just the way I feel, I can’t help it?
OK. Cool. Good start.
Now, what would be the easiest thing to scale down from full-blown soap opera intensity?
Example: could you like to cut your thoughts every time you catch yourself rethinking the meaning of the look a neighbor gave you last morning on the hallway? (By cutting I mean anything. Use a relaxation technique, think of something else, get distracted by another activity…)
Or could you compare that situation to the possibility that you have just realized your twin (you didn’t know you had) died? But then you realized they didn’t it’s just the coma situation… (proceed with standard soap opera scenario).
Here is a quick fix if this doesn’t work. Do the “5 years from now” exercise. Would that thing you are obsessing about have any impact on you 5 years from now?
We’ve got to decide what truly matters and what seems to worry you just because you think it should matter, or because your brain is underused with tasks that arent meaningful to you.
2. Learn how to Compartmentalize
Imagine a closet full of drawers.
That’s your mind structure.
Imagine each drawer has a designated use (such as one is for socks, the other one is for T-shirts, the third one is for hoodies, etc.).
That’s what your mind wont to function.
You can create a “work” drawer, “love” drawer, “cocktail hour with friends” drawer, “holiday” drawer, “future ideas” drawer, etc.
Each thought belongs to one of the drawers.
The important thing about the drawers is to remember that you can close and open them at will.
So when you open your “work” drawer all others are shut. You don’t think about holidays when you stare at your computer, that drawer is closed (unless you are online with exact intention -during your designated free time- to do some research on your next holiday plans).
Make sure you only open one drawer at the time. Before you do it, check if the others are closed.
But what about those times when is not clear which drawer should you put your thought in? Or when a thought belongs to several drawers?
That’s quite often the case.
In the first scenario. Try putting the thought in a drawer with the full awareness that you can change it afterward. But not immediately! Let it stay there for a while. Think it through.
In the second scenario. You can put a thought in different drawers. Just pay attention to that open one at a time rule. When you are stuffing the thought in one topic. Deal with that angel first. Then finish it. And only after that start with another angle.
3. Create a prioritization list
Imagine a queue. Any queue.
Those in front get their way first.
Alternative is a sort of a black Friday situation.
You wont to avoid bloody fighting for the primary spot in your mind. You don’t wont to get it trashed around the same way stores get after the sales are over.
If you can get your thoughts to stay in queue on a designated spot, this may be your best option to establish a useful thinking process.
We love systems.
That’s why you notice some repetitive patterns in your perception and behavior.
Example: How curious I am attracted to people with similar characteristics. (Side note: Pay attention to all your thoughts containing words always, never, every… They are often a tell of repetitive perception patterns and don’t have much to do with realistic situations. Example: All people think that. Ask yourself is that real or just a gross oversimplification?)
Prioritization is a constant process.
Sure there is a way to decide which topics are high on your thinking list: for example people dearest to you and relationships with them. But you can’t think of them all the time. Or of holidays for that matter.
Priorities of thinking change during the day. When you are at work, tasks at hand should be most important to you.
If they are, you get them done. And when you finish you have lots of time to think of more pleasant things.
So according to the occasion, you adjust your priorities in a sense of first this, then there’ll be time for that.
We want people’s thoughts to implement our ideas, not just disturb us at random.
When we prioritize, we decide in advance which topics should be dealt with right now, and which are set aside for later. (Write those down. It’s important to get those thoughts “for later” out of your system. That’s how you won’t worry to forget about them.)
You can develop one thought at a time that way and move forward with it, even when other thoughts try to distract you. You just push them away or write them down for later if they are worth it.
Trying to push overthinking away will only make it harder to handle. Learn how to organize and even develop it can be much simpler and fruitfull in the long run.