Today I am honoured to share a wonderful guest post from Dr. Kumari Fernando Valentine who is going to share strategies to help you stop overthinking!
Without further ado, let’s turn it over to Dr. Kumari!
4 Ways to Help You Stop Overthinking in it’s Tracks
Overthinking (called ‘rumination’ in the psychological literature) is the process of repetitively revisiting things that have happened, speculating about the causes, rehashing these events and brooding. We ask questions like “why am I feeling this way?”, “Why did this happen to me?”, “What did s/he mean when s/he said….to me?” Here’s a link to a short youtube video I put together on overthinking.
Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, who extensively published in this area, referred to overthinking as doing the equivalent to our mood as “yeast to dough”. Overthinking makes us depressed (and, for that matter, anxious) more for longer and makes symptoms more intense.
Let’s take a step back and consider depressive symptoms according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (5th Edition): sad (or irritable ) mood, problems with sleep, feeling slowed down or really worked up, eating more or not feeling like eating, guilt, trouble concentrating, feeling disinterested in things that were previously enjoyed, and low energy. Suicidal thinking (or planning) is also a symptom of depression. Depression is serious and, if you have any doubts at all, or aren’t sure whether the symptoms you have are depression or symptoms of physical illness, see your healthcare practitioner promptly.
When we are feeling low, we are more likely to overthink, typically because we believe that overthinking will get us closer to a solution. Unfortunately, far from this, overthinking actually leads us to objectively worse solutions and zaps our motivation to even try putting those solutions into practice!
Here are four strategies to KICK the overthinking cycle. You can watch a short video about this here.
Know you are overthinking
Often, my clients find that even having a label for what’s happening is very powerful. If you know your mind is not always your friend and that overthinking sets you up to fail, you can start stepping back from your thoughts. This process of being able to stand back and see our thoughts as they are and see what our mind is doing, is an important psychological skill. It is an important aspect of mindfulness, for example. Mindfulness is about bringing our attention to the present moment, in a deliberate, compassionate way. Mindfulness has been associated with numerous physical, emotional, and interpersonal benefits. It can, for example, even improve your immune system functioning and help change areas of the brain associated with reflection, thinking, and reacting.
Interrupt the overthinking – not once, but often
Here is a link to a free grounding exercise on my ‘Mind’s Ease’ CD. This exercise, a cornerstone mindfulness exercise, is about bringing your attention and mind into the here and now; into seeing what is actually happening around you, rather than what your mind says is happening. I walk you through bringing your attention to your breath, then what you can see, what you can hear, feel, and smell. So often, we go through our day without actually being present. Use this exercise regularly to centre yourself but also to interrupt the overthinking.
Choose an alternative
Even if our default is overthinking, every single time we choose an alternative, we are teaching our brain to do things differently. I often suggest that people drop the “why” question and instead ask “what” questions, like “What can I actually do about this?” or “What is the actual problem?”. I believe an under recognized issue is emotional validation – often the why question or speculating with others, in my experience, is about having others “back us” or validate our experience. Co-rumination refers to when we brood, speculate, and hash out things with a friend. Research in this area has typically focused on adolescent girls or young women. When girls and women co-ruminate, they feel closer to their friend, but, their mood goes down and cortisol (a biological marker of stress) goes up. Even though it might feel so tempting to go back to the usual habit of overthinking, alternatives are possible and an important way to lift mood and motivation.
Keep at it!
Overthinking is a habit we learn. Professor Hoeksema suggested that girls and women are socialized to focus on their feelings and verbalize them. While suppressing our feelings is definitely not recommended, the trick is learning to switch to other ways of thinking. As with any habit, it takes time and practice.
I hope you have found these strategies to help stop overthinking to be helpful!
Dr Kumari Fernando Valentine (www.kumari.co.nz) is a New Zealand clinical psychologist with expertise in dealing with overthinking, emotional difficulties, and mindfulness. Kumari hosts The Conscious Adventurer radio show, with a blog of the same name, which is about being kind to ourselves, each other, and the world. Kumari has a range of mindfulness based CDs available on CDbaby, Itunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay. Sign up to her newsletter here.