How To Stop Overthinking And Let Your Worry Work For You
It isn’t always easy to know how to stop overthinking things. Any worrier knows the trap of too much overthinking that can land you in the quicksand of rumination that makes you feel even worse, and stuck. Yes, worry can be productive, but it can also be dangerous. The key to being able to protect from the downward spiral of overthinking is to understand the difference between worry and rumination, and know where the tipping point lies between them.
Worry and rumination are similar, but importantly not the same. Worry is defined as, “a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.” Worry is the cognitive part of anxiety, the thinking part necessary to imagine potential solutions. At its best, it is active and purposeful.
Rumination is likewise a cognitive aspect of anxiety, but instead focuses on the symptoms, causes and consequences of distress, rather than its solutions. Long associated with anxiety disorders and depression, rumination is a kind of negative circular thinking that exacerbates anxious feelings, impairs problem solving, and often erodes supportive relationships. Unlike worry that can steer toward a solution, rumination tends to embody the very worst cognitive aspect of anxiety: feeling powerless and stuck.
More simply stated, worry can lead to solutions whereas rumination can lead to depression.
When worry next tempts you into overthinking and rumination territory, keep these four points in mind to stop overthinking.
1. Focus on what’s in your control, not what isn’t.
A sense of control has long been associated with healthy coping and positive feelings, even in the face of adversity. And while circumstances can often feel fully outside our control, we know that we can always control our attitude, and even our feelings to some extent. Research shows that the simple act of naming your emotions can deliver a sense control. How we label them, and how we think about them, is one key way we can always exert control even in the most powerless of situations.
2. Find the silver lining, and keep your mind there.
New research suggests optimism, and the capacity to see the silver lining in situations, may be the key to protecting against ruminations ill effects, and promoting resiliency. Focusing on how badly you feel, and why you deserve to feel this way, is the mental trap of rumination. Instead of focusing on fixed attributes of you or the situation, try instead to think about the opportunities for growth and change, and what you will learn that will help you, or someone else, in the future.
3. Focus on solutions.
When worry is focused on solutions, anxiety diminishes. Research at the University of California, Riverside, found that when worry is used to plan for contingencies, it helps people cope with anticipatory anxiety. If you can’t stop worrying about a situation, make sure you are keeping your thoughts geared towards solutions. This will keep your worry productive, and helpful.
4. Distract yourself if you are still feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
Whether it’s a funny video, taking a cognitive break, or simply focusing on the furniture or physical attributes of the environment around you, distraction has been shown to have an emotionally regulating effect in people who tend toward depression. The faster you regulate your emotional response, the faster your coping skills will come online.
To use anxiety as a productive tool, we have to make sure worry doesn’t tip into the sticky swirl of rumination. With the wrong attitude and outlook, anxious worry can quickly transform itself into more dangerous overthinking. A gateway to depression, rumination is anxiety run amok, where negative feelings drive a spiral of negative thinking that leads to increased distress, and a greater sense of hopelessness.
Optimism, on the other hand, is a powerful hedge against this negative spiral, and according to science, just might be the gateway to resilience. Knowing how to stop overthinking might be as easy as learning how to redirect your attention.
For more help with managing the stress and anxiety, check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for my free mini-ecourse to help you hack anxiety’s most common challenges, or subscribe to my newsletter.