Our experts share how to free yourself from “sticky thoughts” caused by over-analysis and turn your focus toward the positive and proactive.
Start by Creating Calm
Reframe Your Thoughts: You’re Just Imaginative! Some of us have a brain that goes into overdrive, considering every possible outcome. “It’s easy to think of this as a defect”, says expert Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit ($13, Amazon) and The Anxiety Toolkit ($30, Amazon). “But overthinking is an evolutionary advantage —if you detect a potential danger, you’re not supposed to stop thinking about it.” In fact, this trait is linked with greater powers of imagination. Just knowing it isn’t a character flaw is the first step toward cultivating the strongest weapon against intrusive thoughts: self-kindness.
Extend Empathy to Yourself. Overthinkers tend to believe that being hard on themselves motivates them to do better. But just the opposite is true. “Giving yourself a compassionate message—even a simple, Don’t beat yourself up—increases motivation”, says Boyes, who suggests identifying a perceived mistake you can’t stop churning in your head and writing about it for three minutes from a compassionate perspective. “Extending understanding to yourself helps put the brakes on overthinking.”
Use a ‘Worry Window.’ “Intrusive thoughts often happen when we’re trying to focus on something else. Because we’re so used to pushing them away, we never give them our full attention”, reveals psychologist David Carbonell, Ph.D., author of The Worry Trick ($14, Amazon) and Outsmart Your Anxious Brain ($13, Amazon), who recommends scheduling 10-minute windows of time, ideally twice a day, during which you can worry with freedom. This is most effective done aloud. “When our worries stay unspoken, they repeat on a loop”, he says. “Saying them out loud stops that cycle and lowers our anxiety.”
Here’s How to Take Action
List Your Options. To move from “analysis paralysis” to problem-solving, ask yourself what your three best choices are, urges Boyes. For example, if you’re worried your parent’s home health aide isn’t living up to your expectations, list your options (such as give her more time, ask for a replacement, give her a daily checklist). A short list of ideally three, and no more than six, concrete actions helps stop second-guessing and boosts our confidence.
Your Decisions Are Good. “Overthinkers believe, If I continue thinking about this, I’ll find the ideal solution,” says Carbonell. “But when we go down this path, we’re less likely to reach our goal.” To curb the pursuit of the impossible perfect solution, practice being decisive about small stuff, like which movie to watch. Says Boyes, “The more we practice letting go, the more mental flexibility we develop.”
Let Go of Fear. Behind so much overthinking is a fear of uncertainty, says Bible teacher Joyce Meyer, author of The Everyday Life Bible ($31, Amazon). But thinking about something excessively only leaves us more fearful, she says, while choosing to pray instead “makes us bold—we realize we don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes.” Mindfulness is just as vital: Watch the wind rustle the trees or listen to your breath. Says Boyes, “Over time, you’ll learn to return to the present— to stop overthinking and enjoy the serenity of the moment.”
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This story originally appeared in our print magazine.