If you were on the verge of losing your ability to think, you would do everything possible to prevent this from happening. We all know the reason behind this: without our ability to think, we would lose our humanity.
Unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum, overthinking can also lead to the same problem.
Overthinking affects the general well-being of a person in several ways. It may lead to mental illness, interfere with cognitive ability, destroy relationships, and disrupt a person’s sleep pattern.
Although we all experience moments when we second-guess our actions and give in to self-doubt, allowing our insecurities and lack of confidence to get the best of us is a sign that we are overthinking.
The journey to ending overthinking starts with understanding the cause.
Why do we overthink?
Research has found that overthinking is the result of automatic negative thoughts. The more you think negative thoughts, the more these thoughts snowball and become automatic.
To break this habit of overthinking, not only do you have to be vigilant of these thoughts, but you also have to be equipped with the cognitive tools to alter them when they arise.
Here is how you can go about this:
Don’t hold on to the ‘White Bear’
The famous ‘White Bear’ experiment by Havard Professor Daniel Wegner demonstrated the futility of suppressing unwanted thoughts. Wegner conducted the experiment by asking students to verbalise their thoughts for 5 minutes all the while resisting the urge to think of a white bear.
To everyone’s surprise, this proved harder than it looked. The students could think of nothing other than a white bear and they had this thought an average of once per minute.
If trying to suppress a thought about something only leads to more thoughts about that thing, then what could possibly be the solution?
As paradoxical as this looks, the answer lies in embracing the thought. The idea is that when you stop resisting a thought and acknowledge it instead, you’re able to see the thought for what it really is and tackle it accordingly.
There are two powerful techniques in cognitive behavioural Therapy (CBT) for acknowledging negative thoughts and dealing with them. They include:
Paradoxical magnification is a technique in which a client is told to embrace their negative thoughts and exaggerate them.
In his book When Panic Attacks renowned psychiatrist David D. Burns tells the story of a client Mandy who was intensely nervous about her brown belt test in Aikido.
Mandy imagined she would fail the test and embarrass herself in front of everyone. Burns suggested paradoxical magnification. Instead of trying to suppress the thoughts, she was instructed to imagine that not only would she mess up during the test but she would become the mockery of the city in which she lived.
The more Mandy practised this exercise, the more her fears seemed absurd to her. Eventually, she went for her test, enjoyed every bit of it, and received praise from her teachers.
The point of paradoxical magnification is to reveal the absurdity in our fears and how our situations are never as bad as we think. Of course, this does not apply to events that can wreak havoc on our emotional psyche (the loss of a loved one, for example).
Worry breaks are another paradoxical technique, backed by research, for releasing unwanted thoughts. In this technique, you also give in to your fear by scheduling one or more periods during the day to feel worried. You then decide not to worry for the rest of the day once you’re done with the exercise.
Change your thoughts with cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a powerful technique in CBT that can have a dramatic impact on your mood.
It is a practical exercise where you write down your negative thoughts. Then, you find more positive, or at least, rational thoughts and write them down to counter these negative thoughts.
For instance, if you have a case of impostor syndrome and have the negative thought that you’ll never be able to get ahead in your career, you can write down a positive counterthought like this: “I already have skills that make me qualified for this position, and besides, many successful people in my industry started just like me, so I can also be successful.”
Cognitive restructuring should not be mistaken for toxic positivity where one dismisses negative emotions and embraces positivity, devoid of empathy. For a positive thought to be effective in cognitive restructuring, it has to be 100% true and contain facts that invalidate the negative thoughts.
Several studies have demonstrated the efficacy of mindfulness in eliminating stress-related behaviours that contribute to overthinking. Mindfulness refers to the simple art of observing occurrences in the present moment without judgment or distraction.
You can be mindful by paying attention to your thoughts, sensations in your body, objects around you, or the sounds you hear.
An easy way to embrace mindfulness is to take up meditation. Practice focusing on your thoughts, or any outward stimuli, without judging them. Mindfulness meditation allows you to observe your mental patterns and recognise which ones are unhelpful.
Trick your brain
A 2020 study published in the Journal Experimental Psychology showed that smiling – even a fake smile – can uplift your mood. This is because activating certain facial muscles can trick the brain into thinking you’re happy.
Ever wondered why we can experience sudden bouts of energy and euphoria after watching an interesting movie or listening to a melodious song?
This proves that we can make a conscious effort to be happy by engaging in activities that trick our brain into thinking we’re happy. These activities can range from the simple act of smiling to more engaging ones like reading a book, listening to music, or treating yourself to a tasty meal.
As it takes a long time to form this bad habit, you can’t stop overthinking overnight. You need to be patient with yourself while you practise cognitive techniques for overcoming overthinking. Don’t get too hung up on any one technique and move on to another if you’re not getting any results from it.
Samuel Okoruwa is a professional mental health writer with many years of experience.