What if I said the wrong thing? How will I ever finish the assignment in time? Why isn’t he responding to my text? Thoughts like these make us human, says Julie Pike, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “That’s what the brain is designed to do – to think our way out of problems and away from predators,” she says. But sometimes, that wiring goes, well, haywire, leaving our minds consumed and our problems unsolved. “Overthinking can ruin your day and also ruin your sleep cycle,” says Linda Sapadin, a clinical psychologist in Long Island. Before that happens, try these expert-approved tactics to stop your unproductive thoughts in their tracks.
You can’t stop overthinking if you don’t realize you’re doing it – and very often, people don’t, says Pike, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders. “You’ve been thinking about what he said or what your boss did, or you’re having an imaginary conversation, and you’ve been thinking about it for 15 minutes before you even notice,” she says. But if you can learn to recognize the physical sensations that come with it – maybe tension in your back or a pit in your stomach – you can then work on halting the mental causes behind them. “Make a commitment to use a tool to help your brain step back,” Pike says.
Notice you’re thinking.
One such tool is calling out your thoughts as just that – thoughts. For instance, turn “I’m a bad parent” into, “I notice I’m thinking I’m a bad parent.” “Step back and observe your thoughts rather than … believing your thoughts are facts,” Pike says. To take it a step further, search for a fact that proves your thought wrong, or ask yourself how you’ll cope if the thought is right, suggests Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of “The Anti-Anxiety Workbook.” For example, if you’re anxious about a date, remember a time one went well and, if this one doesn’t, consider it good practice.
Set a deadline.
Overthinking is like a book with no periods, paragraphs or chapters – it doesn’t know when to stop, says Sapadin, author of the book “How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age.” It’s up to you to set those boundaries. To do so, tell yourself (ideally aloud), “just another 10 minutes” with the nurturing – not punishing – tone of a parent, Sapadin suggests. If you let the ruminating go on, you’re only making it easier for your brain to return to that dark place later, Pike points out. “Ruminating [rewires]the same neural pathways over and over again; we’re creating deeper grooves in the record we’ve already played.”
Turn to tunes.
Speaking of records, listening to a song you like is one of the best ways to move your mind along, Sapadin says. Just like any creative endeavor you enjoy, “music taps a different part of the brain,” she says. “It’s almost like the part of the brain that’s overthinking can’t do that if you’re really into the music and your body is swaying to the music.” Pike also suggests turning to music. “Pick a theme song that embodies the theme of what you’re thinking about,” she says, and sing it. How can you keep brooding when you’re belting, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)?”
Repeat the thought.
If you’re afraid of, say, elevators, a psychologist may encourage you to approach, enter and eventually ride them until they’re no longer threatening. You can do the same thing with a thought, Pike says. “Boil the essence of the thought down to 10 words or less and repeat that thought over and over again until you get bored,” she recommends. Repeating “I bombed the job interview” is better than saying, “I said the wrong thing. The other applicants are better. My references were poor,” Pike says, since your brain treats each new thought as an independent threat. Consolidating and repeating the worries allows your brain to check that box as non-threatening and move on.