Overthinking is the type of thing you don't realize you're doing until it's already succeeded in making you feel horrible. Whether it's some nightmarish, worst-case scenario you've imagined for the future, or a spiral about a text exchange with your crush, thinking to the point of exhaustion is an all too real and very common struggle. So if you, too, have caught yourself revisiting the same thoughts for hours, or tossing and turning all night unable to stop your brain, rest assured there are hacks for overthinking that many experts say can legitimately be helpful.
So what does it really mean to "overthink" in the first place? According to neuropsychologist Dr. Katie Davis, overthinkers tend to ruminate, or have trouble regulating and shifting their attention away from a persistent thought or worry. "They become easily distracted by nervous thoughts during the day," she tells Elite Daily over email, "and oftentimes, they are unable to focus on work and perform as well as normal." Sound familiar?
In order to figure out how to manage overthinking, you have to understand what exactly is happening in your brain in the first place that causes the constant worrying. According to Davis, it all goes down in the prefrontal cortex, or what she calls "the control center" of the brain. What's happening when you overthink, she explains, is that the control center isn’t down-regulating the amygdala — which is a nearby part of the brain responsible for balancing out your emotions — as well as it usually does. Basically, Davis says, the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is going a bit haywire when you're spiraling through negative or stressful thoughts, kind of like a hamster on a wheel of worry and repetition.
The goal, then, is to slow things down on that hamster wheel and really process the thoughts that are going through your brain. "One strategy that is fairly easy to practice and to incorporate into a daily routine is to take five minutes and make a mental note of all of your sensory observations," Dr. Davis suggests. "Try to block out extraneous thoughts and focus on the sounds around you." This is particularly helpful, she explains, when you're having trouble falling asleep at night: Rather than ruminating about all the things on on your to-do list when you need to be resting, Davis says, try focusing on the sound of the fan, the cars passing by outside, or the creaking of the floorboards.
But these sensory observations can come in handy during the day, too, Davis adds. They represent a concrete and effective way to shift your thought patterns away from intense stress — and the truth is, there's always something else in your environment you can focus on in a heated moment to calm yourself down.
Another important aspect of overthinking, says Dr. Paul Coleman — a psychologist, author, and motivational speaker — is what inherently underlies all of that worrying: a need for control, in one way or another. According to Coleman, overthinking is simply a dysfunctional way of trying to reduce uncertainty about the future in an attempt to alleviate potential problems or threats before they happen. "It is an accelerated form of 'what if?' thinking," he tells Elite Daily over email. "The 'woulda-coulda-shoulda' thoughts." But ultimately, he says, all that thinking just creates more stress.
In fact, overthinking not only increases your stress, it can cause hesitation to act for fear of not being adequately prepared when something actually does come up, says Dr. Coleman. It causes something he calls decision fatigue: "An overthinker can stress all day about some problem, overanalyze it, and then be unable to make a decision about what to order at the diner later on," he says.
Coleman's solution to letting go of that subconscious need for control might sound a little too simple to be true: Vague as it might sound, he says step one to beating overthinking is emotional acceptance — a willingness to acknowledge that you cannot control all factors and all outcomes in life. It's straightforward, sure, but that doesn't mean it's easy. "Practice saying 'I accept uncertainty even if I don't like it,'" Dr. Coleman suggests. Then, he says, take an action step to dealing with the problem if there is one. Because the thing is, worrying about something at 2 a.m. — something you literally can't do anything about at that time — is a waste of energy. "But maybe the action step is writing down some thoughts on the issue and then dealing with them the next day," Coleman tells Elite Daily.
Another slightly unusual suggestion? Dr. Coleman recommends scheduling your worry time — yes, seriously. Put worrying on your calendar, he says. "It is possible to put aside worrying about things we cannot solve and schedule a brief time where we allow ourselves to worry," he explains. "At the end of, say, 15 minutes, you tell yourself you will worry again tomorrow at that time."
With strategies like this, you'll begin to realize you might — just might — have more of a say in your thoughts than it can sometimes seem.