The downward spiral of overthinking
When we spend too much of our time analysing problems, we often end up with more questions than answers. Consistently overthinking can cause a range of symptoms such as insomnia, trouble concentrating and a lack of energy. In turn, it leads to further worries and finally becomes so unbearable that we look for ways to calm down.
Metacognitive strategies can help you reduce overthinking and help you realise that overthinking is within your control.
Unhelpful coping strategies
The strategies we use to calm down often cause more harm and lead to more overthinking. Unhelpful strategies include:
- Constantly looking out for threats: For example, in health, you look for signs of illness in excess, leading to more health-related concerns.
- Seeking answers and reassurance: If you reach a point where you depend on strategies to reduce your worries, it can lead to more concerns.
- Excessive planning so there is no room for the unexpected. When the unusual does happen, we don’t know how to cope.
Get to know your trigger thoughts and let them be
Most thoughts come and go because we don’t give them any special attention. But some will attract our notice. These are our ‘trigger thoughts’. If you pay enough attention to them, they can trigger bodily sensations and feelings.
A thought about an exciting upcoming event can activate warmth and joy. But a series of further thoughts can develop into worries. “What if they don’t like me?” “What if…” If we continue to entertain these thoughts, they can compound. Instead, let them pass by. Don’t spend energy on them.
Know what you can and can’t control
Trigger thoughts happen automatically. But, you have a choice if you will engage in them. You can choose if you will answer the thought or ask more questions.
You can think of thoughts as someone calling you on the phone. You don’t decide if the phone will ring or who is calling. But you can choose if you will pick up the phone and engage in a conversation.
Postpone and reduce your worries
Introduce a worry-time into your day. For instance, from 7 pm to 8 pm, you allow yourself time to worry freely. When you feel the need to worry or ruminate about something during the day, try postponing these thoughts to your scheduled worry time.
Instituting a worry-time in your day serves several functions:
- It challenges the belief that worries are out of your control.
- You discover that these trigger thoughts change throughout the day. What causes concern in the morning can seem irrelevant in the evening.
- It is a way of reducing the time you spend worrying.
Avoid avoidance and train your attention
People often fear their trigger thoughts and try to avoid them altogether, but doing so will not give you a chance to practice letting go of these thoughts. You can’t learn to ride a bike without a bike.
When you feel ready, give yourself challenges that involve your trigger thoughts, then practice telling yourself to leave them for the designated worry time. Like learning to ride a bike, you won’t succeed every time. The more you practice and fall and get up again, the better you’ll become.
Attention training technique
Some people struggle to shift their attention during a trigger thought. The following 10-minute exercise may be helpful:
- Focus on at least three environmental sounds: traffic, birdsong, building work, etc.
- Practice tuning in to just one sound at a time for about 10 seconds, then turn to another sound.
- After two minutes, repeat the exercise, but focus on each sound for four seconds.
The aim is to become practised at shifting your attention. When you become better at it, try to introduce a trigger thought into the exercise.
Assumptions about overthinking
“If I worry about what could go wrong, I’ll be better prepared to handle it.” “If I go over what I did wrong, I can improve next time.”
One may feel that worrying was beneficial but also caused unnecessary tension. One way to see if worry was valid is to evaluate the pros and cons of that concern and then decide if it was indeed worth it.