It starts with a worrying thought.
That creates more worrying thoughts.
And before you know it there is a tornado of thoughts seething in your mind.
The problem is:
The more you try to stop it, the worse it becomes.
So, what can we do?
According to Buddhism and western psychology, it’s all about learning the art of acceptance, reframing and letting go.
Check out the below ten strategies to stop overthinking so you can start living.
How to stop overthinking: 10 tips
1) Practice present moment awareness using mindfulness
A 2007 study by professor Norman Farb at the University of Toronto broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.
In Psychology Today, David Rock, the CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, explains that the study from the University of Toronto shows that humans have two different sets of networks in the brain for dealing with the world.
The first network is for experiencing your experience. This is called “the default network.”
This network is activated when not much is happening, and you begin thinking about yourself.
It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It holds together our narrative about the world.
The second network is called “direct experience network.”
When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience.
When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself.
Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting your body.
The interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated.
If you have an upcoming meeting that you’re stressed about while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand because the network involved in direct experience is less active.
Fortunately, this works both ways.
When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
What does this mean in terms of overthinking?
Therefore, whenever you intentionally activate your direct experience network by using your senses, you’re reducing activity in your default network, which may be involved in overthinking.
This is why meditation breathing exercises may help when you’re overthinking because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breath.
Your senses become alive at that moment.
You can do this at any stage through the day. Just tune into your senses. Whether it’s your feet hitting the ground, or your hands touching the coffee mug.
2) How to practice acceptance
If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, you’ve probably found that more thoughts seem to arise.
It’s almost like putting out a fire with fire, even though it seems like it’s the most logical thing to do.
However, in the book The Meditative Way: Readings in the Theory and Practice of Buddhist Meditation, it says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”
The teaching is direct – we merely watch our thoughts and give them plenty of room.
We don’t try to control or shove them aside.
Instead of treating them like we’re the “thought police,” we instead act like a more casual observer.
I’ve always found that if you can be indifferent to each thought that you become aware of, it helps to the give the thoughts less energy to sprout.
3) Understand that everything comes and goes
According to Zen Master Shunry Suzuki in the book Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, an important key to remember is that everything changes:
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.”
Everything changes. But we find it hard to accept. We identify strongly with our fixed appearance, with our body and our personality.
And when it changes, we suffer.
However, Suzuki says we can overcome this by recognizing that the contents of our minds are in perpetual flux.
Everything about consciousness comes and goes.
Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anger, grasping, despair.
For example, it’s hard to stay angry when you see anger for what it is.
This is why Zen Buddhism teaches that the present moment is all that exists.
“Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else”.
[To learn mindful techniques to help you accept your emotions, check out our eBook on the art of mindfulness here].
4) Learn to become an observer of the mind
If you’ve ever read wisdom from the likes of Buddha, or Eckhart Tolle, then you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “become an observer of your mind.”
It’s similar to the practice of “acceptance” that I mentioned above.
But how do we go about it?
Becoming the observer means taking a step back from your mind and becoming aware of your thinking patterns and how you’re responding to things.
As Justin Brown writes on Ideapod, “I learned that there is a place within that I can connect with, without needing to use the power of my thinking to get there.”
Here’s a great quote from a spiritual guru Osho on how to go about it so “the life of these thoughts will begin to grow weaker”:
“Become an observer of the currents of thought that flow through your consciousness. Just like someone sitting by the side of a river watching the river flow by, sit by the side of your mind and watch…. Don’t do anything, don’t interfere, don’t stop them in any way. Don’t repress in any way. If there is a thought coming don’t stop it, if it is not coming don’t try to force it to come. You are simply to be an observer….
“In that simple observation you will see and experience that your thoughts and you are separate – because you can see that the one who is watching the thoughts is separate from the the thoughts, different from them…
“And if you become aware that you are not your thoughts, the life of these thoughts will begin to grow weaker, they will begin to become more and more lifeless. The power of your thoughts lies in the fact that you think they are yours.”
The question is, how can we practice “observing the mind?”
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Here’s a great video of Eckhart Tolle describing how to let go of thoughts by observing the body and our senses:
In this video, Eckhart Tolle explains what to do when you feel like you have a hyperactive mind.
Here are the 6 steps he mentions:
- First of all, refrain from giving too much input to your mind. You can do this especially in conversation with others.
- When you’re talking to someone, try to listen 80% of the time and speak only 20% of the time.
- While you’re listening, feel the inner body.
- One way to do this is to be aware of the energy you feel in your hands. If possible, try to also feel the energy in your feet.
- Feel the aliveness in your body while also listening to what the person you’re speaking to has to say.
- This helps you to be more aware of your body and the information you’re receiving, as opposed to what you’re thinking about.
You don’t need to be perfect at this. It’s enough to give it a try and be aware of your body.
You could also try going out into nature and being more aware of your other senses, such as hearing and your smell.
(If you want to learn more about meditation, check out my cheat sheet to meditation here)
5) Learn the art of reframing
When overthinking gets the better of us, it can usually involve negative self-talk.
Every time you allow this inner dialogue to take shape, it just becomes stronger and more limiting.
But as we all know, when these cycles begin to take shape, it can be tough to figure out how to break it.
This is actually similar to the mindfulness technique of your observing your mind and watching your thoughts.
Here is a 6 step process that has helped me to reframe my negativity into something more positive when I talk to myself:
- The first step is to begin consciously identifying the type of inner dialogue or language you use daily. We all have one. What’s yours?
- Starting noticing when you’re using negative words or phrases. Just make a note of them. Perhaps you can use a journal for this.
- Now it’s time to pay attention to the times you use them again. What situations are causing you to be negative?
- Note what you’re feeling, what time of day it is and where you are.
- When you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought by saying “Stop!”. This alone is powerful and will make you aware of how many times you are thinking negatively.
- Now dig deep inside yourself and ask yourself if your assumptions are true.
Are you assuming something is negative when maybe it isn’t? Is there actual evidence that backs up your assumptions?
For example, if you’re telling yourself that you can’t handle something, perhaps you should ask yourself if you can handle it.
The second thought feels more hopeful and leads to more creativity.
By challenging your thoughts and generalizations – you’re helping yourself to see that they might be irrational and that it’s more useful to think optimistically.
6) Start being more optimistic and positive
Instead of focusing on what can go wrong, start making a list of all the things that could go right.
When you focus on the positive, good things start to happen.
When you focus on the negative, you focus on everything that is wrong and lose sight of opportunity and possibility.
Here’s a brilliant quote from Ernest Agyemang Yeboah, author of Distinctive Footprints of Life.
“If you think the world is full of darkness, let us see your light. If you think the world is full of wickedness, let us see your goodness. If you think people are acting wrongly, let us see your right action. If you think people don’t know, let us see what you know. If you think the world is full of uncaring people let us see how you care about people. If you think life is not being fair to you, let us see how you can be fair to life. If you think people are proud, let us see your humility. We can easily find fault and we can easily see what is wrong but a positive attitude backed by a right action in a true direction is all we need to survive in peace and harmony in the arena of life.”
7) Practice gratitude
A great practice to undertake is to be more grateful.
To become more grateful, an effective technique that’s helped me is to reflect on your day before you go to sleep and think of 3 positive things that happened that day.
Whether it’s a great workout, a friend buying you a coffee, or a phone call with your parents, just scan your day and write down what you appreciated. Even the smallest things are worth writing down.
In fact, a white paper by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkely says that people who consciously count what they’re grateful may have better physical and mental health:
“Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with many benefits for individuals, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.”
Furthermore, gratitude may also encourage pro-social behavior:
“This suggests that practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit, which could help explain why gratitude encourages prosocial behavior.”
[To dive deep into techniques that help calm the mind and reduce overthinking, check out my no-nonsense guide to using eastern philosophy for a mindful and peaceful life here].
8) Journal to get the negative thoughts out of your head
When we’re overthinking, it’s usually about something negative. We don’t ruminate about positive thoughts.
According to Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts:
“Ruminative thoughts are, by definition, intrusive. They pop into our minds unbidden and they tend to linger, especially when the thought is about something really upsetting or distressing.”
But according to Winch, one of the best ways to get the thoughts out of your head is to jot down them down.
The Harvard Health Blog says that writing about our emotions may help ease stress and trauma.
It’s not hard to see why.
In my experience, writing helps your mind slow down and structure the information in your head.
Writing is therapeutic because you can release your emotions by expressing them and understanding them.
Journaling helps you express your painful feelings in a safe environment. No one is going to read what you write.
You might be angry, or sad. Whatever it is you’re feeling, let it out. Process those feelings.
If you’re wondering how you can begin journaling, try asking these three questions:
- How am I feeling?
- What am I doing?
- What am I trying to change about my life?
These questions will give you insight into your emotions and prompt you to think about the future.
Writing down what you are going to change gives you the ultimate responsibility to change your life.
Understanding that you hold the cards for creating a great life is empowering. You don’t need to rely on other people for you to take responsibility for your life and shape where it’s headed.
9) Distract Yourself
When you are starting to feel overwhelmed by your own thoughts, it’s time to find something else to think about.
Keep in mind that we’re not suggesting you run from your responsibilities, but rather you take a vacation from them for just a few moments at a time in order to regroup and come at things from a different perspective.
According to Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today, the mind can only really think of one thing at a time.
“When you concentrate your attention on one thing, you inevitably engage the parallel act of purposefully ignoring other things.” – Christopher Bergland
Distracting yourself gives you space and time you need to figure things out and concentrate on something less pressing for a while.
You could get outside and exercise. Focus on a project or a hobby that you love. Lose yourself in the newspaper or a good book.
For me, I find that exercise works particularly well. I usually go running. It’s a brilliant way to work a sweat, getting the body moving and let those feel-good feelings come my way.
When you’re overthinking, the last thing that you’d think would help would be exercise. After all, exercise is a form of physical stress.
However, research suggests that physical stress may help relieve mental stress.
Harvard Health Men’s Watch says that aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart:
“Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.”
According to Harvard Health Men’s Watch, exercise works because it reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood elevators.
As you can see, these mindful strategies involve similar principles. Here is a checklist to implement them all:
- Practice focusing on the present moment by focusing on your senses.
- Accept the thoughts you have and that you can’t forcibly change them.
- Understand that change is the only constant in the universe. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions and thoughts, realize that it won’t last forever.
- Realize that you are not the mind and you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You can do this by observing your mind and your senses.
- Challenge the validity of your thoughts.
- Train your brain to be more optimistic and positive. Start thinking of what could go right.
- Think of 3 things you’re appreciative for each day to train your brain to be more grateful.
- Journal to get the negative thoughts out of your head: Writing down your negative feelings may help you clear your mind.
- Distract Yourself: Distracting yourself gives you space and time you need to figure things out and concentrate on something less pressing for a while.
- Exercise: Research suggests that physical stress may relieve mental stress.
If you think that others can benefit from these strategies, please don’t hesitate to hit the share button on your favorite social network.
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