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Overthinking is evil. Like the whispers of a devil, it pretends to help while just making the situation worse. Overthinking leads to rumination. Rumination leads to action paralysis.
Want to learn how to stop rumination?
Unfortunately, the cure for overthinking is as complex as the cause.
But follow these 7 steps and you can slowly but surely rid yourself of the poison known as overthinking and rumination.
Sidebar: One of the simplest ways to reduce rumination is to declutter your mind. This book can help you make that happen.
What You Will Learn
- Step 0 – Get Treatment if Depressed
- Step 1 – Understand That You Can Influence Your Emotions
- Step 2 – Accept That Overthinking Won't Give You an Insight
- Step 3 – Know When You're Overthinking
- Step 4 – Ignore Your Rumination Rationalizations
- Step 5 – Assert Control over Rumination
- Step 6 – Distract Yourself
- Step 7 – How to Stop Rumination
- 1. Do you have friends or family members who overthink?
- 2. Do you exercise, eat well, get enough sunlight, and get good sleep? Are you menstruating, have you recently been sick?
- 3. Are you overwhelmed with grief or sadness?
- 4. Would you like to experience less negative emotion?
- 5. Do you frequently compare yourself to others?
- 6. Do you try to make everyone around you happy?
- 7. Do you fantasize about being rich, having a better partner, or being beautiful?
- 8. Do you believe one of these myths of happiness? Do you know what the hedonic treadmill is?
- 9. Is progress slower than expected?
Step 0 – Get Treatment if Depressed
Depression contributes to overthinking. If you're depressed, getting treatment will help – with your depression and with your overthinking.
A psychiatrist who tries out a number of different drugs and therapies can ensure a success rate of 60 to 80 percent. (1, 2). Your options may be better than you think; your doctor may not be a good one; if you don't want to get professional help there may be possibilities you haven't explored.
Two-thirds of folks with depression don't seek treatment. (3) Based on what I know about Happier Human web traffic and demographics, I'm estimating that at least 100 of the people who are going to read this article are depressed but not seeking treatment.
Are you one of those people? You may not need anti-depressants, but why make an already hard goal even harder? You can wait months or years for your mental health to improve on its own, or you can seek treatment. Best of all, once your depression is gone you'll feel more motivated, and so can then do all of the natural things like volunteering at church or keeping a gratitude journal.
If you'd like to avoid medication, an evidence-based therapy like ACT or CBT may help, but you'll have to wait a few months to see results.
Step 1 – Understand That You Can Influence Your Emotions
There are many people who believe that their emotions are like a force of nature – mostly uncontrollable.
Does that describe you?
People who believe that their emotions are uncontrollable are more likely to suffer from overthinking. (9)
Your inability to effectively influence your emotions is a fact of your skill level, not a fact of fixed capability.
The very happy are much better than others at increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of positive emotion and at reducing the frequency, duration, and intensity of negative emotion. Some of that is genetic, but much of it is learnable. (10, 11, 12)
Most people start learning these skills from their family. How did your mother respond when you were sad? Did she encourage you to seek support? To pretend you're okay? To problem solve? To ruminate?
And what did she do herself when sad? Seek support? Drink alcohol? Complain? Vent? Distract herself?
If you lack the skills yourself you may doubt the power of emotion regulation, but consider this – according to self-reports, old people are among the happiest humans alive.
Yes. Despite being physically crippled. Despite being years away from death. Why? One promising hypothesis is that because of their life experience, they've become much better at regulating their emotions. (13)
Emotion regulation = happiness in the face of physical disability and imminent death.
Step 2 – Accept That Overthinking Won't Give You an Insight
Emotion conveys information.
That information is often accurate. Ignore the feeling that the person you're talking to is a creeper at your own peril. That's why it's often a good idea to listen to your emotions.
I do wish that people spent more time thinking and less talking. As an extreme introvert, I'd love it if my kind were respected rather than stigmatized.
But overthinking is a virus, corrupting that information from something valuable to something wrong.
After just a few seconds of thought, I can think of dozens of times in my life where overthinking made things worse, leading me to think worse of my personality and abilities, causing me to feel bad over and over again, and stopping me from taking action.
Step 3 – Know When You're Overthinking
How can you know when you're being reflective and productive and when you're overthinking? Follow the flow chart below.
Step 4 – Ignore Your Rumination Rationalizations
Each human comes born with a superpower. No, not super-intelligence and the ability to fly to the moon. The ability to rationalize.
We can make ourselves believe something that on reflection is obviously insane.
Just one more bite, it won't make a difference.You've got time to watch one more episode, don't worry.You don't have to exercise today, you can just do it tomorrow.
At the time the excuses feel legitimate but looked at from a distance they appear as ridiculous as they actually are.
When you're overthinking your brain will feed you whatever excuse it needs to get you coming back to the issue, again and again.
There's an insight to be discovered! Problem-solving that needs to get done! Now, now, now!
Step 5 – Assert Control over Rumination
The moment that I start overthinking I work to assert control.
I acknowledge the emotions I'm feeling. I let those emotions guide my thinking. I listen to the concerns they raise. But once that's done, I yell “STOP!” in my mind.
Then I promise that once I'm thinking more clearly, I'll spend more time reflecting on and addressing those concerns. If I'm at home I do what I can to distract myself, usually by reading and listening to my favorite music. If I'm not I go back to what I was doing.
Every time that my thoughts come back to the concerns that were raised, I stay STOP again.
Two years ago it would have taken me days and dozens of STOPs to clear my mind. But because I’ve been practicing this and other related skills ever since then, my ability to regulate my emotions has improved tremendously – I'm usually calm after a few STOPs.
You don't have to follow these exact same steps, although each component exists for a reason.
-The reason that I first feel the negative emotions in their entirety isn't to help process them. Catharsis is a partially discredited theory. It's because there may be some underlying concern that needs to be addressed.-The reason that I promise to spend time on the issue later is so that I have a ready answer for my rationalizations. “This concern is important! Think about it!” “Yes, I will. But later, once I'm thinking more clearly.”-The reason I say STOP over and over again is so that I can abort the negative cycle of overthinking before it gains traction.-The reason I distract myself is that distraction works.
If your mind keeps coming back to something which makes you sad or anxious, you're not going to process the emotion by diving in deeper. You're just going to make it stronger.If something makes me mad, distracting myself from the issue doesn't cause my anger to bottle up and grow stronger. It causes it to go away. Of course, if there's an actual underlying problem that needs to be addressed, that's different. Ignoring the emotion won't make the problem go away.
More information on catharsis and venting here.
Even the Sedona Method, which claims to help with overthinking by helping you to process your emotions, may actually work through other means.
For those who aren't familiar, the Sedona Method claims that the reason negative emotions persist is that they're being resisted. To process them, they must first be felt fully.
This idea is wrong – controlled experiments have found the opposite result. Catharsis makes emotions stronger, not weaker.
But Sedona does help. Why?
Because even though the stated purpose of Sedona is to help you experience your emotions fully, it may be doing the opposite. For example, one key message is that you are not your emotions, “”I am angry” is the wrong way to look at the issue. Rather, “I am feeling angry” is more correct.”
That's the disassociation between emotion and self, something trained by mindfulness meditation, a technique which we know works in reducing overthinking.
Also, Sedona practitioners are encouraged to feel an emotion fully, and then ask themselves, “Could I let this feeling go?” By posing that question the practitioner is asserting an ability to control their emotion. When it comes to emotions, Jedi mind tricks often work – if you believe that you can influence your emotions, you can.
Step 6 – Distract Yourself
From Susan Hoeksema, the leading researcher of overthinking,
One of the simplest but most important strategies for freeing yourself from overthinking is to give your brain a rest by engaging in pleasant distractions. In my research, I have found that giving people positive distractions from their overthinking for just eight minutes is remarkably effective in lifting their moods and breaking their cycle of repetitive thought. (14)
1. Finding and cultivating one or two distractions is more effective than flitting from one to another. Finding a distraction that helps may take some experimentation – I tried over a dozen things before I settled on my current choice.
2. Distractions which involve concentration and activity are more effective. If your brain is completely occupied, you won't have the spare capacity to overthink.
3. Exercise sometimes makes some people's overthinking worse, myself included. Whether this is because of misattribution or because of the cortisol that gets released, exercise doesn't work for everyone.
Step 7 – How to Stop Rumination
Now that you're feeling better and thinking more clearly, you can start making progress tackling the underlying issues. that will help you learn how to stop rumination.
There is some evidence that many forms of therapy are equally effective in treating depression and anxiety, despite how different they are. (4) One hypothesis as to why is that therapy in part gives the patient an opportunity to form a stable connection with someone of better mental health. (5)Over time, married couples adopt some of the personality characteristics of their spouse. (6)
What do these three things have in common? They show that how we respond to the world is informed by the company we keep. Spend time with overthinkers and you'll become one yourself.
Conversely, spend time with those who respond to emotional distress in healthier ways and you'll start to do so yourself.
Spending more time with those who don't overthink may be difficult, in which case getting a therapist can help. I recommend seeing a therapist who uses an evidence-based practice, like ACT, CBT, or MBSR.
For this step you'll have to be patient – adopting the traits of others can take time.
Low-grade chronic stressors may be responsible for some of your overthinking.
Sometimes, the reason we feel bad is amazingly simple. It may be you are menstruating. You may not have gotten enough sleep, or been drinking too much. It may be something in your diet. Or it may be some event that is unusual and isolated but nonetheless made you feel bad— your boss was grouchy or your child flunked a test. But instead of recognizing these simple explanations for our mood, we stare at our navels until much more dramatic and complex reasons come to mind— the demise of our marriage, the failure of our career, the poverty of our soul. (14)
If this grief or sadness lasts for more than a few weeks, seek professional help. Everyone has times when they're sad. But for months at a time? That's a serious problem. You may think it's better to get better the natural way, but consider that the reason you're depressed is that your life is already so unnatural. Hunter-gatherers have a healthy diet, are extremely fit, get lots of sunlight, have many close friends, spend most of their time in pleasant socialization with others, and have few if not zero chronic stressors. Replicating that experience in the modern world is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Also, approximately 30% of people who are depressed have what's called severe depression. Left untreated, this kind of depression can last years. Natural treatments like exercise and more time spent with loved ones have little effect.
If there was a button you could press which would reduce the total amount of negative emotion that you experience by 30%, would you push it? Well, no such button has yet to be invented, but there are three activities you can engage in which have the same effect: mindfulness meditation, gratitude journaling, and yoga.I've been meditating for over a year now and its been great. I have more awareness of and control over my thoughts, I experience less stress and anxiety, and I feel a bit more empathetic. Don't worry if you don't want to wait a year for the benefits! Most people start seeing results after just a month.
What happens if you do yoga, mindfulness meditation, and gratitude journaling? It's unlikely you'll experience a 90% reducing in negative emotion. But 50%? That's reasonable.
Intriguing new work by Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, shows fundamental differences in the ways happy and unhappy people use social comparison. Unhappy people engage in social comparison a lot. They are more attuned to their status compared to others and worry more about how they are doing. And their moods are more affected by information about their status. How they compare to others is even more important to unhappy overthinkers than how they actually performed.For example, in one lab study, Sonja had college students try to solve difficult puzzles and then gave them feedback about how they did and how another student in the experiment did. The unhappy students felt worse when they got an excellent evaluation but another student got an even better evaluation than they did when they got a poor evaluation but the other student got an even poorer evaluation. In other words, the unhappy students’ opinions of themselves depended more on how they compared to other students than on how they actually performed.
That student used to be me. I was raised to always compare myself to the best. The consequence is that I worked harder, but also that I was less happy with myself. Over time I've been able to control that tendency. How? I turned the power of social comparison on its head.
According to the experts, the idea is to stop comparing yourself to people, period. But that's needlessly hard. Just compare yourself to different people.
Instead of spending time dwelling on how I'm worse than the best, I think about how I'm better than the rest.
I'm not talking about becoming arrogant.
In any given dimension there are hundreds of millions of people that you're better than. There are hundreds of millions of people that you're prettier than, smarter than, more productive than, taller than, lighter than, and so on.
Happy people engage in social comparison as well, but instead of comparing themselves to those who are better, they compare themselves to those who are worse. (16)
Done correctly, not only can this kind of comparison make you happier, it can even make you more grateful.
Here's an example. I believe that I'm better at writing than 999 out of 1,000 people. By itself, that statement may make me more confident but at the cost of making me arrogant.
But when I think of being a better writer, I think of why. It's because I had such great teachers in college. It's because my parents encouraged me to read so much. It's because I was born in a first world country. It's because my mom didn't mind driving me to the library once every week. It's because spell checker exists and my terrible spelling doesn't matter. It's because you folks take time out of your busy lives to leave me feedback.
All reasons to be grateful and happy.
I promise that there are important dimensions to your personality, abilities, or accomplishments where you're better than 999 out of 1,000 people. It's just that you compare yourself to the best – your friends and family and famous people on TV and the internet.
Pay more attention to the rest of the world and you'll be happier for it. Perhaps it's wrong of me to derive happiness and self-esteem from the fact that I'm a better writer than most people – I've had opportunities that they haven't. But the human mind is a social comparison machine. I'm not so amazing that I can fight against that part of my human nature (at least not yet 😉 ).
Women often hang on to impossible goals in relationships, including the goal of making everyone around them happy. If anyone is upset, even a friend , we share the pain, try to fix it, and in the meantime overthink about it. If someone gets mad at us, even a store clerk, we feel responsible and overthink about our behavior. Fundamentally, we have to let go of the goal that all our relationships and encounters with other people will be positive, and that we will never be the source of another person’s pain. It’s just not possible, and it creates a lot of misery in our lives.
Several psychologists have argued that the main reason people get stuck in overthinking is that they can’t let go of impossible or unhealthy goals… Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michigan calls these “contingencies of self-worth.” We set up these contingencies that we must meet in order to feel good about ourselves— we have to achieve a certain salary level or look like the models in the fashion magazines. The trouble comes when the contingencies, or goals, we set for ourselves lead us to engage in self-destructive behavior or are impossible to reach. Perhaps your goal for your weight is unrealistically low, yet you continue to starve yourself until you do damage to your body. (14)
Dreaming comes with a cost, leading to unreasonable expectations and making your present reality seem less attractive.
Cultivating gratitude will help, as will cultivating rational expectations.
The easiest way to cultivate rational expectations is to counter the base-rate fallacy. Essentially, there are two ways to estimate the probability of something (let's use my favorite example of marriage).
Let's say you've just got married and want to estimate your probability of divorce.
According to the inside-view, you drudge up all the information you think is relevant – in this case, how much you and your spouse love each other. Because the answer is likely to be, “very much”, you estimate the probability of divorce is very low.
According to the outside-view, 40% of all marriages end in divorce. So unless there's some strong reason to expect your marriage to be different from the rest, your marriage also has a 40% chance of divorce.
The same thinking can and should be used in other places of your life. According to the inside-view, you feel really motivated and you know you're smart. Therefore you will succeed. According to the outside view, most people don't become rich or super sexy.
If you have reasonable rather than super ambitious goals you may achieve less, but you'll be a lot happier along the way.
8. Do you believe one of these myths of happiness? Do you know what the hedonic treadmill is?
We’ve all seen movie after movie in which the beautiful woman is in a precarious position, about to be swallowed by the dinosaur, or to be attacked by the bad guy, or to continue on in a miserable existence alone, when the handsome male star bursts upon the scene to rescue her. This is nice stuff for fantasies. But it doesn’t happen often in real life…And we engage in the “if onlys . . .” If only I could lose a few pounds, then I could find a boyfriend . If only I could get a better job, then I’d be happy. If only I’d meet a guy . . . If only the phone would ring . . . Waiting around to be rescued from your unhappiness is guaranteed to prolong your unhappiness. You basically have two choices: learn to like your current circumstances or change them…If you are bored in your job, rather than resolving to leave it, consider ways you might change the job to make it more challenging. If you are bored with your lover, rather than looking around for another, examine your own behavior in the relationship to see if there are ways you could make it more exciting . If you are dissatisfied with your family life, rather than believing another child will solve everything, try out some new rituals and activities that may bring your family closer together and into deeper relationships. (14)
If you believe one of the following myths, you may start overthinking when things don't go as you expect:
- I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person.
- I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart.
- I'll be happy once I have kids.
- I can't be happy when I don't have a partner.
- I'll be happy when I find the right job.
- I can't be happy when I'm broke.
- I’ll be happy when I’m rich and successful.
- I can't be happy when the best years of my life are over.
- I'll be happy only as long as I'm healthy.
Learning about the science of happiness will help.
A good introduction is this post I wrote – The Hedonic Treadmill – If Only Happiness Were As Easy As Marriage, a Big House, and Kids.
Other than that, the following books are great:
- Stumbling on Happiness
- The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being
- The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does
Avoid quick-fix thinking. Quick-fixes do exist, but not for all problems.
Those areas where quick fixes exist we spend almost no time thinking about – when’s the last time you’ve thought about sanitation or electricity? Those areas where they don’t exist we spend the most time thinking about – our relationships, our boring work, our desire for more happiness, our slow weight loss.
It's been observed that people routinely underestimate the amount of time it will take to get something done. This even has a formal name – optimism bias and the planning fallacy. I suggest reading sections 7 (do you fantasize about being rich) and 8 (do you believe one of these happiness myths), which discuss methods for cultivating more rational expectations.
If you find that you're not making much progress even if you're putting in a lot of effort, get help. For example, there's evidence that for most people, doing exercise is a poor method of losing weight. The solution? Do research (quality research, like reading a well-researched book, not reading random blog posts or news articles) or get advice from an expert.
Once you’ve got a plan for overcoming a problem, it can seem overwhelming to implement it. The sense that you must fix your problem immediately, completely, and finally may leave you feeling utterly immobilized. Many times, by focusing on doing something small, you can break through these feelings of immobilization. Just as every dollar to a worthy cause counts, doing some small activity that could make a dent in your problems may help enormously to break the cycle of overthinking. (14)
In the small amount of life coaching that I've done, I noticed that some folks are prone to overthinking when planning a life change. They'll go over the situation again and again. The one truth I've observed is the only way to break out of that cycle is to push forward. However, that push need not be heroic.
When I sit down to write my blog posts, I often feel so overwhelmed that I give up and go do something else. Our lizard brain isn't used to the idea of facing such complex problems. But once I move from the abstract to the concrete, those feelings of being overwhelmed disappear. Writing just a single concrete sentence is often enough. The same can be true of your problems – you may be stuck in a pattern of learned helplessness.
The easiest way to fight back is to show your brain, “Look! With a little bit of effort I can make progress! You're wrong!”
Identify just one small action that you can take within the next week which will increase the odds that your project will succeed. If you don't already have a plan, identify one small action that you can take that will help you get the information or resources that you need. If you feel you already have all the information and resources that you need, spend just a few minutes writing up a plan – even if it's a really bad one.
If you're really stuck and have money, I suggest seeking out a life-coach or finding a mentor.
The other problem you may be experiencing is unwarranted pessimism. Because of the neural circuits which overthinking activates, you may feel your situation is hopeless even when it isn't. In cases like these, you have two options. Try to form a more rational expectation yourself.
Learn the base-rate (read section 7 (do you fantasize about being rich) to see what I'm talking about). Remember your past accomplishments.
Consultants are often valuable because they can provide an outside, less-biased opinion. Asking a friend for an honest assessment of your strengths, abilities, resources, and chances of success can give you the same, although hopefully without the $200/hour charge.
If you've been overthinking for a while now, this may be a hard habit to break. But the effort will be worth it.
Finally, if you’d like to build habits to help you reduce your rumination, then I suggest focusing on mindfulness and other “head-clearing” activities. This book can help you do all this and more.