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Since the pandemic began, there has been an explosion of online gambling. With experts warning of this “ticking time bomb,” responsible gambling safeguards are sparse.
According to a report by the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), one-third of persons who gamble online said the lockdowns influenced this decision.
Although online gambling has been gaining popularity over the last two decades, the pandemic accelerated demand, leading to higher rates of riskier gambling.
RGC’s report found online gambling is correlated with moderate and high-risk gambling.
Overall high-risk gambling
High-risk gambling online
Due to the ease of access, the online platforms make it easier to use gambling as a way to cope with underlying issues such as anxiety and depression.
RGC’s survey found that anxiety and depression are major factors contributing to high-risk gambling. As shown below, persons with severe depression are almost five times more likely to engage in high-risk gambling.
Typical depression symptoms such as low mood, apathy, and social isolation are a barrier to accessing in-person venues. With online gambling, persons with severe depression can maintain round the clock access to gambling while in the comfort of their own home.
RGC’s survey found that gambling to cope with depressed moods was a significant risk-factor for problematic gambling:
“…67.6% of those who gambled online because it helps when feeling nervous or depressed were high-risk gamblers. [They have] 7.4-times the risk of problematic gambling, relative to other gambling motives.”
To give a personal face to the RGC statistics, I interviewed Kira who shared her experience of addiction and recovery from online gambling addiction.
Kira’s Story of Online Gambling Addiction
When she turned eighteen, Kira started going to bingo events with friends. Grieving the loss of her aunt’s passing, gambling allowed her to get out of the house and take her mind off the grief.
What started as a source of entertainment turned into a way to escape. Turning to online slots, she could gamble on her phone whenever she wished. Over time, she accumulated debt, locking her into the downward spiral of trying to win back the money she had spent.
Isolating herself, lacking self-care, hygiene, and motivation, she went through seven different jobs, unable to feel settled. Coping with depression, she fell deeper into online gambling to avoid the painful reality.
“I was able to isolate at home. I had the freedom to just pick up my phone and there I was logged in depositing money. I wouldn’t have had the energy or courage to get showered, dressed and walked to the casino.”
Kira gambled alone, losing herself in the glow of her phone. She was withdrawn, often disappearing into the bathroom or her bedroom to gamble.
Spending so much time isolating herself with her phone, her partner began to accuse her of cheating. Although he knew she gambled, he did not know she had lost control and was accumulating debt.
Her gambling escalated when she had her son in May 2020. Due to COVID-19, she was laid off from work, receiving a lump sum of money from her employer, in addition to a sum of money for her maternity benefits.
The pandemic, a newborn, and a chunk of money in her bank account was a recipe for disaster. With her son sleeping on her chest, Kira laid awake with anticipation as the colors and lights flashed on her phone, hinting at her next win.
Spending all of the extra money before her son turned two months, she was forced to find work.
At this point, Kira made her first suicide attempt by overdosing on anti-depressants and painkillers. Throughout the next six months, she attempted suicide two more times this way, preparing a list of her creditors for someone to call saying she’d passed.
After her second suicide attempt in the Fall, Kira finally admitted she had an issue and told her partner. Although she wanted to stop, she found herself continuing to gamble, spending all of the money she saved for her son and partner’s Christmas presents.
Tired of living in a state of constant anxiety and seeing the look of despair on her partner’s face, she decided to face the issue head-on and stop gambling before she lost everything, including her life.
Finding an online Facebook group for persons recovering from gambling addiction, Kira gained the type of support she needed, crediting the online group for her past seven months of abstinence from gambling.
“Luckily for me, I got out before it ruined my life, but I have met and know so many people it has destroyed, and they have lost everything.”
Gambling to cope with underlying pain results in short-term relief at a long-term cost. Like substances, this addiction can have profound effects on the lives of users. Unlike substances, online gambling addiction is largely invisible, allowing around-the-clock instant access.
If you want to reach out to Kira, you can contact her on Facebook here.
Risky Gambling Motivations
RGC’s survey indicated several risky gambling motivations. I have created the following infographic to depict some of these risky motivations. If you want to read their full report, you can check it out here.
Learn More About Gambling Addiction
How does gambling addiction work?
Gambling addiction works by hijacking the brain’s learning mechanism through random rewards. To learn more, check out my article: How Does Gambling Addiction Work.
How do you stop gambling?
1) Let go of common gambling fallacies
2) Decide if gambling is really worth it
3) Self-exclude or use a gambling blocker
4) Replace gambling with other activities
5) Identify your gambling triggers
6) Uncover what’s driving your gambling
7) Seek gambling-specific counseling
To learn more, check out my article: 7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money
When does something become an addiction?
Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. To learn more, see my article: When Does Something Become an Addiction
How do you prevent a gambling addiction?
Preventing a gambling addiction requires playing for entertainment rather than using it to make money:
1) Set a money limit before gambling
2) Set a time limit on your gambling
3) Play for entertainment rather than making money
4) Understand how the games work.
To learn more, check out my article: How to Prevent a Gambling Addiction
Steve Rose, PhD, is a Certified Gambling Counsellor (CCPC Global) and Problem Gambling Prevention Specialist.
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Trying to motivate someone can be frustrating. If you’ve tried to encourage someone through incentives, punishment, or advice, you may have noticed how these methods often don’t work.
Incentives and punishment often don’t work in the long-term because they reduce someone’s sense of intrinsic motivation. Advice often doesn’t work because it takes away a person’s sense of control over the situation.
So if these most commonly used approaches don’t work, how do you motivate someone?
- Inquire into the benefits of their current approach
- Explore the drawbacks of their current approach
- Explore their desires, values, and strengths
- Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals
As an addiction counselor, my primary job is to help people gain motivation to change. Working in this field, I’ve learned you can’t make people change. You can only create the optimal conditions for change. The rest relies on their openness and commitment.
Although the techniques I share are based on therapeutic best practices in addiction counseling, the lessons are transferable to many other areas. For example, this approach is effective for motivating an employee, motivating a son/ daughter, or motivating a friend who is looking to make some changes in their life.
Let’s explore what each of these steps entails and how you can use them in your interactions.
Inquire into the benefits of their current approach
As I shared in my previous article on how to find motivation, we tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating someone to stay the same. This is like revving a boat’s engine while neglecting to pull up the anchor.
Although it is tempting to believe some people lack motivation, this is far from true. Someone can lack the motivation to do something you want them to do, but they have a great deal of motivation to keep doing what they are doing.
For example, a teenager may appear to lack motivation to do household chores but has a lot of motivation to engage with friends on social media.
An employee may lack the motivation to adapt to changes within a company but has a lot of motivation to continue doing it their own way.
Lastly, a person with an addiction may lack the motivation to get help but has a lot of motivation to find the substance and conceal their usage.
Whatever their current motivation, there is some perceived benefit associated with it, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
When talking to a new client, I usually like to start by exploring these underlying benefits. Without doing this, you’re merely trying to rev the metaphorical boat engine while ignoring the anchor in the water.
Also, by exploring their current motivation, you begin with a collaborative, engaging, non-confrontational dynamic. Consider how you would feel if someone asked, “why don’t you want to change?” vs. “what benefits are you getting from your current approach?”
The key is to inquire about these benefits in a state of genuine curiosity. Asking sarcastically or being closed to the idea of potential benefits would likely backfire, leading to further disengagement.
One way to put yourself in a productive mindset is to imagine you are a researcher studying human behavior. Before having the conversation, consider the fact that people are often driven by invisible internal forces. Get curious about potential forces driving this particular person. You can generate a few hypotheses, but you never truly know until you ask.
Once you are in an open state of mind and ready to have the conversation, it might be helpful to preface your inquiry with some kind of observation.
For example, “I noticed you’ve been doing ________.” Whatever facts you use to fill in the blank, the key is that it is non-judgmental and objectively observable.
You can then transition into inquiring into the benefits of their current behavior by using the phrase, “I’m wondering,” followed by something like, “…what you’ve been getting from this particular approach,” or “…how this has been beneficial for you.”
Feel free to tailor the language to fit your communication style or the particular situation. The key is that you approach the person in an open, non-judgmental, and curious way. Then, simply listen.
Useful communication techniques for this particular aspect of the conversation consist of open-ended questions (questions generally starting with “what”), words signifying curiosity (“wondering”), and active listening (briefly summarizing their statements in your own words).
Explore the drawbacks of their current approach
Once you’ve built rapport and engagement by demonstrating you understand their current motivations, you can inquire into the perceived drawbacks of their current approach.
Asking about the drawbacks without first establishing trust and rapport can backfire since the person will not feel understood and perceive this question as an attempt to change them.
As Peter Sange says:
“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”
The key to this part of the conversation is to maintain the spirit of non-judgmental curiosity, having them explore their own perceived drawbacks rather than imposing your thoughts on the situation.
Potential questions might include, “what are some drawbacks of this approach?” and “What have you been finding difficult about this approach?” or the statement, “I’m wondering what aspects of this approach you might be struggling with right now.”
Whatever the phrasing, it needs to fit the situation and fit your natural communication style.
Useful communication techniques for this part of the conversation include open-ended questions about the drawbacks and actively listening to their responses, demonstrating your curiosity and genuine understanding of their perspective.
Explore their desires, values, and strengths
After discussing the benefits and costs of their current approach, you can transition into what they want and why they want it.
Many people find themselves merely going through the motions on a daily basis, focused on what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do, paying little attention to what thay “want” or “don’t want”.
I often transition into this question by summarizing the conversation up to this point, then asking what they want. For example, “It sounds like you’re getting x, y, and z out of your current approach, while leading to x, y, and z difficulties… so what is it you want?”
In a text format, this question looks confrontational, but in person, I would deliver it with a spirit of curiosity and genuineness.
If the answer is, “I don’t know,” I would explore potential aspirations, hobbies, or interests. If the person shares things they think they “should” want, I would ask the question again, saying, “and what do you want?”
Once you have some information on what the other person wants, it’s also important to clarify their why. Getting clear on their reasons for wanting a particular thing builds intrinsic motivation. This form of motivation consists of an internal desire or passion. It is the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which consists of rewards such as praise or money.
Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.
Useful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include open-ended questions about aspirations and holding space for them to share.
Holding space requires creating a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate environment where you are there for the other person, letting go of the need to control or “fix” them. For more on the concept of holding space, there is a great article on the topic here.
Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals
It can be tempting to tell the other person your opinion, giving them the solution. To you, the solution may look simple, but to the individual experiencing it, this is far from reality. Merely offering your well-intentioned advice can often backfire, making the person feel less motivated.
As The Growlers state in their song on this topic:
“There’s nothing as depressing as good advice… Nobody wants to hear how to live their life.”
People often react to feeling controlled by doing the opposite. Since we strive for a sense of control, rebelling against attempts to control our behavior is an attempt to meet this need.
A collaborative approach to change avoids this issue, increasing their sense of control over the process, building intrinsic motivation.
Collaborating with someone means avoiding these common traps:
- Talking down to them and making them feel inferior
- Treating them as a problem to be solved
- Talking more than listening
- Interrupting them
- Telling them what to do
- Trying harder than them
If you feel like you are working harder than the other person, you may be taking too much control, reducing their intrinsic motivation.
Maintaining a collaborative approach when planning for change requires asking questions such as, “what are the potential next steps?” or “how do you think we can move forward with this?”
When planning for the next steps, it is important to focus on small, specific, practical goals. Although it is tempting to focus on big changes, this generally sets someone up to feel less motivated.
Big changes can appear intimidating and lead to procrastination.
A focus on big changes also mitigates the motivating force of frequent small rewards.
If the person requires some assistance in planning for the next steps, it may be appropriate to share your thoughts on potential options. To get around the issue regarding unsolicited advice, it can be helpful to ask permission before sharing your thoughts.
This might sound something like, “Can I offer some suggestions?” or “I’m wondering if I can offer some potential resources.”
While giving suggestions or resources, it is helpful to avoid using the word “should” or “must”. These words often cause well-intentioned advice to backfire by creating a perceived loss of control.
After sharing suggestions or resources, you can further engage the person by asking their thoughts about the information you’ve shared. For example, I often simply say, “what are your thoughts?” or “what do you think about these options?”
By asking the person’s thoughts, you give them a sense of control and figure out the most appropriate next steps. Ultimately, they need to choose to take the steps, so having them make the choice increases the odds they will take action.
Helpful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include:
- Open-ended questions about the next steps.
- Actively listening to potential options.
- Asking for permission before providing suggestions.
- Avoiding “should/ must” statements.
- Asking their thoughts about your suggestions.
Hopefully, this article has allowed you to gain some practical tools to help you motivate someone. Although these are lessons I’ve learned from addiction counseling, they are also applicable for leaders in the workplace, parents concerned about their children, or helping a friend who is trying to make some changes in their life.
If you work in sales, customer service, or in a leadership position, you may have already come across many of the principles in this article. If so, consider how you can draw upon your own past experiences.
Many people don’t realize they already have expertise in motivating others since so many professional environments operate based on these principles.
Consider the areas you’ve already developed these skills and how those lessons may fit with the techniques presented here.
If you want to learn more about finding motivation or want to share a practical resource with someone you are helping, check out my article on How to Find Motivation.
If you’re interested in a more advanced philosophical deep-dive into motivation, I highly recommend the book How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn.
There are many powerful insights in this book, and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.
If you’re a mental health or addiction professional, you may recognize this article is a basic summary of Motivational Interviewing, a treatment modality initially developed for the addiction field.
For a more advanced explanation of this technique, see my article on How to Do Motivational Interviewing.
If you’re a mental health practitioner, I’ve also written an article on a powerful motivational technique called “creative hopelessness” from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) here.
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For many people, it’s challenging to find motivation. After a long day, it’s hard to find the energy to go to the gym, study, cook, or clean. Or maybe you’re looking to start that hobby you’ve been putting off.
Perhaps you are looking to make some significant changes to your daily habits, such as stopping an addictive substance or behavior, facing your anxiety, or overcoming depression.
Whatever your goal, it’s essential to develop a strong sense of motivation to propel long-term change.
As an addiction counselor, I’ve carefully studied how to increase motivation. Although many of the techniques I use require dialogue in a counseling context, I’ve summarized some of the core lessons to help you find motivation:
- Inquire into what is preventing you from acting
- Meet your unmet needs
- Clarify your values and strengths
- Build momentum through small actions
Let’s delve into each of these four areas and look at how you can apply these lessons to increase your motivation to change.
Inquire into what is preventing you from acting
We tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating us to stay the same. It’s like revving the engine on a boat while ignoring the anchor in the water. You wouldn’t blame the engine for not having enough power; you’d just pull up the anchor and try again.
This is the problem with willpower. It’s not enough to sustain long-term change. If you’ve ever made a new years resolution and broke it a week later, you’ve likely chalked it up to a lack of willpower.
In the addiction field, this way of changing is often referred to as “white-knuckling.” It means you are just holding on tight and hoping for the best, feeling heavily deprived and not dealing with underlying issues.
Willpower alone can get you through a difficult moment, but like running a boat full-throttle with the anchor down, it’s not a sustainable long-term way to maintain motivation.
When you fully appreciate what is holding you back, you can start making changes; otherwise, the anchor operates unconsciously in the background, sabotaging your motivation.
If you want to explore the metaphorical anchor, here is a simple exercise from the field of motivational interviewing called a decisional balance.
Consider the following questions carefully:
What are the benefits of not changing?
Consider what you gain by not changing your behavior. Perhaps there is a level of comfort, security, certainty, familiarity, or other benefit associated with your current approach. Perhaps it’s easier to keep your expectations lower, so you don’t risk disappointment or embarrassment if it does not work out. Whatever your reason, take it seriously as a reasonable option that makes sense.
What are the drawbacks of changing?
Consider the current benefits you’ll have to give up if you decide to change. In addition, consider the additional challenges you’ll be required to face if you choose to change. Maybe you’ll have to experience fear, uncertainty, boredom, or disappointment if the change does not bring the result you expect.
What are the drawbacks of not changing?
Now consider the disadvantages of continuing with your current situation. Perhaps you will experience dissatisfaction, miss out on something, not meet a deadline, or some other form of consequence to your health or well-being. If things continue this way, what is a realistic long-term result?
What are the benefits of changing?
Lastly, consider what you could potentially gain from making this change. Perhaps you will experience more joy, purpose, meet an important deadline, or gain improvements in your mental/ physical health. If you make this change, what long-term benefits might you gain?
Approaching change by considering the whole picture allows you to gain a self-compassionate perspective. Rather than beating yourself up for not changing, you can compassionately understand why you may have been choosing not to change despite the potential benefits of change.
Approaching change in this way also allows you to gain a realistic perspective of the costs and benefits of changing, allowing you to gain further motivation if benefits significantly outweigh the costs.
Meet your unmet needs
If you struggle to find motivation, there may also be an underlying unmet need. Unmet needs are another version of the anchor holding you back.
Unmet needs can be physical, psychological, or social. Let’s consider each area in further detail.
Meet your physical needs
Motivation suffers significantly when physical needs are not met. Consider how you feel when you’re underslept, hungry, too cold, too hot, ill, tense, or in an uncomfortable chair.
A popular acronym in 12-step recovery is HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These are some of the most common underlying issues preventing you from functioning optimally. If you’re feeling unmotivated, HALT before going forward because you might have a big anchor in the water.
Bring your awareness to your body and notice what it might be needing. If you notice an unmet physical need, you can tend to it. If you’re unable to meet that physical need right now, such as rest, you can have compassion for your current situation and recognize that’s just the way it is “right now”.
In the long-term, focusing on meeting more of your needs allows you to function with more energy, a clearer mind, more patience, and more overall motivation.
Meet your psychological needs
One of our basic psychological needs consists of a sense of autonomy.
In simple terms, autonomy means we need to feel like we have a sense of freedom and control in our lives. If you feel overly constrained, consider ways to gain back a sense of freedom and control.
For example, if you are trying to gain motivation to eat healthily and exercise, you can take control over the process rather than feeling constrained by the rigid rules imposed by diet culture.
This can mean adding an element of play to whatever you intend on doing. Rather than following rigid rules consisting of what you think you “should” be doing, find a way to put your own personality into it.
When it comes to diet and exercise, this could mean engaging in things you genuinely find fun or interesting and getting creative with different recipes.
If you struggle with yo-yo dieting and a lack of motivation to exercise, I highly recommend checking out my article on how to heal your relationship with food. In that article, I share insights from my time as a personal trainer and my Master’s thesis on problematic media depictions of weight loss.
Meet your social needs
Trained as a sociologist, the power of social connection has been one of my biggest passions.
Social isolation is a significant factor when it comes to motivation. Although we understand the importance of social connection for mental health, we often neglect its role in motivation.
If you feel lonely, isolated, or ashamed, it’s challenging to find motivation. We are social beings. Just as plants need water to thrive, we need a sense of social connection.
If you notice you have been feeling isolated, reaching out and connecting with others allows you to gain a sense of connection and social support. This is one of the major reasons why 12-step groups have been so powerful for persons with addiction.
For more on this topic, check out my article on the impact of isolation on addiction.
Clarify your values and strengths
Many people go through life feeling like they are sleepwalking, just going through the motions.
On a macro level, you may feel compelled to follow the standard middle-class life template of career, marriage, house, kids, promotions, retirement. On a micro level, you may feel compelled to keep showing up to the same job and doing the same things because it’s familiar, and you can’t really see any other options right now.
This situation reminds me of a great line from a song by Metric:
“Buy this car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car.”
Just following orders and going through the motions without emotion can be highly unfulfilling. This lack of fulfillment creates an existential void. We then try to fill this void with entertainment, substances, or material things, but they only provide a temporary distraction from the underlying sense that something is missing.
Let’s take a look at how to escape this “never enough” situation and step off the hedonic treadmill.
Focus on ‘being’, not ‘having’
In our Instagram-obsessed consumer culture, we try to fill the void by having the picturesque image of success and having the most followers. Some people try to have the best vacations so they can get the best photos and get the most likes.
With all of our focus on having, we forget about being. We forget what it means to be present, be in genuine connection, and living in alignment with our deeper values.
The great psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, talked about this distinction in his book, To Have or to Be? where he states:
“If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living.”
The antidote to this unfulfilling way of being is to let go of the need to constantly compare oneself to others.
The need to compare ourselves to others comes from a desire to belong. By having more stuff, we feel like we’ll gain acceptance. In reality, this attempt to gain acceptance by climbing the social pyramid merely creates a further sense of disconnection from others.
As previously discussed, this sense of social disconnection depletes long-term motivation and fuels short-term coping strategies such as an addiction to social media. For more on this topic, see my article on why we are addicted to social media.
Prioritize ‘why, not ‘how’
Another benefit of uncovering your core values is that it gives you a “why,” which provides a sense of purpose.
So much of the current self-help content is focused on “how” to do something without first addressing the “why”. We want the quick fix of “three simple tips to the perfect life” without having to delve into what is driving us to seek change.
Focusing all of our attention on the “how” is another reason why change is often so short-lived. When I tell people I was a personal trainer, the first question is usually about how to eat or how to exercise. I’m always super cautious not to simply give someone a “how”. Merely giving someone a perfectly optimized workout plan is likely going to result in a new-years-resolution-style of motivation.
Rather than setting someone up for motivational failure, I like to start by inquiring into their reasons for making this change.
In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl recites a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
This means having a compelling sense of why we are doing something motivates us to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.
Victor Frankl’s profound sense of purpose motivated him to continue striving when faced with forced labor in multiple Nazi concentration camps. Surviving these camps, he lived to publish his psychological insights and develop logotherapy, a therapeutic approach designed to facilitate a sense of meaning in life.
By clarifying your why, you can operate based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. In simple terms, it means you’re doing something because you genuinely want to, rather than feeling compelled by an external reward or punishment.
Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.
Recall past strengths and abilities
One of the most important aspects of motivation is your confidence in your ability to overcome an obstacle in a particular context. The psychological term for this is self-efficacy.
Distinct from your overall self-confidence, your self-efficacy varies depending on your sense of mastery over a particular type of task. For example, you may have high self-efficacy when troubleshooting problems at work but low self-efficacy when dealing with interpersonal conflicts at home, or vice versa.
When talking to clients about change, I like to inquire about their strengths by asking about their employment, education, hobbies, or interests, in addition to noticing other times they have been able to overcome a difficult task.
Validating strengths and past accomplishments is a powerful way to instill self-efficacy. By recalling these things, you build a sense of control over your current situation.
It can be challenging to validate our own strengths since we are often our own worst critics. If you are not currently engaged in ongoing counseling, here is a way to get yourself outside your head and uncover some content to help you build self-efficacy.
Think of someone you trust, such as a parent, a partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a manager. If there is someone you trust in more than one of these areas, consider trying the exercise with a few different people.
Now imagine I asked this person about your strengths. What would they say? What stories might they share regarding your past ability to overcome difficult situations? What personal characteristics would they point out (e.g., loving, determined, resourceful, creative, analytical, etc.)?
If you’re comfortable, you can even directly ask them these questions.
Once you’ve contemplated this area, consider how you can draw upon these past strengths and abilities in your current situation.
Build momentum through small actions
Beyond contemplation of one’s strengths and abilities, self-efficacy is built in practice by seeing evidence of own abilities.
Consider things you have already completed. What steps have you already taken toward your goals? If you haven’t taken any direct steps, are there any indirect things you may have done in preparation to take action?
If you have not yet taken any actions, consider one small thing you can do today or tomorrow that would likely get you slightly closer to your goal.
By completing a task, you get the reward of a small win. Getting this small win increases your motivation to complete the next task, leading to greater rewards as you build trust in yourself.
Some people find it helpful to create checklists of the small tasks they want to complete in a day. The smaller the task, the more you can add to your checklist. Each time you check off a completed task, you get a sense of accomplishment, leading to further motivation.
Another benefit to focusing on small tasks is that it keeps you from feeling overwhelmed when tackling everything all at once.
This is why the popular 12-step phrase, “one day at a time,” has been so powerful for many people in recovery. If one day at a time is too much, try focusing on one hour at a time or one moment at a time.
Back to the previous question: what is the next small task?
Don’t announce your goals
Another common mistake associated with focusing on lofty goals is the tendency to announce these goals to others. Although some people believe this helps hold them accountable, it often does the exact opposite.
By announcing your goals, you get external praise and validation. Jumping in head first, you develop an identity associated with your goal. Rather than focusing on small steps, you try to cash in early on the reward of the end goal by making it public. This makes focusing on the small steps seem dull in comparison, preventing you from gaining a sense of reward from the process itself.
A study on this phenomenon states:
“…when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”
Once a premature externally validated ego identity develops around one’s end goal, it also diminishes one’s level of humility toward the small steps necessary in the initial phase of change.
Stay in the humility zone
Developing an ego identity regarding your end goal is like using cocaine to feel confident. You get a short-term benefit at a long-term cost.
Since long-term motivation requires the ability to find rewards in a series of small steps, a lack of humility prevents you from engaging in the small tasks that offer these consistent long-term rewards.
Small steps seem less exciting than taking massive initial actions that are more noticeable and impressive to others around you.
For example, if you want to run a marathon, it would be wise to start slow and run shorter distances, slowly building your way up to the goal. This would require the humility to start small. Without humility, it is tempting to overdo it and get burnt out since you are constantly focused on your current lack of competency compared to the end goal.
Comparing your current self to your idealized future self sets you up to never feel like you are enough, leading to a constant sense of disappointment throughout the change process. This is the opposite of the humility zone where you appreciate each tiny bit of progress, leading to long-term motivational momentum.
12-step recovery programs build this into their programming since the first step requires admitting you are powerless over the substance/ behavior. In addition, before speaking at each meeting, members introduce themselves as an alcoholic or addict. This helps members get into the humility zone, setting them up to find gratitude in each small step toward recovery.
Focus on the next step
As previously mentioned, the 12-step recovery phrase, “one day at a time,” can teach us a great deal about motivation. In addition to making each day into a small step, the program has a series of steps facilitated with the social support of one’s peers.
Focusing on the next step makes changing feel less overwhelming since you have a sense of structure, direction, and the humility to appreciate the process.
If you want to create your own customized set of steps, consider trying the SMART principle.
This goal-setting method allows you to focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals. Each goal is not an end-point but a step on the path toward your long-term goals.
Here are the aspects to consider when creating a goal:
– Specific: Is this a specific goal, or is it too broad?
– Measurable: How would you measure progress toward this goal?
– Achievable: Is this a realistic goal?
– Relevant: Is this meaningfully connected to your values?
– Time-bound: What is your timeline/ deadline for this goal?
I hope this article helps you find the motivation to make significant long-term changes in your life.
Although counseling is a great way to expedite the process, you can start gaining motivation today by using the tools provided in this article.
First, inquire into what is preventing you from acting. Then focus on meeting your unmet needs, clarifying your values, and building motivational momentum through small actions.
If you are looking for even more insights into how motivation works, I highly recommend checking out the book, How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn. There are many powerful insights in this book and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.
On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:
If you’re struggling with overthinking, it might be difficult to focus on things that matter. Getting caught up in habitual patterns of worrying, you’re stuck in your head rather than living in the present moment.
Overthinking is the problem masked as the solution. Your mind may trick you into believing worrying is essential and productive, but deep down, you can see all the ways it holds you back.
So how do you stop overthinking?
- Identify what triggers your fear-response
- Observe your mental behaviors
- Notice the reward value of this mental behavior.
In short, it means identifying the trigger, behavior, and result/ reward. This approach is based on the evidence-based technique described by Judson Brewer MD PhD, in his new book Unwinding Anxiety.
Using the science of addiction to understand anxiety, he goes beyond the more typical cognitive approaches and addresses the underlying motivational forces driving habitual worrying. I talk about this further in my article on addiction to overthinking.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Judson Brewer’s book. As an addiction counselor, I find it fascinating how he uses the neuroscience of addiction to understand anxiety.
His three-step approach to “unwinding anxiety” is easy to apply and has often led to rapid results for my clients who struggle with habitual patterns of worrying.
Let’s unpack what each of these steps entails.
Identify what triggers your fear-response
As described in my previous article on how to stop overthinking, anxiety is a fear response triggered by uncertainty. To uncover the particular form of uncertainty driving your worrying, you can ask yourself these questions:
When do you commonly find yourself worrying? Do you often worry on a Sunday before work? What about times throughout the workday? Does it happen while trying to sleep? Or does it happen first thing in the morning?
What is the form of uncertainty in these situations that triggers your fear-response? Is it uncertainty regarding your ability to adequately perform a role? Is it uncertainty regarding a potential future catastrophe? What are common themes among your triggering moments?
Uncovering what triggers your patterns of overthinking allows you to come face to face with the problem your mind is unconsciously trying to solve. Faced with uncertainty, your mind goes into overdrive, trying to fill the gap.
Unfortunately, overthinking through repetitive mental problem-solving and worrying is often counterproductive because we don’t have control over the uncertain situation.
For example, worrying about your performance at work on Monday can feel necessary, but in reality, it likely just prevents you from resting and recharging so you can actually perform well.
Observe your mental behaviors
After you’ve identified your triggers, you can look at what your mind does in response. Judson Brewer calls this a “mental behavior.” To uncover the specific content of your mental behaviors, you can ask yourself these questions:
What is your mind telling you? Common thoughts include, “what if I fail, what if I never recover, what if I’m not enough.”
What common themes do you find in your thought patterns? Are certain themes associated with specific situations? Are there common themes across various situations?
An extra step I sometimes take during this stage of the process is to inquire about how far back these thoughts go.
Tracing these thoughts back to earlier memories in your life allows you to see the context in which this mental behavior was formed. Common origins include traumatic events, adverse childhood experiences with family, or bullying by peers.
Getting the context of these early thoughts allows you to recognize how these thoughts patterns are a learned behavior. Stepping back from the thoughts in this way allows you to recognize them as a coping strategy your mind likely developed for self-protection.
This allows you to not necessarily believe the contents of the thoughts as the truth about you as a person. Instead, you can see how they developed and how your mind continues to hold on to this strategy as a self-protective coping mechanism.
Notice the reward value of this mental behavior
This final step is the key to reset your brain’s motivational pathways. The previous steps were focused on thinking, but this step is focused on feeling.
Why is feeling so important?
Although we all like to pretend we’re rational, the psychology of motivation does not work that way. Our emotions primarily drive us. Our reason is often used after the fact to rationalize our emotional decisions.
Psychologist Johnathan Haidt uses the metaphor that our emotions are like the president and our reason is like the press secretary. Our emotions send off executive orders while our reason justifies and makes sense of these orders after the fact.
Trying to change human behavior through reason alone is like trying to convince the president he is wrong by arguing with the press secretary.
In more practical terms, it’s like telling someone with anxiety, “it’s going to be fine… just stop thinking about it.” If our brains were capable of doing this, there would be no need for therapy.
As described in the previous step, your brain held on to a particular style of coping because it rewarded you in some way. This reward may have consisted of keeping you safe from a volatile parent, helping you perform better in school to gain the praise of a driven parent, or helping you remain vigilant to avoid potential physical threats. If you’re interested in learning more about the early roots of distorted self-perceptions, you can check out my article, How to Heal From Emotionally Unavailable Parents.
By appreciating the real initial benefits of this coping mechanism, it allows you to approach the issue with self-compassion and perhaps appreciate how this coping mechanism is no longer necessary in your current situation.
Although your context has changed, your brain is likely still operating based on these outdated reward values.
As a side note, it is also important to recognize if the context has not changed and your external circumstances are actively destructive. For example, if you’re in an abusive relationship, the goal would be to change the external circumstances rather than trying to worry about it less.
So how do you update your reward system?
Pay attention to feelings in the present moment.
Like outdated antivirus software, your brain is trying to keep you safe from a perceived threat that may not even currently exist.
A practical way to update your feeling-based reward system is to use mindfulness.
As described in my previous article on overthinking, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the following:
“…the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
When it comes to your worry patterns, this is best done in the moment it is happening.
Notice when you are in one of your worry patterns. Then shift your attention to the feelings in your body. What do you notice? Is there tension anywhere? Is this feeling worth it?
Notice what your mind is telling you. In reality, is your overthinking protecting you? Is it solving the problem or getting you closer to a sense of certainty? Or is it distracting you from taking productive actions?
Overall, is this thought process rewarding?
At this point in the process, you have a choice.
You can continue with this pattern of thinking if it is offering you something. Or you can choose to try something new. In his book, Judson Brewer calls this the bigger better offer. He describes the bigger better offer as a replacement for worrying.
The bigger better offer may consist of getting curious about what your mind is doing. Curiosity counters fear because curiosity opens you up while fear closes you down. A curious perspective leads to critical thinking, whereas a fear-based perspective leads to overthinking.
Another bigger better offer may consist of doing something meaningful or values-based. If you find yourself in an overthinking habit-loop, you can recognize what is going on and make a conscious decision to focus on doing something else.
This behavioral replacement may consist of spending time with family, friends, getting exercise, going outside, or some other form of self-care.
When you choose the bigger better offer, notice how it feels while you’re doing it. In the same way I previously discussed bringing mindful attention to your worry habits to notice their true reward value, bringing attention to the bigger better offer activity reprograms your reward value through positive reinforcement.
When you choose to do something different, let yourself experience the reward, noticing how your body feels. Long-term changes in thought patterns don’t just happen from trying to think different or do something different as a distraction. These things are a start. By attaching a feeling of gratitude to these moments, your brain begins to crave more of them.
Over time, it does not need to feel like you’re constantly struggling with your thoughts or having to distract yourself with other actions. By reprograming your motivational pathways through mindful attention to the underlying patterns, these new positive habits become natural and automatic.
If you want to stop habitual patterns of overthinking, identify what triggers your fear-response, observe your mental behaviors, and notice the reward value of this mental behavior.
Using the trigger, behavior, and result/ reward (TBR) formula, you can replace unrewarding behaviors with a bigger better offer (BBO)—to use Judson Brewer’s acronyms.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out the book, Unwinding Anxiety. There is also an accompanying mobile app that helps you track these three stages of the habit loop. You can download it on the Play Store here (android) and the App Store here (Apple).
If you want more information on how to stop overthinking and exercises from the field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can check out my previous article, How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living.
On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:
Do you find yourself constantly overthinking? Does life feel overwhelming?
You may struggle with constant thoughts of “what if…” keeping you up at night. Mentally preparing yourself for the worst-case scenario, there’s a constant sense of tension in the background.
Sometimes you feel like you’ll explode, while other times, you believe your worrying is the only thing keeping everything together.
Focused on keeping things together, you’re unable to live the life you want. Deep down, you know you could be so much more focused, joyful, and free, if only the alarm bells in your mind could stop ringing all the time.
In this article, I will discuss how you can stop overthinking so you can take a breath, relax, gain inner peace, and refocus on living a joyful life of meaning and purpose.
So how do you stop overthinking and start living?
- Change your relationship to uncertainty
- Notice what is happing in the present moment
- Act in alignment with your values
In short, this means being open, aware, and engaged.
These three characteristics are the foundation of psychological flexibility, the core feature of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), supported by over 330 clinical trials.
Many people try to stop overthinking through positive thinking, focusing on the breath, or through distractions. These can be helpful sometimes, but often produce limited results in the long-term because they don’t target the underlying issue.
As a counselor, I’ve seen huge results using the principles I share in this article. Noticing the power of these principles in my one-on-one work with clients, I’ve been inspired to make these ideas more accessible to a broader audience.
Let’s take a closer look at how you can apply these techniques in your own life so you can stop overthinking and start living.
Change your relationship to uncertainty
As described in my previous article on addiction to overthinking, many people consider overthinking to be a strength. As an academic, I can relate to this sentiment, but I also believe it is important to distinguish overthinking from critical thinking.
Overthinking is closed, rigid, and based on fear. It is generally unproductive and results in analysis paralysis.
Critical thinking is open, flexible, and based on curiosity. It is generally productive and results in useful information about how to proceed.
Overthinking thrives on closeness and rigidity. If we try to give the overthinking mind a false sense of certainty, it only wants more. Like giving money to someone with a gambling addiction, it only fuels its insatiable apatite.
If you’ve ever tried to stop overthinking by getting reassurance, you may be able to relate. Like an addiction, it offers short-term relief at a long-term cost.
Treating overthinking like an addiction, the problem is not thinking. The problem is your relationship to thinking. Like addiction, the problem is not the specific drug or addictive behavior. Alcohol or gambling can be used as entertainment, or they can be used to cope with underlying issues.
The problem is not the substance or addictive behavior. The problem is one’s type of relationship to that specific substance or behavior.
Telling someone to “just stop overthinking” is like telling someone with an addiction to “just stop being addicted.” Although well-intentioned, it does not address the fact that the person relates to the addictive substance or behavior to cope with underlying issues.
Are you using overthinking as a way to cope with an underlying avoidance of uncertainty?
If so, consider how it can feel productive, as if running through all of the “what if” scenarios will finally result in certainty.
What thoughts generally run through your head? What situation beyond your control is your mind trying to generate certainty for?
What is your mind telling you about the worst-case scenario?
At this point, it would be common sense to ask you to weigh the evidence for and against this worst-case scenario, but it would probably just result in another form of short-term reassurance at a long-term cost.
In the counterintuitive world of psychology, common sense is often a stumbling block.
Logic and reason become a different form of overthinking in disguise. They may give temporary relief, only fueling the underlying avoidance of uncertainty.
Trying to eliminate uncertainty through logic and reason often results in feeding the overthinking mind fresh meat. It comes back roaring with alternative scenarios trying to convince you that you’re wrong.
A tiger metaphor by Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), seems fitting here.
Imagine you adopted a cute young tiger cub. It wanders through your home like a kitten, and you begin to notice it won’t stop purring loudly. The only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this, but the tiger is now several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef to feed its insatiable hunger. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.
In this metaphor, feeding the tiger symbolizes overthinking. Constantly feeding your mind analysis and “what if” scenarios feel like you’re giving it what it needs, but in reality, the problem grows because you’re not addressing the underlying issue.
The underlying issue is the infinite desire for certainty.
Like trying to recover from a gambling addiction by winning a jackpot, there is no endpoint in the search for certainty.
The first step to recovering from overthinking requires giving up on this infinite game.
In practical terms, this means accepting uncertainty and letting go of things outside of your control. For example, choose a specific “what if” such as, “what if I run out of money and lose everything.” A common thought pattern might be overthinking all the various ways things might go wrong, then beating yourself up, and feeling ashamed.
Making peace with uncertainty means answering the “what if” with “maybe yes, maybe no.” Then, you can move forward and focus on what you can control.
Back to the example, your mind says, “… you’ll lose everything”. You can thank your mind for trying to keep you safe and gently answer, “maybe yes, maybe no, but your constant reminders are not helpful right now, so I’m just going to go over here and do this other thing right now.”
Whatever you choose to focus on can be related to the concern, but if there is nothing you can directly control right now, it means focusing on something that matters to you. We’ll discuss this more in the final section of the article.
The first step in the process is to open up to uncertainty. Although living with a big question mark hanging over your head is uncomfortable, like exercise, a healthy dose of discomfort can go a long way.
As described by Kelly G. Wilson in the book Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong:
“Learning to sit with ambiguity can be a very important start at a life liberated from anxiety—and the way to do it is to resist the urge to chase answers to questions that may actually be unanswerable.”
Notice the title of his book, “things might go terribly horribly wrong.” This is the opposite of a friend’s well-intentioned reassurance, but it is also not meant to be all doom and gloom.
Just because things might go terribly horribly wrong does not mean they will. Not accepting the fact that things might go wrong makes your problem-solving mind go into overdrive. By overthinking all the ways things might go wrong, your mind tries to gain certainty that things will work out.
Although problem-solving can be productive in many areas of life, it is unproductive to seek certainty regarding things outside your control. Rather than contributing to practical next steps, it takes your attention away from potentially more worthwhile endeavors.
Notice what is happing in the present moment
When the problem-solving mind goes into overdrive, it seeks certainty in an uncertain future. Thoughts beginning with “what if” point to potential future catastrophes.
This fixation on the future is like driving with your eyes glued to the GPS overview of your route. It can be helpful to glance at the GPS every once and a while but overthinking leads to neglecting the present. While your problem-solving mind is trying to figure out if there will be traffic holdups at some point on your journey, you miss the stop sign right in front of you.
We can easily recognize how too much of a future orientation can lead to dangerous driving, but we often neglect how it affects our daily lives.
As Lao Tzu said:
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
Although you may recognize the importance of living in the present, you may be put off by practices such as meditation and breathing exercises. These approaches can be effective but are often too advanced for people who are struggling the most.
For example, if someone has ADHD or intense anxiety, jumping into meditation can have the opposite of the intended effect. This phenomenon is called relaxation-induced anxiety. On the cognitive level, it goes something like this:
Meditation instructor: “okay.. now bring your attention to the breath.”
You: “oh no, my chest feels tight… am I breathing too fast?”
Meditation instructor: “…and with each breath, you feel more relaxed.”
You: “I’m so tense… I must be doing it wrong.”
Meditation instructor: “Notice the rise and fall of your chest.”
You: “AHHH!.. It’s getting worse! Now my heart is racing!”
To avoid relaxation-induced anxiety, I generally introduce mindfulness as something distinct from meditation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as the following:
“…the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Notice how there is no mention of “relaxation” in this definition. It simply refers to paying attention to the here and now without the extra mental chatter casting constant judgments on the situation.
A practical way to pop yourself out of your head and into the present is called “grounding.” Although there are slight variations between different grounding techniques, here is a common simplified one I like to use:
Take a moment to notice some things you can see around you.
You might notice the shape, color, texture, and arrangement of the objects.
Next, bring your awareness to the things you can hear right now.
You might notice the various layers of sound: a fan humming, birds chirping, people talking.
Next, bring your awareness to the feelings in your body.
You may notice the feeling of the chair, your feet on the floor, or any tension in your jaw, hands, or shoulders/ neck.
Keeping this as simple as possible takes away the rigidness, complexity, and expectations people generally falsely associate with these types of practices.
For people who have difficulty sitting still, this can be done while walking, cleaning, waiting in line, or any other daily activity where you frequently find yourself getting stuck in your head.
This takes the practice of mindfulness off of the meditation pillow and into everyday life. It also opens up mindfulness practice to those who shudder at the idea of sitting still in silence for ten minutes.
If you are interested in trying some simple meditation practices, many people find it easier to start with guided meditation. You can check out headspace or some great guided meditations on youtube here and here.
Act in alignment with your values
Analysis paralysis is one of the biggest ways overthinking stops you from living the life you want. Stuck in your head, searching for certainty before you act, your overthinking mind is trying to protect you from disappointment while keeping you locked into old ineffective patterns.
In its search for certainty, your mind becomes perfectionistic. You put off actions that push you outside the realm of the familiar. It’s as if your mind wants to make sure you’re completely prepared before making any change, saving you from any potential failure.
“What if I try and it all goes wrong… what would that mean about me as a person?”
The fear of failure is just as strong as the fear of success.
“What if I succeed and I can’t handle the pressure… everyone will find out I’m an imposter.”
You may self-sabotage, preferring the comfort and certainty of sameness over the uncertainty that comes with change. Self-sabotage gives a false sense of control. Rather than making yourself vulnerable to someone else letting you down, we can feel like masters of our fate, even if it means our own demise.
Choosing to act also comes with heightened expectations for yourself. Since there is no certainty that it will work out, choosing to act makes you vulnerable to your inner critic if things don’t work out.
Maybe you’ve experienced situations in the past where you’ve hoped to achieve something and have been let down. This sense of disappointment can stick with you, increasing your mind’s threat detector.
It’s easier to not have something than to have it and lose it. This is the psychology of loss-aversion hard at work. Although it’s your mind’s way of protecting you, it can also keep you stuck.
Your brain’s primary job has been to keep you alive throughout evolution, not necessarily to make you feel happy and thriving. If you feel like you’re going through life in a constant state of coping and never truly thriving, this is your brain’s survival mechanism at work.
When your threat detector is highly sensitized, your overthinking mind keeps you from acting. If this is the case, it might be helpful to consider your relationship to uncertainty.
Analysis paralysis keeps you safe by avoiding the risks that come with making a change. By avoiding the pain of a potential future disappointment, you’re also avoiding the pleasure of thriving. Like an addiction, worrying provides a sort of destructive comfort. Although it’s not necessarily pleasurable, it numbs you to the larger more uncertain pain associated with the vulnerability of change.
As Brené Brown states:
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
When you avoid pain, you also avoid pleasure.
Choosing to take a step into the unknown breaks this cycle. I use the word “step” because it’s often tempting to imagine change to require a massive overhaul of one’s life. This all-or-nothing approach is the reason why New Year’s resolutions often fail.
Like the 12-step recovery saying, “one day at a time,” approaching change with this attitude makes changes more sustainable and less intimidating.
When your mind races back into the future-planning mode with the constant “what if’s” you can catch it and bring it back to the present. Then, you can ask yourself, “what do I need to focus on today?” If taking it one day at a time is too overwhelming, perhaps consider taking it one hour at a time or one moment at a time. What is the next practical step?
In completing small practical steps, you gain motivational momentum through small wins. The other aspect of motivation consists of understanding your “why.”
As Friedrich Nietzsche states:
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Understanding your “why” requires getting clear on your values.
As described in my article on How to Improve Psychological Flexibility, values can be found by looking at one’s role models. Pick a person you admire. What qualities of theirs do you admire? Some examples might be compassion, creativity, or genuineness.
Clarifying your values goes beyond just “niceness” or “being a good person.” These things turn values into rules, making them highly unmotivating. Instead, clarifying your values allows you to be the author of your life. What do you stand for? What quality do you want to bring forth into the world? What causes do you genuinely care about?
If you’re looking for a psychologically validated exercise to gain further clarity in this area, I recommend checking out the Self Authoring Program.
Values are something we choose for ourselves. They are not meant to be rigid, constraining, or rule-based. Although values may be culturally informed, we still have the freedom to choose what we want to stand for and how we want to show up in the world.
Rather than going through life, “just following orders,” choosing our values can give a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-determination in otherwise stressful situations.
Courage to act does not come from the absence of fear. Instead, it means acting despite the fear by getting focused on what you want and why you want it.
Throughout this article, I’ve discussed ways you can stop overthinking and start living the life you want.
Based on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I’ve summarized the three major themes that compose psychological flexibility: openness, awareness, and engagement.
In practical terms, this requires accepting uncertainty, noticing the present moment, and acting in alignment with your values.
If you want an even more in-depth overview of this therapeutic approach and its theoretical underpinnings, you can check out my article, How to Improve Psychological Flexibility.
In that article, I delve into each of the pillars of psychological flexibility, providing metaphors, practical exercises, and explanations of why it works.
On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:
Many people struggle with repetitive thoughts racing through their head, beginning with the phrase, “what if…”.
What if I can’t handle all of this? What If I fail? What if I’m not enough?
Whatever follows the “what if” statement generally involves the following factors:
- An uncertain situation
- A perceived catastrophic outcome
- Perception of personal inadequacy
For example, if you’re uncertain whether you’ll be able to pay the bills this month due to a shortage of work, your mind may go on overdrive, dwelling on the worst-case scenario. You imagine losing everything.
You then beat yourself up with thoughts of being worthless. Focused on these thoughts, you cannot sleep, making it more challenging to take action due to mental fatigue and feeling overwhelmed.
Overthinking is different from critical thinking. Overthinking is based on fear, whereas critical thinking is based on curiosity. The former is closed whereas the latter is open.
In our time of increasing uncertainty, anxious thoughts about the future are a common form of overthinking. On the mild end, overthinking consists of occasional worrying. On the severe end, it consists of debilitating anxiety.
According to research, roughly a third of people suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. As a counselor, this is one of the most common issues I see people struggling with, so if you can relate to this issue, you are not alone.
In this article, I use the word overthinking instead of anxiety to separate it from the diagnostic realm. Many people experience forms of worrying that do not necessarily become an anxiety disorder. High functioning anxiety is another non-diagnostic term that has been used for this issue.
Like persons with anxiety disorders, many people who regularly engage in overthinking are high functioning, intelligent, and successful in their fields. They can outwardly appear to have everything together while bottling up increasing levels of stress.
What Causes Overthinking?
As someone with an academic background, I value thinking. As I entered the counseling field, I noticed how too much thinking is part of the problem for many people. Rather than getting you closer to your goal, overthinking can cause procrastination, anxiety, and other health problems caused by stress.
Since overthinking is counterproductive, what is its purpose? What causes overthinking?
Overthinking is caused by the brain’s need to create a sense of order and certainty when faced with uncertainty. Its inability to gain certainty in uncertain situations results in a fear response, provoking further thinking to resolve this discrepancy.
For example, uncertainty regarding the meaning of one’s physical health symptoms can result in overthinking. You may turn to google, checking the meaning of your symptoms, leading to further uncertainty when told it could range from a minor infection to symptoms of a specific kind of cancer. This can then spiral you into a panic, worrying about worst-case scenarios, imagining you’re not going to survive.
Thinking can spiral into overthinking, which can spiral into panic, magnifying the physical symptoms and creating further symptoms resulting from the increased stress.
As things start to feel overwhelming, it is tempting to double down on problem-solving. But, unfortunately, since thinking likely got you into this situation, more thinking is not the way out.
Since this kind of thinking is generally focused on things outside of your control, it only gives you the illusion of control. Worrying feels productive but only digs you deeper into the anxiety pit.
Is Overthinking an Addiction?
Recently, I discovered how overthinking is a form of addiction.
As an addiction counselor, I understand addiction as the continued use of substances or addictive behaviors despite adverse consequences. The addiction creates an illusion of control while leading to the loss of control over one’s situation.
Consider how overthinking does the same thing. Many people continue to worry about a situation, despite the negative consequences of this worrying. Worrying can make you feel like you are productive when in reality, it takes away from your ability to take action on things within your control.
This way of conceptualizing overthinking goes deeper than just surface-level similarity.
According to Judson Brewer MD PhD in his new book Unwinding Anxiety, worrying is a form of addiction. Like playing a slot machine, it is unproductive in the long-term, but worrying sometimes results in perceived random payoffs, keeping you hooked.
For example, perhaps you are worried about not getting a promotion at work, and then you get the promotion. Although your worrying did not necessarily cause the promotion, they become associated in your mind.
This is how persons with a gambling addiction develop superstitions or theories regarding patterns. When a random reward is presented, our brains try to determine the cause of this reward. This is an ancient survival mechanism that helped us find patterns in nature.
Random rewards trick the brain into perceiving patterns where none exist. Although the superstitious behaviors have no connection to the actual outcome, they give an illusion of control.
There are random moments where things outside of your control happen to work in your favor when worrying. This reinforces the worry pattern since your brain begins to associate the worrying and the outcome falsely.
Over time, you become psychologically dependent on worrying, believing it is the only thing holding everything together. Although worrying can have some short-term benefits if it spurs a necessary action—as discussed in my article here—its long-term effects are generally unhelpful.
Mary Schmich illustrates this when she states:
“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Beyond not being helpful, this type of worrying can be detrimental to your health, according to WebMD:
“Chronic worrying can affect your daily life so much that it may interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep, and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, cigarette smoking, or using alcohol and drugs.”
Although many people think of addiction in terms of drugs or alcohol, behavioral addiction often goes unnoticed.
Consider how your relationship to your phone might resemble a gambling addiction. You are bombarded with randomly rewarding notifications. Hearing the buzz, you’re compelled to check, uncertain of the potential reward waiting for you. If you’re interested in seeing if you’re addicted to your phone, I created a self-assessment quiz in my article here.
If the compulsion to check your phone is driven by fear rather than a potential reward, the same addictive process is at work. This form of checking is like worrying. It makes you feel busy and productive while taking away your ability to focus on what matters most.
Applying the concept of behavioral addiction to worrying, Judson Brewer classifies worrying as a “mental behavior,” even if it does not lead to physical action such as checking your phone.
For example, many people find themselves living in their head on Sunday afternoons, worrying about all the work they need to do on Monday morning. Unfortunately, spending time and energy on this mental behavior may not involve doing actual work. In fact, it likely takes away from your ability to do the actual work since it can lead to loss of sleep and mental fatigue.
Overthinking is like running on the mental treadmill. It keeps you busy with the endless pursuit of control over the uncontrollable. But, like gambling superstitions, it is a futile attempt to gain a sense of certainty and predictability where it does not exist. More thinking merely puts your mental treadmill on high speed, expending the energy that could be applied to more worthwhile endeavors.
Signs of Addiction to Overthinking
Here are a few signs you may be addicted to overthinking:
You mentally over-prepare to avoid difficult emotions.
Although thoughtful attention to detail and preparation is helpful, overthinking involves repeatedly resorting to the problem-solving mindset to suppress underlying emotions. Like an addiction, the rational mind becomes the drug, providing temporary relief at a long-term cost to the emotional mind. As described in Dr. Gabor Maté’s book, When The Body Says No, this can result in various forms of physical illness.
You continually focus on the way things “should” be.
Constantly focusing on the way things “should” be can be a mentally rigid way of not accepting the way things are in reality. Although it is helpful to maintain critical thinking and push for change when things are unjust, or systems are broken, overly focusing on the “shoulds” often becomes counterproductive. This attempt to gain a sense of order often amplifies the sense of disorder, creating a sense of helplessness. This can diminish one’s ability to take action on aspects of the issue directly within one’s control.
You spend a lot of time living in the future or the past.
Worrying about the future or dwelling on the past can be forms of overthinking that keep you from living in the present. Although it is helpful to plan for the future and learn from the past, overthinking about these areas can be like driving without looking at the road directly ahead of you. Fixating on the GPS (future planning) or the rear-view mirror (past dwelling) makes it challenging to engage in safe and effective driving.
You are driven by the thought of not being enough.
Constantly thinking about yourself in comparison to others makes you feel isolated. This way of operating fuels an inner voice of shame, telling you you’re not good enough. Although it can be helpful to strive for progress in one’s life, it is counterproductive when heavily fueled by social comparison. When coming from a place of not being enough, your mind will only race faster as you progress, often resulting in self-sabotage due to the underlying sense of being unworthy or unable to handle success.
You lose touch with your underlying values.
Overthinking can often come from being overly preoccupied with what is expected of you. Rather than acting for the purpose of self-care or to maintain alignment with your values, you often worry about others and worry about doing enough to satisfy their expectations. Although helping others can be based on genuinely valuing compassion, losing touch with this value can lead to constantly doing things for others, neglecting self-care, and worrying about what other people think. As a result, you become hyper-focused on the goal but lose touch with your “why”.
You constantly find yourself in analysis paralysis.
Although analysis can be helpful, it becomes a form of overthinking when it takes away from your ability to act. Analysis paralysis is a form of perfectionism fueled by a sense of insecurity regarding one’s abilities or one’s underlying sense of being an imposter. This process results in procrastination. On the surface, procrastination often looks like laziness, but this is often far from reality. An unwillingness to take action is usually based on fear, and overthinking is an unhelpful attempt to gain a sense of certainty.
If you find yourself engaging in ineffective attempts to gain a sense of control by overthinking, it can be helpful to take a step back and notice when this is happening. In these moments, noticing how these mental habits are unrewarding allows you to break the illusion of control. Immediately recognizing this, you can shift your focus to something directly within your control, noticing the reward value of this alternative behavior.
If you want to learn more about breaking worry habits, I highly recommend the new book Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer MD PhD. In the book, he lays out a practical step-by-step approach to rewiring your brain’s reward circuitry to address habitual worrying.