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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.