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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.
“…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.