We all do our best to stay positive, but occasionally we can slip into negative thinking patterns that can wreak havoc on our lives. We might worry about our past mistakes or current stresses, and how these could lead to negative outcomes in the future. We might obsess about or over-analyze regular experiences and interactions, reading into them things that aren’t actually there. We might find that as soon as one bad thing happens, we associate it with all the other bad things that have happened in our lives and begin to feel miserable. We might feel anxious in the present, having a hard time getting out of our own heads as we worry and obsess about the things that could go wrong.
If you find yourself in this place frequently, you are what psychologists call a ruminator, or, an over-thinker, and this way of thinking can be harmful to your health. Psychologists have found that over-thinking can be detrimental to human performance, and can lead to anxiety and depression, especially in women, who are much more likely than men to ruminate on stress and disappointments than men.
As a psychologist and recovering over-thinker myself, I have a lot of compassion for people who end up in these spiraling negative thought patterns. Many over-thinkers are lovely, intelligent, nurturing people who value relationships and care deeply for the people in their lives. Unfortunately, they often push away the very people that they are worrying about or seeking support and reassurance from, because they can become obsessive, anxious, depressed, negative and difficult to be around. This is not a switch in the brain that can be easily flipped off, but rather, a pattern from which it requires dedication and work to recover. Based on research in psychology and my personal experiences, here is my advice for how to stop over-thinking and find peace in the present moment:
1) ACCEPT THAT YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH OVER-THINKING.
The first step to healing is acknowledging that you have a problem. If you feel like you can’t get out of your own head and over-thinking is stopping you from living a happy life, making decisions, getting things done, or forming meaningful relationships, then you have a problem. If you find yourself spiraling into negativity and depression when a bad thing happens, you have a problem. If your anxiety about the future is stopping you from enjoying the present, you have a problem. Burying your head in the sand or denying this reality will only make the situation worse. If you are not sure if you have a problem, ask your friends and loved ones to be honest with you, because they are usually the ones who will see it even if you cannot.
2) FORGIVE YOURSELF: OUR BRAINS ARE HARDWIRED THIS WAY
Once you can admit that you are an over-thinker, forgive yourself, because the brain is actually wired to make over-thinking a natural tendency. According to Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the leading expert in this field, “the organization of our brains sets us up for over-thinking” because our thoughts and memories are intrinsically woven together, not compartmentalized. So when stressors are triggered or you get into a bad mood, it can unlock a ‘cascade’ of racing negative thoughts that have nothing to do with the original trigger for the bad mood. Nolen-Hoeksema gives the example of “when poor job performance causes you to think about your aunt who died last year.”
Furthermore, when something bad happens or someone is feeling negative, they are more likely to think negative things and also see connections (that may not actually exist) between all the bad events that have happened in their lives. The more frequently this happens, the more likely the individual is to engage in this over-thinking pattern in the future.
While the brain might be wired to make these associations, once you become aware you can begin to solve the problem.
3) BREATHE MORE
If our brains are wired in this ‘interconnected spider web’ where one bad event can trigger a tidal wave of negative thought associations, how can we break this pattern?
The first and easiest thing you can do is BREATHE. Breathing will relax you, calm you, connect you to the present moment, and ground you to Mother Earth. It sounds so simple but often when our mind starts to race to bad places, we become manic and frantic when what we need to do is relax the body and mind.
The breathing technique that works for me involves lying down and taking a two-second long deep inhalation in through the nose, followed by a four-second long exhalation out through the mouth. This breathing pattern increases the CO2 in the bloodstream, which can relax the body and calm the adrenal system’s response to the obsessive thoughts. Do this for 10 minutes or until the excessive thinking slows down.
4) TALK LESS
So many over-thinkers, especially those of us of the female persuasion, can’t help but want to ‘talk it out’ when we are feeling stressed and worried. While talking about the worries can sometimes help, it usually will make things worse, especially if the person you are talking to is also an over-thinker, and you spend the entire time over-analyzing and dissecting every detail of every negative problem in your lives. You might end up working yourself up into a frenzy of negativity and feeling even more upset after the conversation.
This type of co-rumination, where two ruminators get together to over-think about their lives together, can lead both people deeper into negativity and stress. For example, research has uncoveredan association between co-rumination amongst female friends and increases in the stress hormone cortisol.
If you really feel the need to express your issues, you can always write them down, to clear them out of your mind and realize that your concerns might sound silly when you read them back to yourself. This type of free-association journaling has been incredibly beneficial for me.
5) GET PHYSICAL AND GET BUSY
What should you do instead of talking? Well, you already know to breathe to calm the body and mind, but sometimes you just want to let the energy out! In this case it can be incredibly beneficial to do something physical, whether it is going for a brisk walk, playing with a pet or children, doing yoga, playing sports, swimming, or running. Activities that are both mentally and physically engrossing are the best, because they require enough absorption to pull you out of obsessive thinking patterns and into a state of flow.
In addition to physical exercises, engrossing activities that stimulate the brain can also be effective for redirecting obsessive thought patterns. Playing cards, learning a language, or playing all different types of games can be great diversions or interrupters of these thoughts. Or you could always learn a new hobby, make art, draw, paint or take up crafting, such as making jewelry, clothes, dream catchers, hair extensions, really anything, You might actually discover a hidden talent you never knew you had, or be able to start a new career or meet new people as a result.
6) PRACTICE MINDFULNESS
One of the big things that over-thinkers struggle with is the ability to live in the present moment. So consumed by the failures of the past and the worries over the future, the present moment does not get the attention and love it deserves. Lao Tzu said that “if you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are living in the future, and if you are at peace you are living in the present.” So how can we live in peace in the present moment?
Well, we have already discussed some of the strategies that can help you quiet the mind and ground yourself to present moment, including breathing, talking less, getting physical and doing other activities that help redirect attention and bring the mind into flow. But one of the best things you can possibly do is practice mindfulness, a form of meditation where you focus on the present moment without judgment. As the obsessive, worrying thoughts come in, you acknowledge them, and then let them go, energetically releasing them and clearing your space. I strongly recommend learning mindful meditation techniques such as Transcendental Meditation, or if you are having trouble doing it yourself, seeking counseling from someone who practices Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
7) SURRENDER TO THE UNIVERSE
When we worry, we are essentially hoping to control the flow of life because we are attached to the outcome of a situation. We want things to happen a certain way, and we are terrified that things could go wrong or that bad things could happen. In reality, we have little to no control over the unfolding of events in life, at least not from the conscious standpoint that our worrying will directly impact the outcome in the way we want. So, we can worry and obsess, or we can accept all that IS and let go of our attachment to the outcomes. The universe is way older and wiser than us, and instead of obsessively worrying, we can let go of control and with love and trust, surrender to the universe.
Surrender does not mean giving up; It just means you are willing to go with the flow of the current, instead of trying to swim against it and getting repeatedly bashed into the rocks. Surrender is a form of release and a form of peace, because it means you are willing to trust that everything will work out as it is supposed to: Trust that everything happens in its proper time and place and you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Even the concept of worrying about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ outcomes is flawed from this perspective and nothing more than a symptom of duality, which is only an illusion. As you zoom out to the grand scheme of the universe, there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it is all ONE, two sides of the same coin.
8) REMEMBER, YOUR THOUGHTS CREATE YOUR REALITY
Even though I just said that ‘we have no control over the unfolding of events in life,’ and this is true at least from the part of the conscious mind and its ability to dictate events, our thoughts do energetically shape and create our reality over time. Like attracts like, and so the more you worry about something, the more you will begin to attract exactly the energy you are worried about! If you still haven’t seen the wonderful online series Spirit Science, I strongly recommend you view Episode 1, which does an excellent job explaining how our thoughts create our reality.
We must be mindful of our thoughts because our thoughts have power, more than we realize. If you obsessively fear losing your job, you are actually INCREASING the likelihood of getting fired, not decreasing it. Same if you are worrying about contracting a life-threatening disease or medical condition: The more energy you send in that direction, the more likely you are to unknowingly give permission to your body to manifest this condition.
Your thoughts and feelings will energetically create your life, which is why my life partner, sound healer Jimmy Ohm always says, “Worrying is a misuse of creative energy.” Do you want to create a happy life, living at peace in the momentt? If so, you have all of the tools to make this a reality by being mindful and present in your thoughts. You also have all of the tools to create a life of worry and negativity, if you continue to over-think and obsess about negative events. The choice is yours and I lovingly hope that you choose wisely. Blessings and Love!
Authors Note: Do you agree? Are you an over-thinker or recovering over-thinker? Have these tips worked for you? What other suggestions can you make to break this cycle? I would love to hear from you on Facebook or via email at DrKellyNeff@gmail.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kelly Neff is a social psychologist, author and educator who has helped thousands of people learn about healthy relationships, love and sexuality. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from Georgetown and M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. A professor of psychology since 2007, she has become an innovator in the field of online teaching with her book, Teaching Psychology Online and her YouTube lectures. Her articles on love, sex, spirituality and wellbeing have been featured by wellness websites like MindBodyGreen, The Mind Unleashed and more. Dr. Neff also gives workshops, lectures and integrative healing services that combine psychological techniques, empowerment training, Reiki, and other alternative therapies. When she isn’t writing, teaching or doing healing work from her home in Boulder, CO, Dr. Neff travels the globe researching transformational festivals for her upcoming book for the Festival Research Project. You can find her daily doses of inspiration and positivity on Facebook and Twitter. Light and Love!