Most of us are prone to overthinking at times. We might go over and over something in our mind, or wrestle for days with a decision we need to make. This can lower our mood, trigger anxiety and stop us being productive and happy. Overthinking comes in a few different forms, and each one can be managed with a specific approach.
Rumination is when someone repeatedly mulls over something that’s happened in the past, for example a mistake they’ve made. They might ponder ‘Why did I do that?’, ‘What could I have done differently?’ or ‘Why is this still affecting me now?’. Rumination is often a feature in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People sometimes don’t realise they’re doing it – they might suddenly notice that two hours have passed, or get to work and be unable to remember the journey.
It can help to recognise when you’re ruminating, and notice the impact it’s having on your mood. It’s easy to believe that you’re doing it for a reason, to figure out how you could have prevented something from happening perhaps, but it will probably only make you feel worse. You can’t go back and change the past, and it’s usually impossible to know exactly why things happen.
The best way to manage rumination is to understand when you’re most likely to do it, and plan your time, consciously choosing to do a task that absorbs your attention. If it tends to happen on your train journey to work, listen to a podcast. If it happens while you’re cooking dinner, practice mindfulness – notice the different smells, the texture of the food as you chop and stir, the taste of the finished meal. Try to ask yourself more compassionate questions; instead of why it happened you could examine how it happened, to get a different perspective.
Worrying tends to focus on ‘what ifs’ around something that will or might happen in the future. For example, if you have a big work event coming up you might worry ‘What if I say something stupid in front of the boss?’, ‘What if I spill soup on my blouse?’ or ‘What if I’m sitting with people I don’t know?’. Imagining worst case scenarios like this is often a major problem in anxiety disorders.
As with rumination, it’s useful to notice when you’re worrying, acknowledge the impact it’s having – and then problem solve if that’s at all possible. Some worries are real and current, but many are hypothetical. If you’re worrying about the fact that your car is broken, consider what you can do about it. Write down as many solutions as possible – together with pros and cons for each – then put one of them into practice.
Worrying about whether your car will break down on the way to an important appointment isn’t helpful. It could happen, but it’s not happening now. You might believe that worrying about hypothetical scenarios is a form of planning and preparation; that it’ll help you cope better with a problem or head it off at the pass. But putting a lot of thought and effort into something that never happens is exhausting! Acknowledge the worry, and that it’s hypothetical, then try to let it go. It can also be beneficial to pinpoint a situation in the past when you coped fine with something that happened unexpectedly, despite not having worried about it in advance.
Negative thinking patterns, or NATS (negative automatic thoughts) are a common factor in depression, and involve seeing things in ‘black and white’. Negative thoughts tend to manifest in response to something that’s just happened. Sometimes people ‘personalise’ a situation, for example if they wave at a neighbour who doesn’t wave back they might fret that they’ve upset her. Generalising is also typical. You might have an appraisal at work which is 70% positive feedback and 30% highlighting areas that need improvement. A negative thinker will focus on the 30%, telling themselves they’re rubbish at everything they do in their job – or everything they do full stop!
The first thing to remember is that the thoughts are very often not an accurate reflection of the situation itself, but of how you think about it. Then evaluate whether your interpretation is true or not. Look at the evidence and the facts objectively, imagining what a judge would say in court when presented with them. Are you really bad at everything you do at work, or do you do a pretty good job most of the time? Does your neighbour dislike you, or was she running to the car – so was probably just late for work and preoccupied?
Struggling with decisions is another form of overthinking. Someone who is experiencing impaired cognitive ability due to depression or anxiety might find making decisions harder. This could be because they’re ruminating on a past decision they feel they didn’t get right, or worrying about what might happen in the future if they make a decision they regret later on. The techniques described above can help here, if you’re able to recognise what’s behind your difficulties. It can also be effective if you think about the times you’ve got it right: list five decisions you were pleased with and had good outcomes. This will help boost your confidence in your decision making ability, and break the stalemate.
Sometimes people find making even small decisions a torturous process – for instance, choosing what to eat in a restaurant. Someone with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) might crave certainty, so they’ll pick something they’ve had 10 times before and know they’ll enjoy. You can help to break this pattern by challenging yourself to try something new, or do something different, then notice what the result is.
If you find the tips we’ve shared in this article hard to put into practice, you could seek support and guidance from therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will help you learn how to change your thinking and behaviour – for example learning how to let hypothetical worries go, or addressing beliefs that rumination is a useful activity.