Do you frequently find yourself unable to sleep because you’re dwelling on a difficult situation that you’ve run into recently? Do you have days when you feel a mounting sense of anxiety because you’re anticipating that a problem you’re facing will cascade into a catastrophe? Do you frequently beat yourself up emotionally over something that you regret having said or done?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you could be suffering from what psychologists call self-focused rumination. It’s the propensity to overthink problems. It’s characterized by endlessly and excessively thinking about what caused you to do something and what the subsequent consequences could be. It’s needlessly pondering on problems and how your mistakes might reflect poorly on you as a person in the eyes of others.
Many people mistakenly believe that that when they‘re upset they should focus on their feelings in an effort understand and evaluate the situation. But dwelling on what went wrong, who said what, and where the blame should be placed will only make you feel worse.
Even if you’re obsessing over how to fix a problem, you’re keeping your mental resources centered on the negative aspects of living. This prevents you from letting go of life’s difficulties so you can direct your attention and energy to creating positive counterbalance.
Although people believe they’re helping themselves to overcome a problem when they’re ruminating, numerous studies show that overthinking deepens sadness, distorts perceptions, promotes pessimism, heightens anxiety, and causes problems with concentration. The mix of dwelling and becoming increasingly distraught is a doom loop that drags people down into feelings of being powerless, overwhelmed, self-critical, helpless, and hopelessly unhappy.
Everyone’s life contains conflicts, setbacks, illness, rejection, reversals, and failures. Research reveals that unhappy people allow themselves to react strongly to these events rather than shaking off their troubles by thinking about how to effectively manage their emotions. Happy people, on the other hand, have developed the ability to distract their thoughts away from the dark side of life by consciously diverting their awareness to contemplating what makes them feel good about their past, present, and future.
Positive thought processes are something that people learn. Babies are not born either optimists or pessimists; they are taught how to explain what’s happening in their world. Some parents provide a model of looking at what’s wrong and how it’s likely get worse. Other parents teach their children to look for the silver lining in any cloud and how to find the door that opens when one has closed.
If you’re plagued by overthinking, you’ll need to break your habit of obsessing over negatives and learn how to redirect your thoughts to positive experiences and optimistic outcomes. The first lesson will be to tell yourself “STOP!” whenever you catch yourself ruminating. Then immediately distract yourself into an activity that’s engrossing enough to command your attention. Anything that makes you feel happy, proud, amused, or light-hearted will work. Good bets include listening to music, watching a funny TV show, talking to a friend, or becoming absorbed in activities that awaken your senses.
The second strategy requires becoming proactive, which is converting thoughts into actions. Generate possible solutions that that you feel would be satisfactory. Disarm your fearful voice by reminding yourself that there’s no perfect solution. Redirect your thinking by writing down your vision of a positive outcome.
Then figure out a first step you’re willing to take to get yourself into action. If you’re unsure, ask yourself whose decision-making ability you respect and imagine what choice they’d make. Focus your mind on finding a small first step by concentrating on issues such as when you’ll act and who could support you.
The third lesson is to build your self-confidence by reinforcing and rewarding your efforts to think and act differently. Confidence comes from being able to count on yourself to do what you say you’re going to do. Once you’ve taken a few steps, you’ll start feeling more positive about yourself. Success will put you in a good mood, which will give you energy for producing more positive outcomes.
The final lesson is to alter those situations that trigger your overthinking. To the greatest extent possible avoid people and places that arouse your anxiety. Modify your patterns in those predictable situations that set you off, such as going to bed at night. Insert an activity like writing down three good things that happened to you each day into your bedtime routine to refocus your train of thought.