Are you familiar with well-meaning friends saying, “Oh, stop worrying so much”? When you’re really worried, this can feel like a brush off. Reflecting on past experiences can be helpful in problem-solving and overcoming dilemmas, but overthinking / rumination takes this to the next level. It offers few new insights and often serves to intensify our negative feelings. We become narrowly focused on the things that are not going well instead of seeing the bigger picture. These ruminative thoughts can keep us up late at night overthinking the situation – we can get caught in loop thinking which isn’t helpful.
What can be done to stop ruminating? Here are some tips that may help.
Identify the thought or fear. What is your biggest fear? Maybe you are afraid of getting fired or looking foolish in front of others. Journaling can be a great way to clarify the underlying fear.
Think about the worst-case scenario. This may sound like an awful suggestion, but we can often handle the worst-case scenario, which takes away the power of the original thought. Ask yourself two questions:
- What is the worst thing that can happen?
- Can I handle that?
Most likely, the answer is yes. Human beings are very resilient. Remember, sometimes our biggest hardships can turn into our biggest growth experiences.
Let go of what you can’t control. Ask yourself “what can I change, if anything?” If you cannot change the situation, let it go. For things you can change, set up a list of small goals and make the appropriate changes.
Look at mistakes as learning opportunities. For example, I was once late for a flight. I did not get to go away with my friends and missed out on a great weekend. I was critical of my tardiness and letting down my friends. Once I asked myself “what is the lesson I learned?” I calmed down and applied this lesson to future experiences. I now give myself more time for the journey and arrive early. This served as a valuable lesson. There’s no need to continue to berate myself. In addition, it’s good to remind yourself how far you’ve come. Every time you make a mistake, you learn something new.
Schedule a worry break. Schedule 20 minutes a day to worry and make the most of it. This allows for a time and place to think about all your biggest insecurities while containing it to a specific period of time. At other times of the day, remind yourself that you will have time to contemplate later.
Mindfulness. We spend so much time thinking about past mistakes or worrying about future events, that we spend very little time in the here and now. A good example of this is every time we find ourselves on “autopilot” while driving a car. The practice of mindfulness is a great way to reduce our “thinking” selves and increase our “sensing” selves in the here and now. For example, ask yourself what you hear, feel, smell, see and taste. This can help ground you in the present moment. Mindfulness is an important skill for enjoying the significant moments in life. Enjoying coffee with a friend can be disrupted if we begin thinking about all the things we need to do that day. When you notice your mind wandering, gently guide it back to the present.
Be aware of the fact that you are ruminating and realise that it isn’t helpful. Catch it and come back to the present. Comparing your current state to your desired state will also simply make you feel worse, as well as going through all the “if… then” scenarios you can imagine. Accepting the situation, being in the present moment and letting go of negative thought while logically working on an action plan is the key to overcoming worry and rumination.
Exercise. Go for a walk. A change of scenery can disrupt our thoughts and give us new perspective.
Know that solutions are not simply black or white. Worriers and ruminators often get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking and have a hard time seeing anything positive or hopeful in any situation. They’ll think, “I have to either stay in this dead end job and be miserable the rest of my life or quit and lose my house.” But there are other solutions too. Enlist the help of a trusted friend or therapist to help you problem solve other solutions to your worries. They exist – you’re just not seeing them. Stay focused on your immediate worries and don’t get caught up in the past, which of course, you can’t change. By taking control of your worrisome thoughts and your ruminations, you’re letting yourself live and feel better in the present.
Remember that you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are just part of you and they will fade away if you do not hold on to them. Examine your thoughts curiously and without judgment. Stop judging situations or experiences. It will not change them or make them any different and will just waste your energy.
Try therapy. If ruminative thoughts are interfering with living the life you want to live, consider reaching out. Counselling is a great way to learn how to use these techniques with the help and guidance of a professional.