We all ruminate sometimes. But if you’re still kicking yourself because your kid caught COVID at a family gathering last year or replaying that awkward Zoom meeting on a loop in your brain, you’re trapping yourself in your own head — which can be exhausting and harmful for your mental health. Overthinking is a common trap to fall into, and there are ways to break the habit.
Overthinking is closely connected to unhappiness. Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema famously linked rumination, the clinical term for overthinking, to depression. Unlike concern or even worry, which can lead us toward productive action, overthinking is circular, an endless cycle of chewing over what’s already happened, from small social missteps to life-changing choices.
Now, it’s important to further understand the distinction between overthinking and worrying. “Worrying is helpful when it can lead to an action that will actually reduce risk in some way,” explains Katie Gordon, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy and author of The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook. A parent who is worried about a proposal to lift a mask mandate at their child’s school, for example, may feel motivated to speak out at a school board meeting.
But if you’re kind of repeating thoughts over and over again once you’ve done those things in your control and you find that it’s amplifying the anxiety without leading to a helpful action, then that, per Gordon, can be an indication that its rumination.
Signs that you’ve crossed the line from productive concern to troublesome overthinking include sleeplessness and disruptions in your relationship, according to Alice Boyes, Ph.D., a former therapist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points. If you’re thinking yourself in circles instead of sleeping, it might be time to consider some changes. The same is true for irritability. If, per Boyes, “you’re finding that you’re getting irritable with people because you’ve got this second level of stress that’s making your fuse shorter,” then it’s worth taking some steps.
So if you are stuck in a cycle of overthinking, what can you do to break the habit? Here are a few straightforward strategies to consider.
1. Go easy on yourself
Adopting the habit of self-compassion, or treating yourself with the same empathy that most of us would naturally offer to someone else in distress, is one way to beat rumination. “It’s basically acknowledging what you’re feeling, not pushing it away, not making it bigger or smaller,” said Boyes. “It’s naming the specific emotions that you’re feeling, like feeling anxious or feeling embarrassed or guilty.”When you reflect on your feelings, remember that how you’re feeling is human and that all people experience the same kinds of feelings.”
Rumination is being stuck in your head, and by helping you connect with others, self-compassion, helps you escape.
Psychologist Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion, acknowledges that people are often reluctant to treat themselves empathetically. She suggests taking a self-compassion break when you feel pain or other emotional turmoil. Pause for as little as two minutes, speak to yourself with kind words, place your hands over your heart, and remember that even if you feel alone, you aren’t.
2. Hey, look over there!
Distraction is an excellent way to get back on track when you find yourself overthinking. Practice a new song on an instrument. Cook a new recipe. It’s best to try something new when you’re trying to distract yourself, as it will demand more of your focus and keep you out of your head. “If you’re an experienced knitter, you can do that and ruminate at the same time,” Boyes warned. “But if you’re never knitted before, and you are watching a video and trying to knit along, then it is a good cognitive distraction.”
3. Embrace “worry time”
The concept of worry time is one tool used in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people manage overthinking. To try it, set aside 10-20 minutes a day. Per Gordon, you want to tell yourself that’s the time you’re going to let your mind just go and think about whatever is causing you to overthink. The trick is to then do your best to confine your rumination to the time you’ve set aside. “Any other time during the day when I start thinking about it, I’m going to just gently remind myself that I have a time aside time later,” she says.
Though this technique may sound overly simplistic, it does seem to help. “You’re not telling your mind, just push away the thoughts,” she says. “You’re just kind of saying, I’m going to address that later.”
4. Acknowledge your lack of control
Rumination, according to Gordon, is one of the most common reasons why people see a therapist. Interestingly enough, she thinks the pandemic may have helped some of her patients with their overthinking tendency because the ongoing uncertainty of the past two years has forced us to acknowledge that we have limited control over our circumstances. That acknowledgment means we spend less time agonizing over choices we have already made. This far into the pandemic, we understand that we are doing the best we can with the — often imperfect — information at hand.
Gordon suggested a strategy from the therapist Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap. “Identify what’s in your control, what are your values, and the actions that best align with that,” Gordon explained. “And then it’s cultivating acceptance that you can’t know for sure what the best action was.”
Accepting a lack of control is hard, per Gordon, particularly for parents who have had to make big decisions under less-than-ideal circumstances throughout the pandemic. No one wants to say “I took all the information I had, and I’m going to have to make my best guess,” she noted, especially when we’re thinking about our kids. Nevertheless, “we don’t know for sure what’s going to be the best thing.”
“That acceptance,” she added, “can be a meaningful lesson.”
5. Consider seeking therapy
When Boyes was a practicing therapist, she started sessions with a new client by asking them how long they’d been experiencing their issues before they sought therapy. “It was almost always years,” she said. “The general pattern is for people to wait far, far too long.” If you are thinking about going to therapy, that’s a good sign that you should go to therapy, Boyes added.
People tend to think of therapy as a long-term commitment, Boyes said, but it doesn’t have to be a months- or years-long process. “There is a type of therapy they call single-session cognitive behavioral therapy, which is just based on a single session.” People can use the session to make a plan to tackle overthinking and consider coming back in a month or so to talk about how the plan is working or how it needs to be tweaked. The toe-dipping is certainly something to consider.
A benefit to using these strategies for combating overthinking, Boyes added, is that your child gets to see you working through some challenging situations and emotions. And that will help your kids develop these essential skills, too.