How to Stop Stress-Induced Overthinking, According to Mental Health Experts
In slow-pitch softball, I couldn't buy a hit. I would stand at bat, waiting, planning, and preparing for the ball. And that was the problem. My brain and all its relentless stress overthinking sabotaged my instinct.
I'm hardly the only one who struggles with stress overthinking. Everyone does. In fact, research shows that your brain constantly tries to forecast the future, to anticipate what will come next. In caveman times, that meant a fast prediction that a lion was probably following the herd of running antelopes, so stay away. Today it means mulling the healthfulness of every item on a four-page restaurant menu before picking the one that's equal parts delicious and diet-friendly or agonizing over just the right witty words to post on Facebook in anticipation of judgment by hundreds of people. Think of it as sabotage—your instinct is overruled and soon your stress levels skyrocket, making it that much harder to reach your goals.
Odds are you also fret about your past experiences and decisions. (Uh, same.) But while some self-reflection helps you survive and thrive, too much can make you feel trapped and overwhelmed. "When you're stress overthinking, you're going round and round in a loop instead of moving forward and problem-solving," explains Lori Hilt, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
The Link Between Stress Overthinking and Emotions
Women tend to be overthinkers. For instance, a 2002 meta-analysis suggests that women are 42 percent more likely to ruminate than men are when they're feeling down. This may be because women are more attuned to their emotions and try really hard to understand what causes them. Your individual tendency to overthink may also be linked to how you were raised. Having critical parents may set you up to do it, perhaps because such mothers and fathers try to overly stress about mistakes, according to research published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
No matter what causes overthinking, everyone can relate. "We spend most of our time in the past or the future," says Hilt. "It's very hard to be in the present moment. Our minds are always racing."
Take my slow-pitch problem: my failure to hit the ball can be considered "choking under pressure," according to Sian Beilock, Ph.D., the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. When you have too much time before you have to perform, the conscious mind takes over what should be an instinctive reaction and assesses every possible action or solution until it sputters and fades, Beilock explains. "We tend to think that having a lot of time is beneficial and that paying more attention is a good thing, but often it adds the opportunity for error and disrupts performance," she says. (Related: How to Deal With Performance Anxiety and Nerves Before a Race)
Similarly, processing endless little choices each day (what to share on Instagram; which of your 100 daily emails to save, delete, or reply to; which of the thousands of shows and movies on Netflix to watch) can get in the way when an important decision pops up. That's because every time you have to make a choice—whether to, say, go to the gym or sleep in—you sap some of your willpower, which lessens your self-control. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue. "When you have it, you tend to take the default option because it's easier," says Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Florida State University and co-author of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. You order a pizza because you're too overwhelmed to think about what to make for dinner, or you buy the expensive appliance because you're stressed out by comparison shopping. (Related: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Willpower)
7 Ways to Ease Stress and Overthinking
There's a fine line between thinking constructively and slipping into a toxic thought spiral. The key is being able to stop obsessing over whatever is bothering you and to move on to problem-solving—or just letting it go if there's nothing you can do. Try these tips when your head is spinning from stress overthinking.
When your mind is replaying the same thoughts over and over, distract yourself. For instance, every time you start ruminating about why you can't get over your ex, conjure up the juicy deliciousness of a ripe red apple or, better still, Zac Efron's abs. Instead of analyzing ad infinitum how your boss critiqued your latest project, go out and see a funny movie with friends. Research published in the journal Behavior Research Therapy shows that people who can refocus on positive or neutral thoughts or activities were less depressed than those who continued to ruminate. Later, when you're in a happier frame of mind, you can work on coming up with solutions and a plan of action. (BTW, there’s a *right* way to be optimistic.)
Change your perspective
When you're completely immersed in your own problems, it's hard to break free. So instead, pretend you're listening to a friend's troubles and then giving her advice on what to do. (You wouldn't berate your bestie for what's on her mind, right?) In a series of studies, Ethan Kross, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that when you act as an observer of yourself, you're less emotional about your problems, your blood pressure is lower, and you're in a better mood, even days later. Changing your perspective actually changes your thoughts and physiology. Plus—who knows?—you might come up with a smart solution or two once you stop stress overthinking.
Practice being present
Doing even a short session of mindfulness meditation—concentrating on the present moment by bringing your attention to your breath and coming back to it whenever your mind wanders—may help reduce rumination, according to research. If you're not the sit-and-be-Zen type, take a cycling or dance class and concentrate on your movements. "Anything that trains your attention on the present can be helpful in keeping your mind from wandering to the past or thinking about the future," says Hilt.
It's also a good idea to keep your eyes on the prize. Trusting your gut and ignoring every last possibility can help when you're struggling with stress overthinking related to a big decision, such as buying a house or accepting a job offer. "It's not always better to have more choices," says Beilock. "Some research shows that when people have too many options, they're not very satisfied with any of them."
Establish a routine
To prevent decision fatigue, remove the piddly decisions from your life. "There's President Obama's strategy to wear the same kind of suit every day while in-office so he doesn't waste his energy making minor decisions," says Baumeister. "For the same reason, some people have a set routine every morning; they eat the same breakfast, take the same route to work and so on. You don't want to use up your brainpower making decisions at a mundane level; you want to save it for the more important things." (But remember, there are some times it’s good to shake up your routine.)
Score some shut-eye
Get your zzz's—at least seven hours a night. "If you have a decent amount of sleep and a good breakfast, you start the day with plenty of willpower," says Baumeister. And that fuels you to make decisions without feeling overloaded. But what if you can't snooze because pesky thoughts are running in circles in your brain? Mindfulness training helps with this kind of stress overthinking, too. Try focusing on your breathing, counting backward, or singing a song in your head to quiet your mind and lull you into dreamland, says Beilock. (Related: 3 Breathwork Techniques That Can Improve Your Health)
Trust your gut
When you're replaying a moment from your day, wondering if you did or said the right thing, or worried about the future, confide in and take advice from someone you look up to and trust, like a parent, coach, or mentor. While it's helpful to have someone rooting for you, a lucky charm can provide the same boost: In a German study, golfers who were given a "lucky" golf ball and told that others had performed extremely well with it hit the ball much better than those who weren't informed of that tidbit. Likewise, when you're contemplating a career change and fretting over everything that could go wrong, having faith that it will all just work out helps relieve some of the pressure that comes from feeling as though you have to be in control all the time.
Just do it
Whether you're trying to hit a ball or rock a work assignment, don't dwell. "Just start a project rather than waiting and thinking about every aspect of it," recommends Beilock. "Focus on an outcome, the one goal you want to achieve. That prevents your mind from wandering to all the other things that could have an impact on your performance." In other words, you won't overthink it. (Up Next: 11 Foods That Can Actually Relieve Stress)