I’ve spent far too much time thinking about how to stop overthinking. For me, it’s not just a habit, but a means to an end — if I can examine every conceivable outcome in a particular situation, I may be able to regain some semblance of control (or at least the illusion of it). Analysis has long been my way of trying to find the universally “right” answer, and ultimately calm my anxiety. Of course, this approach has produced less than desirable results, which begs the question: How does one actually stop themselves from overthinking?
As any overthinker can attest, the cycle of rumination is exhausting, suffocating, and at the end of the day, fruitless. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my overthinking bordered on unhealthy, if not toxic at times. I’ve often found myself wishing I could straight-up ask mental health professionals about the rumination techniques they use in their personal lives, outside of a patient-doctor setting.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and all of the uncertainty it has created, I decided to do just that. Fortunately, Allison Kranich, licensed clinical professional counselor at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, and Allison G. Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, manager of behavioral health at Central DuPage Hospital and Delnor Hospital, were open to answering all of my questions. Both treat patients who suffer from rumination and overthinking, and have also experienced moments of it themselves.
Below, find everything you need to know about curbing rumination in the age of coronavirus, plus science-backed tips two therapists rely on themselves.
Overthinking Tip: Figure Out What’s Happening In Your Brain When You Ruminate
For starters, Kranich defines rumination as “the process of repetitively playing negative thoughts in our minds, like a hamster stuck on a wheel,” she tells TZR. Although rumination is common in people with clinical depression, anxiety, and a wide array of mental health disorders, individuals without diagnosable illnesses can also experience rumination.
The amygdala, or the brain’s stress response system, goes into overdrive when a person is overthinking. “This leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can result in high blood pressure, weight gain, sleep difficulties, heart disease, digestive problems, memory impairment, and more,” she explains. “Rumination also impacts the prefrontal cortex in the brain, which is responsible for memory, attention, problem solving, emotional expression, and decision making.”
When a person is flooded with excessive thoughts of worry or catastrophe, they may experience “rapid, shallow breathing, an increased heart rate, and muscle tension,” adds Johnsen. “If someone is in a heightened state of anxiety for an extended period of time, ‘brain fog’ can be temporarily experienced. When this happens, adding a row of numbers can be difficult, when normally a person can do it with ease.”
How To Avoid Overthinking & Anxiety, According To The Experts
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety and overthinking, there are a few techniques and strategies you can try to see what works for you. Below, find the scientifically proven methods that both Kranich and Johnsen recommend to patients (and practice themselves).
A personal favorite of Kranich’s, mindfulness meditation has been shown to boost overall psychological and physical well-being, including improved memory, attention, stress response, emotional regulation, blood pressure, immune system functioning, heart health, and more.
“While talking things out may provide some benefit, it is more likely that talking about stressful things will further intensify rumination," she explains. "Instead, the practice of mindfulness is a much better go-to. It’s simply about being present. Rather than indulging in my worries, I can recognize that I’m worrying, and draw my attention elsewhere — like the sound of rain outside or the bliss of a cup of coffee. My attention will, and always does, wander, but the practice of mindfulness doesn’t imply getting rid of these worries and thoughts, but simply recognizing they exist and saying, ‘No thanks, I’m choosing to turn my attention to something more pleasant.’”
It’s about recognizing that you have no control over the thoughts that appear in your head, but you can consciously choose how you relate to these thoughts. “I can jump on those negative thoughts and let them grow (rumination), or let them continue on their way,” she adds. She specifically regards Headspace as a “fantastic” resource for learning mindfulness. “The most important thing to remember is that mindfulness takes practice. Trying to rush to the finish line will only lead to greater distress.”
Johnsen prefers diaphragmatic breathing, or focusing on the breath, in times of panic or stress. “Focusing solely on slowing the breath will in turn slow the heart," she says. "This calms the mind, and ‘resets’ your mental state so that you can think clearly again." To try this yourself, “slowly blow all air out of the lungs, until you get the urge to inhale, then inhale very deeply, filling the lungs as completely as possible,” she instructs. “Hold your breath for several seconds, then slowly release your breath, counting the seconds as you do so. Continue exhaling slowly, until it feels like there’s no more air in the lungs. Repeat this process for several minutes.”
Johnsen also recommends paying attention to what your internal thoughts are doing to your mental state, and building awareness around your internal monologue. “It’s a long process, but awareness is key,” she notes. “If you know how your thinking patterns progress, you have a chance to change them.” To start, try keeping a journal of your internal dialogue, and intentionally replace any damaging thoughts with more neutral or positive sentiments. Over time, you’ll be able to catch yourself in negative thought patterns and begin making positive changes.
When it comes to anxiety and overthinking, distraction is a powerful tool. As Kranich mentioned above, sometimes talking about your worries or problems only makes them feel more tangible and real. Instead, make it a priority to get out of your head and focus on something else. Going for a walk outside and observing your surroundings, cooking, crafting, exercising, reading, catching up with friends, and listening to soothing music are all great options.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Johnsen also recommends a technique known as progressive muscle relaxation, which is the process of relaxing the mind by first relaxing the body. “When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious,” reports the University of Michigan Medicine. “Practicing progressive muscle relaxation for a few weeks will help you improve this skill and, in time, you’ll be able to use this method to relieve stress.” This technique involves tensing a group of muscles in a certain order as you breathe in, and relaxing them as you breathe out.
Overthinking In The Age Of Coronavirus
Unsurprisingly, both Kranich and Johnsen have been talking to patients about COVID-19-related anxiety on a daily basis. “Loss of control and fear of the unknown can be a recipe for disaster, but it’s important to focus on what we can control versus what we cannot,” notes Kranich. “I try — the key word being try — to focus on things that I can control throughout the day. I can’t control what is on the news, but I can control how often I check it. I can’t control the virus itself, but I can keep myself safe by washing my hands and staying away from crowded places.”
For Johnsen, self-reliance is an important part of anxiety management. “Learning to believe in yourself is important — knowing that, no matter what can happens, you can handle it, can go a long way,” she notes. “It’s also important to stay focused on the present moment, not on all the terrible things that can go wrong in the future. Stay busy, distract yourself with positive activities like working out or crafting, and be productive. It helps.”
Rumination & Self-Acceptance
Practicing self-acceptance and reframing seemingly “negative” character traits can do wonders for anxiety management and confidence. People and personality traits are not one-dimensional, and rumination is no exception.
“In my experience, people who experience rumination tend to be extremely passionate, whether it be an eagerness to do well at work or a desire to contribute to a positive cause,” says Kranich. Johnsen echoed that sentiment, adding that “people with functional levels of anxiety are often high achievers — they tend to be very responsible, reliable, and productive. The challenge is in recognizing when rumination is occurring, redirecting the mind, and gaining control in order to maximize physical and psychological potential.”
On a personal level, reframing the act of rumination itself has been helpful. Rather than allowing myself to overthink in an attempt to regain control, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that things take time to make sense, that there are no perfect answers, and that uncertainty is one of the only constants in life — and all of that is perfectly OK.