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Most of us have had experiences where we can't stop thinking about something, no matter how hard we try. We pick apart the situation to see what we could have done differently or try to analyze the minutiae of the incident to figure out what it all means. Clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema referred to this process as rumination and defined it as "a method of coping with negative mood that involves self-focused attention" and "repetitive and passive focus on one’s negative emotions."
Though most of us ruminate from time to time, some people ruminate frequently, and people who do this are at higher risk for depression, disordered eating, and other mental health issues. Below are nine strategies that Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema and others have recommended for coping with overthinking.
1. Recognize that rumination is different than problem-solving or planning. Problem-solving and planning are active coping strategies, while rumination involves rethinking situations, analyzing them, and replaying them without forming an action plan or feeling a sense of resolution. Sometimes simply recognizing that you're ruminating can be a helpful step toward decreasing it and getting on a different track.
2. Research suggests that distraction may help. Because the pull of rumination can be strong, Dr. Edward Selby suggests specifically selecting activities that are highly engaging and positive, so that they effectively shift your attention from overthinking. Examples may include vigorous exercise, taking a hot shower, doing a crossword puzzle, holding an ice cube in your hand (a suggestion from dialectical behavior therapy), watching an engrossing movie, playing a game, or any other type of healthy activity that you find helpful.
3. Stop fighting with your thoughts. This might seem counterintuitive, but acceptance and commitment therapy suggests that efforts to stop certain thoughts can have a paradoxical effect. If you observe your thoughts in non-judgmental wonder (e.g., thinking it’s interesting your mind is repeating something, rather than getting frustrated with yourself for not being able to stop it), they might decrease in frequency or intensity. The example that is often used is trying not think about a white bear and being unable to think of anything else. If you instead allow yourself to think of the white bear, you may actually think of it less or at least not feel as distressed by it. More details about this approach, including useful metaphors, are available here.
4. Challenge perfectionistic standards with cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. Are you judging your behavior against an unrealistic vision of how a person would ideally act in a situation? Are you overly focused on any minor missteps or negative aspects while discounting the positive aspects? One strategy that might help is thinking about what you would tell a friend who felt the way that you do.
5. Plan dedicated daily rumination time. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema recommended scheduling a dedicated time (e.g., 30 minutes) in the day when you plan to ruminate, an exercise similar to one developed by Dr. Thomas Borkovec for worry. This might sound strange, but the idea is that if you start ruminating or worrying at any other time during the day, it is easier to change course if you think to yourself, "I don't need to think about this now. I will save it for my designated time later." In my experience, when people devote time to ruminating in a focused way, they often find that they can't fill the full time, or they find some resolution at the end of it. This is in contrast to a common pattern of ruminating, which involves going in and out of it in a shallow way of thinking throughout the day while completing other tasks.
6. Try relating to your thoughts differently via mindfulness or prayer. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema conducted community interviews and reported that some people turn their concerns over to a higher power when ruminating, and that this seems to help them gain acceptance and peace about a situation. In particular, some clients that I have worked with find the serenity prayer to be helpful. For people who are not religious or who are just looking for an additional healthy coping strategy, she suggested trying meditation and/or mindfulness exercises.
7. Write thoughts out instead of letting them circle around in your head. The key is to make sure that the writing is leading to a sense of resolve and relief rather than adding a new place for ruminating. If you find that it makes things worse, then it is best to try some of the other strategies.
8. Talk to someone about the problem and gain a new perspective. Just beware of co-rumination ("extensively discussing and revisiting problems, speculating about problems, and focusing on negative feelings"), which can exacerbate the problem.
9. Create positive emotions. It might seem like this is particularly hard to do when stuck in a rumination cycle. However, if you can find a way to add some positive emotions (reading or watching something funny, listening to an upbeat song), even briefly, it might help you to look at your problem differently or in a more lighthearted way.
I hope that you find these recommendations helpful for reducing overthinking. However, if you feel that you are stuck or that your rumination is leading to significant distress or impairment in your life (e.g., negatively affecting relationships, work, or school), please seek help from a mental health professional. In addition, sometimes thoughts and memories can keep returning to people's minds because of the experience of a traumatic event. This can be quite different than rumination, and you should seek professional help specifically for trauma if that is what you are experiencing.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.