Is this thought helpful? 5 ways to stop overthinking in its tracks

We’ve all had intrusive, negative and anxious thoughts, never more so than in the last few years with the pandemic. They can feel all consuming at times, like they’re the only thoughts we’ve ever had and that we’ll never escape them and their repeating pattern.

Having a day like that when your brain is on high alert is normal. But there’s no reason to suffer through them – you are in control of them, even if it might not always feel like that.

Distance yourself from your thoughts

a man holds his head while sitting on a sofa

Take it for what it is – a thought and nothing more. Our brains are hardwired to look for evidence that what it is thinking is fact, regardless of how true the notion is. Confirmation bias is real and your brain is an expert.

Take a step back and really view it from a removed angle – this is something your brain has come up with to try validate your fear – it is not real and does not change the situation. It’s just trying to change how you’re looking at the situation to make you feel fear and take action, regardless of whether it’s needed or not. Let the thought pass you by and move on.

Ask whether the thought is helpful

man wearing black crew-neck top

Our brain is always looking out for us – it’s designed to anticipate danger and try to get us out of it. But when you’re chilling out on a Friday night and you have a random panicky thought along the lines of ‘Where’s my birth certificate/ passport/ credit card?’- we know that’s not helpful.

How does knowing or not knowing where it is change anything from the moment before you had the thought when everything as fine? Is this something you need right now or will need in the next few days? Or is your brain just on high alert for no apparent reason? It’s important to recognise when you actually need your brain to be working overtime to help you out of stressful situation and when it’s just agitated and looking for a random concern to latch on to. Interrogate that focus-less panic and see what may have triggered it in your routine or day – often the answer is further back than we think.

Find a distraction

person wearing blue and white sneakers

We get it. Some days, there is just no escaping your thoughts. You can talk yourself down with logic and facts all you like, but sometimes your head is on attack mode and there’s nothing you can do but weather the storm.

It’s really important to do some prep for days like this. Usually they happen because something has triggered the anxious thinking or we haven’t been looking after ourselves and mental health and everything builds up into one big catastrophe. Having healthy coping mechanisms and avenues of support are essential on days like this. I’m not talking Instagram selfcare, with a frothy bubble bath, glass of wine and cute facial products – it can be as messy, lazy, active or chaotic as you like. Whether it’s going for a run or sticking on your favourite Friends episode, or calling up that one person who’s always able to calm you down, find a way to drown out the noise and distract yourself from the hubbub.

See the thought form another’s point of view

two women sitting on wooden dock over body of water

Changing your perspective is easier said than done. But it’s a very useful habit to get into and can even eventually stop overthinking in its tracks. Imagine if a friend was talking to you the way your mind was talking to you. If they were coming up with scenarios like the catastrophic ones you’re imagining in your head or speaking negatively about themselves in the way you are to yourself – actually visualise this friend voicing these thoughts.

You would immediately jump in to let them know they’re not true, right? You would never let them be so hard on themselves, beat themselves up like that or get into a state. You be kind and calming and not fanning the fire by egging on and indulging these thoughts. You’d be concerned and want the best for them. As you should be for yourself.

Picture the best-case scenario

man wearing red long-sleeved shirt standing beside wall

When our brain is afraid or triggered by something, it usually begins to make it’s way down a well-worn thought pattern that always leads to the worst case scenario. It’s so easy to spiral, to get stuck in a pattern of negative thinking that can have us panicking over something that has never happened and will never happen at all.

To interrupt the pattern, next time you see your thoughts taking a familiar and dreaded turn, ask yourself what’s the best way that this can work out? How would this scenario be different if I flipped it on its head and changed the narrative? What if instead of ‘I have a Zoom work presentation tomorrow and my camera might not work and then someone might call on me and I’ll get flustered and say something stupid and then my boss will hate me and maybe I’ll get fired and - ’ you change the story to ‘I have a Zoom work presentation tomorrow and I’m going to smash it and my boss will love what I’ve been working on and maybe even consider me for the promotion.’ Interrupt your thoughts flow to interrupt the panic pattern.

Fiona Murphy is a freelance writer, specialising in book-related content, fiction and poetry. She can be found drinking tea, craving tapas or attempting to finish her never-ending-novel.

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