A psychotherapist shares the 3 exercises she uses every day ‘to stop overthinking’
Overthinking is an anxious tendency that I encounter often in my psychotherapy practice. There are many ways we tend to overthink, such as rehashing the past — replaying the same scenario over and over in our head. Worrying is another form, in which we obsess over what the future might bring.
I can empathize. When I was younger, overthinking decreased my quality of life. Research has shown that overthinking can decrease energy, limit creativity and cause sleeping problems.
Eventually, I knew I needed a healthy way to cope, and I created a career out of helping other people do the same. Here are three strategies I use every day to stop overthinking:
1. Positive reframing
This is often confused with “toxic positivity,” which asks people to think positively — no matter how difficult a situation is.
Positive reframing, on the other hand, allows you to acknowledge the negative aspects, then asks you to evaluate whether there’s another way to think about the situation. Perhaps there are benefits or things you can change about it.
You constantly find yourself complaining: “I hate being a boss. On top of all these deadlines and responsibilities, it’s hard to manage so many complex personalities. It’s emotionally and mentally exhausting. My job just sucks.”
Venting might feel good for a second, but it doesn’t solve anything. And you’ll likely continue to dwell on how much you hate your job or how bad you think you are at managing.
To practice positive reframing, replace the thought above with: “Things are challenging right now and I’m feeling disconnected from some things on my plate. I wonder if I can change anything about this situation or my expectations about it.”
This thought pattern gives you the power to change your situation. You could start small by examining what important tasks needs to get done first, then either delay or delegate the rest until you are feeling less anxious. The key is to take a step back and deal with things one at a time.
2. Write down your thoughts once, then distract yourself for 24 hours
When our brains think we are in conflict or danger, a built-in alarm system goes off internally to protect us.
One thing I have found success with is writing down my feelings and waiting at least 24 hours (or just a few hours if it’s an urgent matter) before replying or taking any sort of impulsive action.
Then, I put that draft away while I distract myself with another task.
You just received an email about something that went awry. You are upset, your heart starts to race, your breathing gets shallow, and you become hyper-focused on what’s going wrong and why it’s your fault.
If you respond to the email while your brain is in “alarm mode,” you might say things you’ll regret later on, which may then fuel the vicious cycle of overthinking.
Writing negative thoughts down takes the power out of them; I often don’t feel the need to take action based on my anxious thoughts once I’ve written them down.
3. Practice ‘specific gratitude’
In psychology, we know that expressing gratitude can increase our happiness. It can help us contextualize our frustrations against what we love and help us connect to something larger than ourselves — whether that’s other people, animals, nature or a higher power.
But I find that repeating the same gratitude practice over and over again can become rote and diminish the returns. For me, it can start to feel like a meaningless chore instead of a mindful practice. So, I like to practice something that I call “specific gratitude.”
Instead of writing in my journal every day that “I am grateful for my health,” I’ll write something like, “I am grateful that I woke up today without any back pain and have the ability to do today’s workout.”
This helps me stay focused on the here and now, rather than overthinking on general abstractions. Tomorrow, I might still be grateful for my health, but I might specifically be grateful that I have enough energy for a long run.
Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and founder of Forward in Heels, an intersectional feminist group therapy practice in New York City that empowers all women to stand tall and own their worth.