How to Stop Overthinking and Relax
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Learn how to stop overthinking and relax for improved stress and mood.
Excessive worrying. Racing thoughts. Worst-case scenarios. A highly distracted mind.
There is probably nothing more frustrating than overthinking and excessive worrying.
Not only is this incredibly frustrating, but I’m guessing that this probably interferes in your life in all kinds of ways:
Your productivity and hustle.
Your energy and motivation.
Your social interactions.
Your ability to relax.
Overthinking can lead to feelings of distress, anxiety, and restlessness. One of the best ways to take control of our lives is to learn how to stop overthinking and relax.
Learn to manage overthinking by:
1) Recognizing overthinking early
2) Utilizing cognitive strategies to manage unhelpful thoughts
3) Calming down the nervous system to better relax
How to Stop Overthinking and Relax: Recognize Unhelpful Thought Patterns Early
The good news is, there are many strategies that can help to quiet an overly active mind. But first, it’s important to gain awareness of when the mind is starting to worry excessively, ruminate, or overthink.
The earlier that we can catch these types of thoughts, the better that we will be able to take action. Everyone has repetitive thoughts that tend to go through their mind in various situations.
Learning to identify these thoughts early as they apply to situations in your life is crucial for learning how to stop overthinking and relax.
Rumination is the process of thinking about a problem or situation repeatedly. This can feel obsessive for some people, and tends to increase stress, anxiety, and depression.
Rumination may be related to a problem that is difficult to solve, a future result, or a past situation. Rumination often focuses on situations that are not solvable, questions that are not answerable, or situations that have occurred in the past and cannot be modified.
Rumination can be especially frustrating since it consumes a lot of mental and emotional energy, as well as time.
Rumination vs. Problem Solving
It’s important to note that rumination is not the same as problem-solving. Problem-solving can be an effective strategy for addressing various situations and can be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety. Problem solving often involves action-oriented steps to address a problem.
Rumination on the other hand, often results in repetitively thinking about a problem without forming an action plan to resolve it.
Examples of Rumination
“Why didn’t I study more for my exam? If only I had studied more, I would have passed. I am such a failure. Why did I do that?”
“All of my relationships have been failures. I will never have the partner that I want.”
“How am I going to pay my bills? I won’t be able to pay them and will probably be kicked out of my house. Why can’t I just get it together and manage my finances? I’m such a loser. There have been so many times I have struggled financially.”
As you can see in these examples, this way of thinking is not particularly helpful since it goes in circles and does not lead to any action plan or resolution.
“What if” Thinking
One of the most common forms of overthinking is stress and anxiety related “what if” thoughts. What if thoughts tend to be hypothetical in nature and often are related to negative outcomes and worst-case scenarios.
Once stress and anxiety is present, the mind starts to think about hypothetical future situations in unhelpful ways. Any sentence that starts with “what if” is probably a stress thought.
It is important to recognize this type of thinking early, because once the what if train gets going, it is very difficult to slow it down. The what if thinking tends to get more and more catastrophic as it continues, which further increases anxiety and stress.
Examples of “What if” Thinking
“What if I get a bad evaluation at work?” “What if I get fired as a result?”
“What if my partner wants to break up with me?” “What if he/she decides to move out?”
“What if I can’t pay my bills and then am out on the street?”
Other Unhelpful Worrying
Once we become stressed or anxious, our thoughts start to become more negative, and we engage in various forms of unhelpful thinking. A common form of unhelpful thinking is predicting the future, also known as fortune telling. It is also common to start predicting what other people are thinking, known as mind reading.
When we start to engage in unhelpful worrying, we often ask unanswerable questions, such as what will happen in the future or what someone is thinking.
Alternatively, we might start worrying about many topics at once, such as our finances, our relationships, our work productivity, and other topics.
As you can imagine and have probably experienced, worrying about a series of topics at the same time can feel very overwhelming and stressful.
“When will I know about this job?”
“My boss thinks I’m bad at my job”
“I must make time for my friends, family, and work. How can I possibly do all of that?”
3 Cognitive Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Relax
Once we have learned to identify the early clues that we are starting to go down the path of overthinking, it is important to take action as early as possible.
Here are three cognitive strategies that can help you stop these thoughts before they negatively interfere in your life:
1) Thought Stopping
Thought stopping is a relatively straightforward strategy that involves stopping your thoughts in their tracks. This can be accomplished in one of several ways:
1) Yell “stop” aloud if possible. If not possible, yell it in your mind
2) Imagine a big stop sign or a hand in front of your face that is stopping you
3) Flick a hair tie or rubber band on your wrist for tactile feedback as well
This strategy is quite literally the process of telling our thoughts to stop. Although relatively simple, it can be an effective strategy when used early on in the overthinking cycle.
The further we are in overthinking, the less helpful this strategy becomes.
2) Question the Thoughts
A helpful strategy to manage overthinking and to relax is to question the stress thoughts, a strategy utilized in cognitive behavioral therapy. Once you have identified that the thoughts are not very helpful or are a result of stress or anxiety, it is important to then question the thoughts.
Ask yourself the following questions to question the thoughts and to prevent the spiral of overthinking:
· Is this thought helpful to me?
· Is this thought useful?
· Is this thought making me feel better or worse?
· Am I predicting the future or what someone else is thinking?
· Am I coming to any solution with this thought process?
· Have I confused a thought with a fact?
· Is this thought leading to any action or problem solving?
3) Defuse From Unhelpful Thoughts
Cognitive defusion is a principle of acceptance and commitment therapy. It is the process of separating from our thoughts to give them less power and authority. When we are feeling stressed or anxious, we are likely to believe the stress thoughts, which can further escalate stress and anxiety.
Instead, we want to separate from the stress thoughts to give them less weight, power, and meaning.
Add the following statements to your thoughts:
· I’m telling myself….
· My stress/anxiety is telling me….
· My bad mood is telling me the untrue story that….
· The story I’m telling myself right now is….
“I’m telling myself that my boss thinks I am a bad employee.”
“My stress/anxiety is telling me all of the worst-case scenarios that could happen.”
“My bad mood is telling me the untrue story that no one likes me or cares about me.”
“The story I’m telling myself right now is that I will never succeed or accomplish my goals.”
This is also a relatively straightforward strategy but defusing from thoughts can be a powerful strategy to give them less power and slow down overthinking.
2 Helpful Ways to Relax the Body and Mind
In addition to cognitive strategies to manage overthinking, it's important to also utilize strategies to relax the body and mind. Relaxing the body and mind helps with general stress reduction, as well as calming an active mind.
Here are two helpful ways to relax the body and mind:
1) Deep Breathing
One of the best ways to activate the deep relaxation response and relax the body and mind is with deep breathing.
Deep breathing has been shown to improve stress and anxiety, improve breathing and circulation, and improve overall emotional and physical wellbeing.
2) Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One of the best ways to relax the body, reduce muscle tension, improve stress and anxiety, and sleep better is with progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation strategy that has been shown to reduce muscle tension, improve pain in the shoulders and neck, and help with general stress and anxiety management. It has also been shown to improve sleep, reduce low back pain, and even improve blood pressure.
As mentioned above, when stress and anxiety kick in, this leads to a series of physiological changes, including increased muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders.
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tightening and relaxing different muscle groups, one at a time, to help train the body to be in a more relaxed state. This is a great way to relax the mind and body.
Overthinking is incredibly frustrating and can negatively impact our mood, stress levels, productivity and so much more.
The best way to manage overthinking and gain a sense of calm is to learn to catch unhelpful thoughts, utilize a combination of cognitive strategies to address unhelpful thinking, and to relax the body and mind by activating the deep relaxation response with deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Follow these steps to see an improvement in your mood, productivity, and sleep!
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-----About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)