- Carol Atwood, PhD
What I'm Reading...
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Does your mind keep going over and over things like a hamster running on a wheel? Do you get so focused on negative thoughts that you can’t think of anything else?
Dwelling on your problems instead of finding solutions is at the heart of the problem. You may criticize yourself about things you have done or get upset at yourself for just being “the way I am.” Or, you may focus on how others mistreat you in life.
This book explains that negative thoughts like these can lead to depression or anxiety.
If the title of the book reminds you of the 1985 book Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood, you will find this is a very different book. And don’t be put off if you are an adolescent or a male of any age! Most of this information applies to you, too!
Women Who Think Too Much gives practical advice on how to end overthinking. A psychologist at Stanford, University of Michigan, and Yale, Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema did research on the subject for 30 years until her death in 2013.
What Happens When You Think Too Much?
Negative thinking can interfere with your important goals, reduce your support from others, make you critical of yourself, and make it harder to get over a loss. You might question “what’s wrong with me,” “why don’t other people like me,” “why am I so unhappy,” or “why did this happen to me?” Trying to use overthinking to solve these problems doesn’t work! These questions just lead to more questions and getting stuck.
You can feel like you’ve lost control of your life. Too much analyzing leads you to a warped view of things. You see yourself in a negative light and can’t seem to access positive thoughts and memories. Overthinking can also be destructive to relationships when others get angry or pull away from you when you don’t “get over it.” You end up feeling alone and misunderstood.
When you focus on your problems too much, your brain zeroes in on a lot of other depressing experiences you’ve had in the past or might have in the future. You can get trapped in hopelessness and helplessness. You can make bad decisions, act recklessly, or become paralyzed. Constant thinking about your problems can affect your physical or mental health. But keep reading to see that there are solutions!
Nolen-Hoeksema talks about 3 kinds of overthinking. The first is when you feel harmed by others and you want to get revenge. Second is when you have unrealistic thinking about the causes of your problems, and you accept those unrealistic thoughts as real. Third is when you have chaotic thinking, as your mind gets overwhelmed with a lot of unrelated problems at once.
If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea about whether you have these problems or not! But it might be fun to take this quick self-test!
What Kinds of Problems Involve Thinking Too Much?
You may focus too much on past or current relationship issues. You may blame your parents for all your problems or invest too much of your self-worth into your children. You may get preoccupied with conflicts at work or school. Or you may feel you “deserve” recognition for what you did regardless of how well you performed (or didn’t perform). When you experience loss and trauma or develop a chronic illness, you might start to question your faith or the meaning of life. It would be easy then to get lost in deep questions without any answers.
So, What Can You Do About Overthinking?
Step One: let go of overthinking: Recognize that going over and over things in your mind doesn’t help you understand your problems. (Although the author recommends telling yourself to “STOP,” doing this has been found to be ineffective. Instead, Rose Pavlov, a mindfulness expert, recommends that you think of your mind as having a remote control, so that you can change the channel any time. (Pavlov, 2019). Tell yourself you won’t let your thoughts take over.
Next, do something positive and fun for 8 minutes—any enjoyable activity that takes all your attention. Or, move to a peaceful location. Organize your papers. Talk to an objective friend or family member. Seek out a therapist. Meditate with acceptance. Turn over your worries to a higher being and move on. Write your thoughts down and eliminate the unhelpful ones. Then make a plan to deal with the real concerns. Find a small, positive thing to do for yourself each day.
Step Two: stop focusing so much on yourself. Look at the big picture of where you are in life and where you want to go. Start solving the problems at the core of your negative thinking rather than trying to avoid them. How do you do that?
First, change your perspective away from the negative. Accept angry or depressed feelings as valid—but you’re free to choose the most effective action. When you feel upset, consider whether there’s a simple explanation like being tired or hungry. Address that need first. Don’t compare yourself with others. Ask yourself if you’re so concerned with getting what you “deserve” that you aren’t considering what other people need. There’s no quick fix! The changes are up to you.
Next, brainstorm different plans of action to solve the issues that caused the overthinking in the first place. Choose the best ones, based on your personal values. Take a small step today to get started! Write down what you want to say and practice it. Involve the other person in finding solutions. Lower your expectations—not everybody is like you. Accept when you’re hurt and let go, recognizing you may never know why they did what they did. You may need to forgive yourself. Question the idea that you’re to blame for other people’s reactions, and find a different way to handle how you respond to them that is more forgiving of yourself.
Step Three: don’t fall back into old habits: It’s true that sometimes you may end up overthinking again, in spite of your best efforts. These next pointers may take more time and work than the previous ones. But they can keep you from too much negative thinking in the long run.
When you figure out what triggers your negative thinking, avoid those situations. Follow through on the plans you made in Step Two and get help from others when needed. Give up unhealthy goals. Go easy on yourself and make sure you have some positive experiences every day.
Finally, create a positive story about who you are by reading books, getting therapy, or talking to others. Develop new roles for yourself that help you feel better about yourself. Learn new skills and find new friends and organizations that fit in with your beliefs. Practice relaxation exercises. Use your imagination to see yourself more positively.
Thanks for reading! And you can overcome negative thinking!
Pavlov, R. (2019, June). Meditation: Notice, Breathe, Allow, Take Positive Action. Retrieved from The Mindful Healthcare Summit Guided Meditation Library.