How to Get off the Hamster Wheel of Overthinking, According to a Psychologist

How to Get off the Hamster Wheel of Overthinking, According to a Psychologist

Let’s chat about overthinking. If you’re someone who finds you tend to get wrapped up in consuming thoughts (often of the anxiety-inducing variety), chances are you’ve tried to talk your brain out of jumping to conclusions, dwelling on events you can’t control, or picturing the worst case scenario – on repeat. The thing is, no matter how much you might like to cut the thoughts on loop in your brain, it’s not always easy to do. So, we’ve enlisted the advice of a psychologist to help.

Here, Lysn psychologist Jonathan Moscrop offers his advice on how to stop overthinking, and how to bring a little more peace to your mind.

Moscrop described overthinking as the experience of being “caught in a thought loop, [for example] ‘what if this, what if that? Should I do this or that? What do they think of this or that?’”

He shared that “it can be debilitating, preventing you from enjoying the moment and constantly feeling on edge” and explained that it is often seen in people who experience anxiety.

“In psychology, this cognitive symptom of anxiety is called rumination. It’s like you’re on a hamster wheel – spending a lot of energy going nowhere,” he said.

According to Moscrop, these kinds of feelings can be born from a need for perfectionism, it can be an attempt to better understand past events or it can even be a way of trying to plan the future.

How to stop overthinking

If you struggle with overthinking regularly, Moscrop shared a list of tips that may help you break the cycle of thought and help pull you off the hamster wheel (as he describes it).

Remember that if you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety, speaking directly with a mental health professional about your experience is always an option. But if you’re after some general suggestions, these tips are a great starting point.

The below quotes on how to stop overthinking come from Moscrop. 

Learn how to recognize that you are on the hamster wheel:

Your subcortical regions of the brain and your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an imagined scenario and real-life events. So, an easy way to determine if you might be overthinking is to train your attention towards your body. Your body will show signs of stress and anxiety, such as increased heart rate, trembling in your hands, [and] muscle tension.

A good way to practice this is to incorporate an interoception practice into your daily health routine, such as a mindful body scan. Once you have a personalised list of your early warning signs, write them down and stick them on the fridge for a reminder.

Shift your attention:

Once you have picked up signs you are becoming anxious, purposefully shift your attention to the external world (exteroception). An easy way to do this is to complete a grounding technique such as 54321.

    1. Name 5 things you can see in the environment.
    2. Name 4 things you can hear.
    3. Name 3 things you are touching, such as feet on the carpet or back against a chair.
    4. Name 2 things you can smell – if you cannot notice any odours, move to something with a pleasant odour such as a candle, or just notice the absence of odour.
    5. Name 1 thing you can taste. Again if you cannot taste anything, purposefully eat something that is pleasant and pay close attention to the nuances of the experience. How the taste and texture change etc.

Observe your thoughts:

When you notice your body becoming anxious or distressed, try and “observe” your thoughts. Rather than “I have to get this task perfect,” reframe this in your mind as “I notice I am thinking that I need to get this task perfect”. This strategy helps give you distance from the thought.

Try controlled breathing when you’re overthinking:

Learn to manage your nervous systems activation – called “arousal”. An effective and very easy method to do this is to control your breathing. Controlled breathing is a method where you breathe in through your nose, and breathe out through your mouth for twice as long as your inhale and repeat this for 5 mins. This will calm your arousal level and bring you to a parasympathetic state (calm nervous system).

Get out of your head:

You can use exercise as a powerful mindfulness tool. Mindfulness being your ability to stay present in the moment. Using exercise you can pay attention to your body and muscles during the movement. Pay close attention to how the muscles move, become tense or relaxed.

Give yourself worry time:

Worry time is a strategy which sounds counterintuitive but is highly effective. To complete worry time, you need to assign a dedicated time where you do nothing but worry and overthink. But it is bookended by time, so decide on a duration of time you can complete your daily worry, such as 15 mins.

Throughout your day, when you notice a thought pop into your mind that you would normally ruminate on, write it down or voice note it in your phone. Then by the end of the day when you enter worry time, go through all those worries you have recorded. Go through each worry one by one and focus on it until completion. For example, if the worry is “what if I can’t finish that project on time for work”. Sit, distraction-free, and just marinate in that thought. Plan what you can do if you don’t complete it. Determine the realistic probability of not finishing it etc. once completed, move to the next worry.

Write your thoughts down:

Writing them [the thoughts causing you to overthink] down (pen on paper, not using devices!) helps you to externalise all the thoughts that are causing you stress. Write them in full sentences, this is important because we often don’t think in full sentences, just snapshots and then another thought will bounce in. Once you have written them down you can then challenge these thoughts.

Okay, there you go. A guide to help you stop overthinking when ideas become a little all-consuming.

If you or someone you love is in need of support, services like Beyond Blue and Lifeline (13 11 14) are available 24/7. If you’re in an emergency, please call 000. 

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