Grappling with your thoughts will leave you even more entangled in worry. Use metacognitive strategies to break free
If you’re an overthinker, you’ll know exactly how it goes. A problem keeps popping up in your mind – for instance, a health worry or a dilemma at work – and you just can’t stop dwelling on it, as you desperately try to find some meaning or solution. Round and round the thoughts go but, unfortunately, the solutions rarely arrive.
In my daily work as a metacognitive clinical psychologist, I encounter many people who, in trying to find answers or meaning, or in attempting to make the right decision, spend most of their waking hours scrutinising their minds for solutions. Ironically, in this process of trying to figure out how to proceed in life, they come to a standstill.
When we spend too much time analysing our problems and dilemmas, we often end up more at a loss than we were to begin with. On top of that, persistent overthinking can result in a wide range of symptoms such as insomnia, trouble concentrating and loss of energy which, in turn, often leads to further worries regarding one’s symptoms, thereby creating a vicious cycle of overthinking. In some cases, this eventually leads to chronic anxiety or depression.
When overthinking and the associated symptoms spiral and become unbearable, it’s usual for us to look for ways to calm down. Many common strategies sound reasonable or useful, but research shows that they can inadvertently cause more harm than good and typically lead to even more overthinking. You might recognise some of them in your own behaviour:
Constantly looking out for threats: there’s nothing wrong with this strategy if you feel in control, but it can quickly backfire. Take health concerns. If, as a way to calm your worries, you start to excessively scan yourself or the people you care about for signs of illness, this threat monitoring will lead only to a heightened sense of danger and more health-related worries. Another example is constantly keeping an eye out for whether people like you, trying to figure out what they think of you, which inadvertently results in you becoming more distant, non-participatory and worried, and not being able to enjoy their company.
Seeking answers and reassurance: it’s completely natural to seek reassurance from people close to you, and to look for answers as to how to cope better. However, if you come to a point where you depend on these strategies to calm you down and reduce your worries, you’re on a slippery slope.
For instance, some of my clients spend several hours a day Googling, hoping to find reassurance or, at least, an explanation as to why they’re feeling down. Yet this strategy often leads to even more worries, since Googling relatively common symptoms typically yields a wide range of search results, including diagnoses that you hadn’t even thought of.
Excessive planning: of course, there’s nothing wrong with moderate levels of planning. It’s perfectly healthy to keep a calendar or to leave notes for yourself. However, some people plan their lives down to the tiniest detail and this can become problematic. In addition to being rather time-consuming, excessive planning can have other negative effects including exacerbating worries.
For instance, when planning carefully, it’s tempting to try to predict all the things that could possibly interfere with a plan and how to potentially handle such events should they occur, thereby initiating a process of worry. Others plan meticulously because they believe that they won’t be able to cope otherwise, which can lead to excessive worries when planning isn’t possible or unexpected events arise.
Aside from these unhelpful strategies, another key factor that can perpetuate overthinking is your beliefs about thinking (the term ‘metacognitive’ in ‘metacognitive therapy’ – the clinical approach I use – actually refers to thinking about thinking). When my clients start metacognitive therapy, many of them are convinced that they have no control of their thought processes.
They believe that their thoughts just appear and automatically attract attention – and that they can’t control whether these thoughts develop into hour-long ruminations about how bad things are now, or into catastrophic worries about what could go wrong in the future.