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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hindle

Staying Away from Overthinking that Leads to Distress

Have you ever wondered whether thinking is helping or harming you? Thinking about an upcoming holiday might bring a sense of happy anticipation, while thinking about a grid-lock issue could bring on heaviness and anxiety. That is because when we are caught up in our thoughts, our emotional state can shift. Most, if not all of the clinical issues that bring a person to therapy have a component of dysfunctional thinking. While thinking is always recommended (please don't stop!), our thoughts can also take us to places that are deeply upsetting.

Here are three ideas to keep emotionally steady in your thought-life:

1. Be aware of whether you try to think your way out of distress

When considering how your thoughts impact your emotional state, it can be helpful to identify whether your thoughts also incur distress, or promise a way to avoid distress. Here are some examples you might recognise in yourself:

  • Thinking about your social 'performance', or replaying in your mind to check what you said, did, looked like, or how others responded to you

  • Sifting through your memory to check whether you made mistakes, or harmed someone

  • Researching all the options in order to make the 'right' decision

  • Getting stuck with thoughts that direct us to the past ('if only...'), or the future ('what if...')

  • Trying to be prepared by thinking about every possible scenario

  • Trying to improve future social performance with mental rehearsal

  • 'Neutralising' unwanted thoughts with other thoughts (eg cancelling out a positive with a 'negative')

While none of these patterns of thinking are inherently harmful, if we engage in these patterns excessively, they can become ritualistic, or something we must do to ameliorate distress. They become a trap, keeping us focussed on our fears, stuck in the belief we cannot cope any other way.

2. Get to know the bridge linking thinking and rumination

When we are thinking, we are often in a curious, neutral and flexible emotional state. We are able to consider options, how we feel and what we need, applying logic whilst also checking in with how we feel. Rumination is a very different type of thinking, where we might get stuck in circular, tangential, or unproductive thought, often accompanied by feelings of restlessness, tension, heaviness, doubt and confusion. Being able to identify when we might cross a bridge, from thinking, over to rumination, is a helpful metaphor for our movement toward healthy or unhealthy thought. Do you cross over that bridge with a 'what if?' thought, or an implicit rule (eg 'I must', 'I should', 'I can't', 'I have to')? Is it a feeling of uncertainty that might bridge to rumination? Learning how to identify these invitations to cross over into overthinking is a very key part of staying safe.

3. Keep steady and decline the invitation to cross over into rumination

Cognitive defusion helps us to 'unhook' from unhealthy thought, or even an overabundance of thinking, by increasing developing a stance of awareness and creating a choice point from which to decide where our attention will rest. For example, you might simply say to yourself 'I notice I'm having the thought that I am not ready for my presentation' and then turn back to the task at hand. You might have a habit of focussing on what hasn't been done as a way to prepare, improve performance outcomes, or keep you focussed. However, do you notice what also shifts in your body when you hook into these thoughts? Our body will often give us a match for our thoughts. While temporary stress can improve our performance (ie, the Yerkes-Dodson law), rumination actually undermines our performance by giving us inappropriate levels of stress. Instead, try to acknowledge and decline that invitation to ruminate, and focus on the task at hand, or another part of life that is meaningful to you. Cognitive defusion, when repeated, gives us the opportunity to increase our healthy control and stay out of overthinking and distress.


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