How to Stop Worrying and Overthinking [When It's Just Too Much]
Anxiety freaks out about all the ways things could go wrong for a benevolent reason - it wants to keep us safe. When anxiety is in balance, this focus on the future is extremely useful, and it’s how we’re able to live a high-functioning life.
But when we feel anxiety too much, it can create a nasty feedback loop that keeps us trapped in our heads, thinking and worrying about “what if…, what if…, what if…”
The more we worry about what could happen (in the future), the less aware we are of the present, so the less grounded we are. And as I’ve talked about here, the less grounded we are, the less safe we feel - which causes us to dissociate and worry even more. And on and on it goes.
Let me break this down a bit more, so we can figure out a way out of this trap.
When we don’t feel safe, one of our innate survival strategies is to dissociate.
Dissociation is a way of leaving our body by taking our awareness, our consciousness, somewhere else. This is part of the “freeze” aspect of the panic response, a survival instinct in times of trauma to stop us from being aware of what's happening to us. It’s a way of numbing out, of not really feeling the pain of trauma.
Dissociation is an evolutionary adaptation created by nature to minimize suffering.
This can be as extreme as fainting (losing consciousness completely), or "playing dead" as many animals do, but for us it's even more common to experience this as simply sending our awareness away. Some trauma survivors talk about watching what was happening from outside themselves - as if it was happening to someone else.
Anxiety taps into this survival strategy by getting us to focus on the future, and to utilize our incredible human brainpower to anticipate what might happen… all to keep us safe. When anxiety is involved, dissociation leads to worry and mental stress.
If we continually don’t feel safe over an extended period of time, we can learn to stay dissociated as a normal way of being.
If we dissociate and go “up in our heads” too often, we can easily get stuck in a pattern of thinking about potential problems over and over, endlessly.
Not only does this provide fuel for more anxiety, but it can become a “rut” that our thoughts fall into whenever we feel anxious about things. In this way it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, where the anxiety triggers the worrying, which creates more anxiety… and so on.
Because of the way the brain lays down neural pathways and reinforces them with use, anxiety can become a mental habit.
This can feel like a trap with no way out, because of how automatically our thoughts fall back into the same old pattern. It’s not easy to step out of it, but luckily for us, it is possible. The brain is plastic and changeable by nature, so whenever it’s used in a different way, new neural pathways are formed.
The challenge with changing our habitual thought patterns is that it requires a certain amount of mental discipline. This is where meditation and other mindfulness practices really come in handy, because they help us cultivate this discipline and control over the mind.
The very first step is gaining distance from our thoughts, because only then can we choose where our attention will go.
This means learning to be a compassionate (and dispassionate) witness, a curious observer to our thoughts and feelings, rather than being them.
Many of our thoughts originate in the subconscious, so we can't choose to think them… we just do. But can choose whether to indulge in them and go wherever they lead, or to shift our focus on something different.
One way to redirect our focus is by thinking the opposite thing. This is a way of reframing our "what if (this horrible thing happens)" thoughts into "what if (this awesome thing were to happen)?" It's essentially a way of training the brain to create new neural pathways that support a more optimistic outlook, rather than an anxiety-making outlook.
Positive affirmations can be a useful tool here... if you use them in the right way.
Affirmations can be problematic if what we're affirming is the opposite of our actual experience (like saying "I am full of joy" when we're actually anxious and depressed). Stating the opposite of our experience as if it was true is a way of lying to ourselves - and the more we do that, the more we erode our connection to the truth, and our ability to feel our resonance with the truth. We'd essentially be training ourselves to feel lies as the truth.
But we can avoid this problem if we word our affirmations the right way. This means making them statements of intention (affirming our choices and actions), and wording them as something ongoing (as a goal that we're moving towards rather than a current reality).
An example of this would be: "I am moving towards greater health and well-being." If you’re working to create healthier thought patterns, this would be entirely true!
One additional caution with thinking positive thoughts about the future, is that you’re still thinking about the future (which is still thinking). So even though you’re not worrying (which is good), this still won't help you get grounded and out of your head. Also, it's important not to fight with yourself, so if an internal argument starts to happen, it's a good idea to shift strategies.
Another way to shift your focus away from anxiety thinking is to put your attention onto something else entirely. Ideally this would be something that gets you out of your head and brings you back to the present moment.
Here’s one excellent way to do this. First, find 5 things you can see around you. Second, find 4 things you can touch near you. Then find 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This is a simple meditation that gets you in your body and stops you from thinking altogether, by shifting your focus to your physical senses.
Another meditation I find very helpful is spending time with each of my physical senses, simply noticing what’s there. I like to do this for as long as I need to, until I feel nicely calm and centered.
While meditations like this can be done anywhere (one of their many benefits), I personally prefer doing them outside, especially somewhere in nature. It’s so much richer for the senses outside, whereas in the sterile, indoor environment it’s easier for the mind to get bored and wander off into thinking again.
The key to stop worrying and overthinking is grounding - getting out of our heads, and back into our bodies.
Dissociation is an expression of an activated nervous system - as all the fear emotions (like panic and anxiety) are. Getting grounded does the opposite - it calms the nervous system and releases stress. Grounding truly is the antidote to anxiety.
This is why I believe that mindful movement is the best tool to train the mind to stop thinking and become more present. Not only does focusing on movement redirect our awareness to the present moment, but it’s also extra grounding because of how it gets our body moving, and brings our awareness to how the body feels.
My favorite forms of mindful movement are yoga, qi gong, and free-form dancing. Yoga and qi gong are both very good for cultivating mental discipline along with bringing awareness to the body. When I do these, at the end of a session I always feel very quiet in my mind, hardly thinking at all. It’s such a relief!
I include dancing in this short list because of how it helps me ground not only into my body, but also into my emotions. I like to play very dramatic music that moves me emotionally, and then let my feelings express themselves freely in the dance. I especially love to do this alone, when I can really let my emotions and creativity flow.
If your favorite movement practice is something different, like bicycling, running, or hiking, that’s great too! You can make any form of exercise benefit you in this way by doing it mindfully: focusing on your breath, on how your body feels, and on the environment around you.
I love hiking by myself, so I can turn the hike into a meditation of awareness on everything around me. I also train in self-defense, and I’ve found that there's nothing that gets you in the now as quickly as having to defend yourself from getting punched in the face!
So if you find yourself worrying and thinking too much, think about what practices you can bring into your life to calm and refocus your mind. You have the power to change your mental habits to be whatever you want them to be - it just takes time, dedication, and practice.
And with that said, if you’ve been doing your best to do this and you’re still struggling, there might be other hidden factors working against you, fueling anxiety without you realizing it. I’ve created a free, 12-page DIY Guide to Calming Anxiety to help you discover what those hidden factors might be, and to provide you with strategies for addressing them. You can grab it here!
If your mind is a turbulent ocean, may you sail through the waves into the still water beyond.