Overthinking and worrying are common thought processes that people experience, in which people may go over what happened in the past and think about what may happen in the future. Excessive overthinking and worrying are symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety or may increase our susceptibility to developing these disorders.
While it is true that overthinking may be a symptom of a wide array of mental health disorders, overthinking is not always pathological. It may be said that it is part of human nature to overthink things; “Is my partner cheating on me?” “Am I going to pass this test?” “Am I doing enough?”
Whether it is pathological or not, it is still not good to ruminate and obsess over things, especially those which we cannot control. With that, it is important for us to find ways to cope and manage our tendency to overthink. Although it is quite impossible to force ourselves to stop overthinking, here are some evidence-based and scientifically-backed tips on how to manage overthinking to champion our way through a more positive outlook in life.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Maintaining a healthy diet is an important step toward relieving the tendency to overthink. Studies have shown that a healthy diet is not only helpful in maintaining good physical health by preventing diseases such as cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases, but it is also helpful in promoting a better mood, lesser stress, and an overall better cognitive function through mediating hormonal, inflammatory, and neural pathways.
Norwitz & Naidoo (2021) suggests avoiding artificial sweeteners, maintaining a gluten-free diet, and supplementing the diet with omega 3 fatty acids, turmeric, and vitamin D to avoid inflammatory processes linked to anxiety and thus provide an overall improvement in mental health.
Studies have shown that exercising regularly is also helpful in improving both physical and mental health. Similar to maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly can also help avoid the risk of chronic, non-communicable diseases and is also evidenced to improve overall mental health through improvements such as better sleep, improved mood, relief of stress, and overall cognitive functioning.
According to Sharma, et al. (2006), suggested hypotheses on how exercise provides improvements. One hypothesis is on the physiologic improvements of exercise wherein a better blood flow through the brain also improves the overall functioning of its other components, which exert their influence on stress, motivation, memory, mood, and motivation, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the limbic system, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. Other hypotheses focus on distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction.
Relaxation techniques are a collective term for various activities that alleviate tension and stress by reducing cortisol levels. These include Box Breathing, Guided Imagery, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The steps for these techniques are as follows, derived from Norelli, et al. (2021).
Box Breathing as a relaxation technique may be employed before, during, or after activities or experiences that bring in stress. The first step is to count until four while inhaling through the nose. This is followed by holding your breath and counting until four. The next step is exhaling and counting until four. Finally, hold your breath and count until four. These will be repeated until you feel more relaxed.
Guided Imagery aims to direct patients into reducing negative thoughts by helping them think and visualize calming environments. The first step is to find a comfortable position and place away from distraction. Next is to recall or imagine a calming experience such as going to the beach. Try eliciting these through the five senses. Finally, take slow, deep breaths and continue visualizing this calming experience.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation serves to relax muscles by releasing tension from the body. The first step is to find a comfortable position and place away from distractions. The succeeding steps will be exercises done on different parts of the body, which will be held for five seconds and released for ten seconds, with a focus on trying to feel the relaxation that comes along with it.
Parts of the body that will be exercised will be started from head to toe. The first parts that will be exercised are the toes which will be curled. This will be followed by the lower legs, the muscles in the hips and buttocks, and the muscles in the stomach and chest. Next are the muscles in the shoulders, muscles in the face (e.g., squeezing eyes shut), and, finally, the muscles in hand, creating a fist.
Mindfulness intervention is an approach recently introduced to psychology, adapted from practices of Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. Its elements include “awareness” and “nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s moment-to-moment experience,” It is said to bring improvements in the thought process to address issues surrounding mental health such as fear, anxiety, and depression.
Studies have shown that mindfulness intervention has promising results in alleviating symptoms of known psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder and brings in a wide range of positive effects such as improvements in an individual’s well-being and facilitating better control and management of behavior and emotion (Keng, et al., 2013).
Seek Professional Help
Psychiatrists take care of your brain while psychologists take care of your mind. Psychiatrists provide pharmacotherapy where drugs used to address symptoms are prescribed to alleviate them.
Psychologists, however, provide psychotherapy or talk therapy, the type and the length of which may depend between the patient and the therapist. The types of psychotherapy include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), Dialectical behavior therapy, Psychodynamic therapy, Psychoanalysis, and Supportive therapy.
There should be no shame in contacting your friendly psychiatrist and psychologist. Despite the stigma still prevalent when you seek their help, going through therapy sessions with these professionals does not always have to mean that there is something wrong with your brain; it may be just so they can guide you into managing your thoughts better. They may even be there so you can have someone to talk to!
Overthinking and COVID-19 Pandemic
These tips are especially necessary and helpful as we go through our lives facing the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown that it is not only the COVID-19 pandemic that is on the rise, but mental health conditions are seeing an increasing trend as well.
It is not surprising that this occurs because the very nature of the disease limits us from interacting with people physically — we are limited to connecting with them virtually. In a situation like this, where we are limited from going out and meeting friends to relieve stress, it is easy to delve into self-doubt and worry about the unknown.
It is easy to fall into the pits of overthinking and worry. With that, it is really important for us to watch out for ourselves and take care of our mental health.
While it is near impossible to dictate our minds to stop overthinking, we can still find ways not to get drowned in it. The above are just suggestions, and we do not expect you to follow them fervently, but we still advise you to adhere to them as much as you can as a part of self-care. After all, being healthy is not just being physically free from disease but also entails having healthy thoughts.
Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041–1056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
Firth J, Gangwisch J E, Borsini A, Wootton R E, Mayer E A. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ 2020; 369 :m2382 doi:10.1136/bmj.m2382
Norelli SK, Long A, Krepps JM. Relaxation Techniques. [Updated 2021 Sep 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/
Norwitz, N.G. & Naidoo, U. (2021). Nutrition as metabolic treatment for anxiety. Front. Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.598119
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a