Five Ways to Shift From Overthinking to Productive Thinking
Updated: Jan 13
If you’re a conscientious, analytical, and considerate person, you likely spend a lot of your time thinking deeply.
However, you likely fall into patterns of overthinking too. That is, you toss and turn ideas in your head, and succumb to unhealthy rumination if you’re not careful. Research even shows that 73% of adults chronically overthink (1). So hey, you’re not alone!
Fret not, being a deep thinker is a superpower if you know how to play by your strengths. The key is to identify the differences between overthinking and productive thinking. By being aware, we can better prevent maladaptive thought patterns and make better-informed decisions.
Overthinking vs Thinking Deeply
Being able to think and analyze is what makes us humans prevail over other creatures. But how do we draw the line between adaptive versus maladaptive trains of thought?
There are two key differences between overthinking and productive thinking. Firstly, it’s the way your thought process makes you feel. Secondly, it’s the outcome of your thought process.
Use these two questions to help you identify whether you’re overthinking or thinking productively:
1. How do I feel?
Being in deep, productive thought feels calming and productive. You’re comfortably curious and maybe even excited about what you’re thinking about.
Overthinking, on the other hand, makes you feel anxious and afraid. Your struggle to collect your thoughts leaves you feeling scattered and frantic.
2. What’s the outcome?
When you’re thinking productively, you’re carefully considering your options. Your thoughtfulness moves the needle towards an informed decision.
However, when you’re in an overthinking spiral, you’re stuck in a repetitive train of thought. There’s usually no productive outcome because you’re obsessing over a perfect but seemingly unreachable outcome.
Turning Overthinking to Productive Thinking
Overthinking locks us into a self-defeating and suffocating mental cage. There’s little room to think of anything else apart from your current concerns. However, we can break free from these spirals and create space for healthier and more productive thoughts.
1) Acknowledge the spiral
Being able to catch yourself when you’re overthinking is the first piece of the puzzle. Now that you know the difference between overthinking and productive thinking, you can identify when you’re caught in the wrong loop.
Also, don’t beat yourself up upon noticing your ruminative loops. Accept that overthinking happens, and that not every alarming thought is true. Only by letting go of this resistance, you restore your power to shift towards more productive modes of thinking.
2) Freewrite your thoughts
Get all of those unproductive thoughts out of your mental system by putting them down on paper (or our ThoughtFullChat journal feature 😉).
More specifically, try a journaling technique called free-writing (2). This is where you set a timer and describe the things that are currently causing difficulties for you. You’re not limited to what’s currently happening that causes stress, but also the concerns you have about what could happen.
3) Reconnect with your body
For those of us who enjoy living primarily in our heads, we may sometimes forget to care for our physical needs. Hence, engaging in some form of intentional movement can help our minds acknowledge our bodies. More so, physical exercise regulates our stress hormones, which allows us to deal with our overthinking woes more easily.
For added benefits, take your movement outdoors! Research shows that a 90-minute walk in a nature-filled environment can decrease one’s inclination toward rumination (3). This demonstrates that by focusing on our bodies and surroundings, we can quell negative thought spirals.
4) Attention training
Attention training is a meditation technique that can benefit chronic overthinkers (4). The two components of this technique are mundane task focusing and meditation. These practices are meant to separate yourself from intrusive thoughts and be less affected by them.
With mundane task focusing, the goal is to gradually practice sustaining your attention on a mundane activity such as doing laundry or washing dishes. With meditation, you can practice being mindful of your breathing. Notice when your mind wanders away from the breath. And redirect it back to the breath as your anchor to the present moment.
5) Retrain and reframe
Now that we’ve learned to accept, purge, and detach from ruminative patterns, it’s time to develop more adaptive modes of thought.
Once your brain is “at rest”, areas associated with problem-solving and self-referential thinking will start getting active (5). According to clinical health psychologist Natalie Dattilo, the brain will begin to overthink again when left to its own devices. This means we need to deliberately train our minds to do otherwise. Instead of repeating the same fearful story in our minds over and over again, consciously zero in on realistic outcomes that you can take action on.
Every one of us lives with our own chatty mental monologue. Sometimes they’re super helpful, and other times they’re just negative noise. Fortunately, we can train our minds to engage in more productive thought through greater awareness, compassion, and consciousness. These techniques aren’t quick fixes. But with practice, we can leverage deep thinking powers to solve and innovate as the gift it truly is!
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