Relieving stress and anxiety is a two-fold process. It not only requires physical intervention, such as, but not limited to decreasing exposure to stressful situations and developing adequate sleeping, exercise and eating habits, but also taking a conscientious approach to changing cognitive processes (our thinking). In many instances, our thinking patterns, attitudes and perceptions may need to change before we start making any changes or adding to our daily routines and behavioral choices. By doing so, an individual’s plan to reduce stress becomes reachable and in many instances more realistic. Stress is part of life, our work place, school, family responsibilities and the list goes on. Simply avoiding high stress situations may be out of the question for many if not most of us nowadays, nonetheless a change in mindset and attitude in the way we perceive and take on stressful events, transition and trauma can be much more manageable if we take a stance of taking control of our thinking.
Excessive amounts of stress can lead to high levels of anxiety, panic and in severe cases depressed mood or a combination thereof, therefore a two-fold approach to dealing with stress is of the essence. Overthinking about any situation can lead to drawing false conclusions, catastrophizing (small obstacles, challenges are taken out of proportion), black and white thinking, with no middle ground and the list goes on. One of the major downfalls of overthinking and irrational thought processes is that it leads to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, fears, avoidance, phobias among others, i.e. If it’s happened before, it can happen again.” “ Fear of heights or anxiety runs in the family and I inherited that from my parents”. This caliber of thinking leads something referred to as cognitive fusion ( a combination of cultural, family beliefs, unspoken rules), which at times makes a person feel he or she is helpless in the face of challenge, thus causing stress, anxiety and depression.
Psychologist Aldo Pucci (2001) developed a list of the 20 Common Mental Mistakes leading to irrational thoughts, behaviors contributing to elevated levels of stress and anxiety. These included the “ All or Nothing Thinking” where a person sees no middle ground or better known as rigid or black and white thinking. Other mental mistakes, as he refers to them include “Discounting the positive” referring to the belief that positive information that is contrary to one’s current beliefs somehow doesn’t count. Others included “Confusing Needs with Wants”, “Catastrophizing” where an individual may think something is terrible, horrible, and awful rather than it being simply “bad” and the list goes on.
A useful tool in relieving stress within the realm of cognitive processing is putting Maxie C. Maultsby’ (1975), a pioneer in what we refer today as RBT (Rational Behavior Therapy) or ‘Three Rational Questions”, which may set the tone and modify our thinking processes to a person’s advantage. Whenever confronted with any situation that causes stress, anxiety and worry, Maultsby recommends asking oneself the following: “Is my thinking based on fact?” Does my thinking help me achieve my goals?” and finally,” Does my thinking help me feel the way I want to feel?” Three “yes” answers means that your thought is rational for you and therefore it is in your best interest to keep it. One or more “No” answers means that you’re thought is irrational and therefore it is in your best interest to replace it with a thought that is rational. Finally, there are some basic cognitive rules to remember and these will surely complement your meditation, exercise and overall stress management plan:
1. BE GRATEFUL
You can’t have a regretful thought and a grateful thought at the same time, so why not spend the time positively? Every morning and every evening, make a list of what you are grateful for. Get a gratitude buddy and exchange lists so you have a witness to the good things that are around you.
2. ACCEPT YOUR BEST
The fear that grounds overthinking is often based in feeling that you aren’t good enough–not smart enough or hardworking enough or dedicated enough. Once you’ve given an effort your best, accept it as such and know that, while success may depend in part on some things you can’t control, you’ve done what you could do.
3. REALIZE YOU CAN’T PREDICT THE FUTURE
No one can predict the future; all we have is now. If you spend the present moment worrying about the future, you are robbing yourself of your time now. Spending time on the future is simply not productive. Spend that time instead on things that give you joy.
4. AWARENESS IS THE BEGINNING OF CHANGE
Before you can begin to address or cope with your habit of overthinking, you need to learn to be aware of it when it’s happening. Any time you find yourself doubting or feeling stressed or anxious, step back and look at the situation and how you’re responding. In that moment of awareness is the seed of the change you want to make.
5. DON’T THINK OF WHAT CAN GO WRONG, BUT WHAT CAN GO RIGHT
In many cases, overthinking is caused by a single emotion: fear. When you focus on all the negative things that might happen, it’s easy to become paralyzed. Next time you sense that you starting to spiral in that direction, stop. Visualize all the things that can go right and keep those thoughts present and up front.
6. DISTRACT YOURSELF INTO HAPPINESS
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a way to distract yourself with happy, positive, healthy alternatives. Things like mediation, dancing, exercise, learning an instrument, knitting, drawing, and painting can distance you from the issues enough to shut down the over analysis.
7. PUT A TIMER TO WORK
Give yourself a boundary. Set a timer for five minutes and give yourself that time to think, worry, and analyze. Once the timer goes off, spend 10 minutes with a pen and paper, writing down all the things that are worrying you, stressing you, or giving you anxiety. Let it rip. When the 10 minutes is up, throw the paper out and move on–preferably to something fun.
8. CHANGE YOUR VIEW OF FEAR
Whether you’re afraid because you’ve failed in the past, or you’re fearful of trying or overgeneralizing some other failure, remember that just because things did not work out before does not mean that has to be the outcome every time. Remember, every opportunity is a new beginning, a place to start again.
9. STOP WAITING FOR PERFECTION
This is a big one. For all of us who are waiting for perfection, we can stop waiting right now. Being ambitious is great but aiming for perfection is unrealistic, impractical, and debilitating. The moment you start thinking “This needs to be perfect” is the moment you need to remind yourself, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.”
10. PUT THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE
It’s always easy to make things bigger and more negative than they need to be. The next time you catch yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself how much it will matter in five years. Or, for that matter, next month. Just this simple question, changing up the time frame, can help shut down overthinking. Overthinking is something that can happen to anyone. But if you have a great system for dealing with it you can at least ward off some of the negative, anxious, stressful thinking and turn it into something useful, productive, and effective.