Source: Big Shot Theory/Shutterstock
by Ran D. Anbar, MD, and Mac Lancaster, BS
A teenage patient recently asked us, “How do I stop overthinking?”
Though not listed in the DSM-5, overthinking is something many of us find ourselves doing and can often be a sign of psychological distress, such as in patients with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Kaiser et al, 2015).
There is a lot on our minds with seemingly unlimited information at our fingertips, a global pandemic, and the numerous interpersonal encounters we navigate day-to-day.
Getting in touch with your inner self can help assuage these overwhelming feelings and subsequent exhaustion, leading to a calmer and clearer mind. We shared with the patient four techniques that can help lead to a more positive perspective of rumination without it overstaying its welcome.
Table of Contents
Deep Breathing Exercise
Who could have guessed that feeling calm was as simple as 4-7-8? Coined by American physician Andrew Weil, this deep breathing exercise induces a physiological response associated with decreased stress.
The exercise involves:
- Four counts of quiet inhalation through the nose
- Seven counts of breath holding
- Eight counts of audible exhalation through the mouth
- Repeat four times
Breathing in through the nose is important because the nasal passage filters out irritating particulates, while warming and humidifying it, supplying the most favorable air for our lungs (Vierra et al, 2022; Naclerio et al, 2007). Holding in breath helps boost the delivery and circulation of oxygen in the bloodstream, lowering cardiovascular load (Kaiser et al, 2015). Exhaling through the mouth allows for relatively effortless release of air from the lungs.
It is recommended to repeat this practice twice daily over the course of a month to see physiological results, including better sleep and digestion.
Still can’t stop overthinking after your breath exercise? It can be helpful to understand yourself beyond your conscious mind by being mindful of the many elements that guide your mental processes. Your subconscious can be defined as the part of your mind that generally escapes your awareness, yet has a significant impact on how you live. It is a repository of ideas and emotions that you may not even be aware of, but which have a significant impact on your behavior and general welfare.
One vehicle for accessing the subconscious mind is meditation. According to the ancient Indian science of Vedic, meditation focuses our attention on the inner realm (located in our subconscious), which allows us to develop a different perspective regarding our behavior in the outer realm (Jiang et al, 2020). The goal is to develop a more accurate understanding of one's place in the world, which helps cultivate wisdom.
Practicing meditation has been associated with an attenuation in levels of anxiety and depression (Jiang et al, 2020; Schuman-Olivier et al, 2020; Sharma, 2015).
An experienced Buddhist monk can meditate and feel less stressed, but how does that apply to a novice?
- Begin with the 4-7-8 exercise and repeat it indefinitely.
- Rather than trying to stop a thought that may appear a hindrance to the process, let your thoughts flow.
- Focus on your breath, and be proud of yourself for taking the first leap into accessing your subconscious side.
Sometimes becoming aware of our subconscious thought process can allow us to move on, but this is not always the case. Hypnosis is another method of accessing a further connection to the subconscious, but it allows us to ask it for help in changing. For instance, we can learn how to think more calming thoughts at the conscious and subconscious levels (Anbar & Cherry, 2021).
Observing vs. Engaging
Taking a step back from your thoughts is one key to getting the most out of the plunge you’ve taken into your subconscious. As you let your thoughts flow, you realize that they are not you; you are not them. Your thoughts inform your cognitive and behavioral processes but do not control the outcome. You can take a step back and observe, while your thoughts keep flowing.
There can be thousands of thoughts leading down different cognitive streams, with varying degrees of intrigue. Just because one comes into focus, does not mean that you must follow it. There is power in letting the thoughts wash away and accepting that they will be there in the future, should you desire to call upon them.
Now you have separated yourself from your thoughts through some exploratory work into your subconscious. You have proven to yourself that you’re capable of calming yourself down in the outer realm just by a few minutes of breathing. Having the mental acuity to become aware of internal experiences is a principal component of mindfulness (Burns et al, 2011). You can be proud to have taken the first steps to thinking without feeling overwhelmed.
Another technique involves recognizing certain negative words that lead to cognitive distortion and removing them from our stream of thought. For instance, viewing our inner stream from afar, we might identify the trigger word should, occupying the form of “I should have done X” or “They should have done Y.”
Should discourages us from accepting the way things are, and leads to disappointment when things aren’t the way we feel they should be in our minds. By establishing should as a negative buzzword, we can now recognize its effect in our subconscious and consciously let that idea go. Thus, we can learn how to accept reality, rather than becoming bogged down by it.
Dealing with overthinking can be challenging, but can be made easier by using the techniques described here. These exercises can be tucked away for use later, but do practice them when you’re calm. In this way, they are more likely to become internalized and thereafter more easily within reach.