How to Stop Overthinking and Calm Your Buzzing Mind
Don't fall into the trap of positive thinking.
Picture this: You're in the middle of one of your Monday morning anxiety spirals when one of your colleagues offers this morsel of advice.
"Just think happy thoughts."
Not only is this not helpful, it has the opposite effect of what they intended, making you feel even more frustrated.
Why? Because as authors and researchers Brock Bastian and Ashley Humphrey write for The Conversation, these kinds of suggestions are a form of "toxic positivity" — a way of asking us to think positively even though we're experiencing a difficult situation. And let's face it, when we're mentally taxed and in the depths of overthinking, the last thing we need are fluff words of comfort.
For example, let's say you have a family member sick at home and had an early morning Zoom meeting after not sleeping for half the night. Thinking about "happy thoughts" just isn't going to cut it.
As an entrepreneur who's experienced plenty of these episodes throughout the past 16 years of running my business, I'd like to offer some advice on ways to calm your mind, minus the fluff.
Embrace your lack of control
This was one of the hardest things to accept when I first founded my startup, Jotform. I thought that if I could think up every scenario, I could magically find the right solutions. But there were so many variables I had no control over — whether a client would have issues with our product or a team member would suddenly quit during our busiest season. As Entrepreneur contributor Per Bylund explains, "We cannot plan without errors, because we do not actually know anything about the future before it's already reality."
Bylund adds, "This is the foremost burden on entrepreneurs, since they are in the business of creating their version of the future and hoping for the best. They bear uncertainty."
Of course, embracing what's out of our control is easier said than done. Coming to terms with the fact that we have to be okay with the unknowable was probably one of the first lessons I learned all those years ago, and it's been an essential pillar for me during this pandemic.
Set a time limit for your overthinking
I once had a coach tell me to set aside time each day for my worries.
"15 minutes or half an hour — in your car, while out walking, during a break —worry all you want," she said. "Get it all out of your system in that space."
The gist was to give me a designated time limit.
"Wait," I hesitated. "Does this actually work?"
To my surprise, after trying it out for a week, it worked wonders.
I'm not going to lie, at first it was hard. My brain was so used to ruminating at all hours of the day, but once I started training myself to give myself that time each day, it freed up energy to think of other things.
For me, clearing my mind of worries involved a practice of morning pages each day — where I jotted down all of my unfiltered emotions and thoughts. The point is to do this without judgment, allowing your subconscious to let go of what's weighing you down.
Treat yourself with empathy
We are creatures of habit; we're hardwired to hone in on the bad. For instance, when you're in an endless cycle of rumination — even if you've had good moments in your day — your mind keeps rehashing all of your missteps or fretting about everything that could go wrong.
But this tendency isn't necessarily our fault. It's actually due to something psychologists refer to as negativity bias. This means we're more prone to focus on the negative because it's our mind and body's way of alerting us to danger.
According to Kenneth Yeager, Director of the STAR (Stress, Trauma, and Resilience) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, "The single most important underlying factor [for overriding our negativity bias] is how we talk to ourselves about our experiences."
Here are a few suggestions for how to treat yourself with more empathy, according to the experts.
Talk to yourself the way you would a friend. I know we've all heard this one before, but can we honestly say we've tried it out? Here's what this does: It stops the trash talk. If this feels awkward, start with something as simple as saying, "It's okay for me to make mistakes."
Recognize when ruminating is happening and break the pattern. In other words: Distract, distract, distract. Go for a walk in the park, take a coffee break, call a friend — make it a point to pay attention to this habit and take action instead.
Write a letter to yourself. In his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Harvard psychologist Christopher Germer suggests bringing more self-compassion into your life by writing a letter to yourself as a way of acknowledging your feelings. Here you can take a moment to describe a difficult situation you're going through (a break-up, the loss of a loved one, financial hardship) and form compassionate responses to yourself.
Calm a buzzing mind by connecting with others
Here's the good news: Just as we're hardwired to focus on the bad, we're also hardwired for connection. Scientist Matthew Lieberman says, "Our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water."
So what does this mean for our tendency toward overthinking? Having strong social bonds will get us out of our heads, especially if they are nurturing and supportive relationships. When you're having a particularly bad day, gravitate towards those who won't offer words of fluff and actively listen with a compassionate ear.
Taking time for these interactions won't only change your entire mental state — you'll also harness the power to forge genuine connections that will ease your distress today and long into the future.
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