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How to stop overthinking: ‘Life is full of what ifs. Embrace the grey’

Turning something over in our heads incessantly can add to the stress

Embrace the grey Overthinking is thinking about something too much, or for too long. It's human nature to weigh things up, but if you find yourself replaying options to the point of paralysis, take a pause. Sometimes there isn't a perfect answer, says Dean McDonnell, psychology lecturer at IT Carlow and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland.

“We assume there is something right and something wrong, but it’s not that at all. We live in this perfect shade of grey and sometimes it is just hard to navigate that. Life is full of ‘what ifs’.”

Make a list Should I take that promotion, accept that invitation, book those tickets – if your mind is swamped by permutations and you just can't make a decision, grab a pen and paper. "Sometimes you might suppress a decision rather than make a decision, and that's not a good coping strategy," says McDonnell.

Indecision can have consequences. Rather than let things rattle around in your head, write a list of the pros and cons. “It will help your brain to process the information. Sometimes you can just have too many things going on and it’s very difficult for your brain to process.”

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Phone a friend If your dilemma has you tied up in knots, a chat with a friend can help. But not just any old friend. The best man or woman for the job is what's called a "critical friend", says McDonnell. That is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest feedback that may be uncomfortable to hear. "Talk to your sounding board, somebody you can confide in and say, 'look I have no idea what to do, but can you hear me out for five minutes?'"

Be mindful Examining every aspect of a question can be exhausting. Turning something over in our heads incessantly can add to the muddle. Mindfulness can help quiet our heads enough to bring clarity. There are books and apps that can help.

“Going for a walk can clear your mind. Even when you are eating, put your phone away and just eat and be present,” says McDonnell. Being mindful helps us to slow down. This can put us in a better position to decide on a course.

Get perspective Overthinking can involve two destructive thought patterns – ruminating about the past and negative, sometimes catastrophic, thinking about the future. Practice challenging your negative thinking and acknowledge that your thoughts may be exaggeratedly negative. When it comes to worrying about something in the future, challenge yourself to identify solutions or plan coping strategies.

If your thinking is making you feel anxious or depressed, seek help, says McDonnell. “If it’s affecting your life and affecting your relationships, talk to your GP.”