A lot of articles that tackle overthinking and worrying tell you to meditate or, ironically, to think about the thoughts you're thinking. This is not most articles. Meditation and therapy can be life changing ways to get a handle on your inner monologue, but my experience as an improviser and then improv researcher, led me to another way to get out of your head. It led me to a more active strategy for how to stop overthinking and worrying.
What is Overthinking and Worrying?
I'm using the dictionary definition of overthinking, which is to think too much or too long about something. Obviously, this is subjective. You might think you're thinking the right amount about your job, but your husband might call it overthinking. But if you being "in your head" is getting in your way of your happiness and your relationships, let's all call it overthinking.
On the other hand, worrying is linked with anxiety and unease. The dictionary defines worry as, "To feel or experience concern or anxiety." Unlike overthinking, worry begins to involve your brain's amygdala. Overthinking is only thinking but worrying is thinking combined with feeling. AKA when your thoughts start to stress you the hell out. Worrying makes way for anxiety and other mental health problems, so it's important to find all sorts of coping strategies when your thoughts start to cause you physical discomfort.
I'm a big proponent of therapy and talking to licensed professionals to deal with our mental health, but my improv research has led me to a technique people can try when they're not in therapy to help them get out of their heads. It's a fun technique that improvisers already use onstage to stop their own overthinking and worrying and enjoy being in the moment.
Improvising isn't just getting up onstage and making stuff up. Good improvisers go through extensive training that allows them to focus on what's happening onstage. They have to watch and listen intensely in order to add relevant details to the scene.
This kind of focus has a huge benefit. It allows improvisers to "get out of their heads." There simply isn't enough brain space to be self-conscious and be in the moment onstage. I interviewed one improviser who called walking onto the stage his "threshold of anxiety" because the moment he took the stage all of his usual self-doubt, anxiety, and worry vanished.
In psychological terms, this is a kind of flow state. Flow is when someone's abilities are matched by the challenge of the task at hand. When this happens, we become absorbed in our activity and time seems to fly by. Everything flows.
In cognitive science lingo, the focus required to improvise alters our brains by reducing activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. What does this mean? Simply put, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is our inner monologue. You might know it as the voice in your head that says, "Why did you say that? That was dumb."
The medial prefrontal cortex is one of the creative centers of the brain. The intense focus that improvisers learn helps them quiet their critic, get more creative, and get out of their heads. And it all starts with practicing that external focus.
Luckily, we can take this lesson into our everyday lives.
Fun Ways to Stop Overthinking and Worrying
Back to the question at hand: How to stop overthinking and worrying? Improv provides us a perfect model for getting out of our heads. It starts with focus.
Just like improvisers, we can train ourselves to playfully shift to a more external focus. You can think about this as trying to achieve flow states throughout your day or trying to quiet your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and increase activity in your medial prefrontal cortex. Either way, we need to distract that internal monologue by focusing on where we are and who we're with.
I've created 120 everyday games based on improv exercises that will help you achieve this kind of external focus and get out of your head. It's not a magic bullet. I still overthink and worry all the time, but the everyday games help me shift my focus when I do. Another appealing aspect of the games is that they're fun. It's hard for me to carve out time for meditation or a workout, but I can weave these games into my everyday routine.
Get out of your Head by Playing your Way Sane
I'll highlight some of the everyday games that are best for shifting to an external focus, which will help you stop overthinking and worrying.
1. Take a Hike
This game is super straightforward. Just pretend you're on a chill hike through nature. You could be walking from the parking lot to the store or up your driveway. Doesn't matter.
What matters is that you're practicing that internal to external focus shift. Notice the trees, flowers, garbage, weeds, and cracks in the pavement. But I want you to really notice. Become engrossed in your surroundings. The more you take in your surroundings, the less brain space you'll have for your overthinking and worrying.
The next game takes our walking around and noticing to the next level. Instead of just becoming engrossed in your surroundings, this game asks you to point to inanimate objects as you walk by and call them by their name (Still crying about that film btw).
See a chair. Just point to it and say, "Chair." See a plant, "Plant." You get the idea. The physicality of pointing and naming helps to interrupt overthinking and worrying. Physicality can be a great jumpstart to get us out of our heads.
To play the Alien Game just pretend you're from another planet. It's a classic story. Alien moves to the planet Earth and in order to fit in, has to really pay attention to how those strange earthlings go about their days. That's what I want you to try. Notice how quickly people walk, how loudly they talk, what they're saying, and how they move their faces.
By pretending we're aliens, we get to look at our fellow humans through fresh eyes and pay closer attention to things we've started to take for granted. This can help you shift that focus from in your head to totally out of your head.
Curious Detective is another game that helps you start noticing more about your fellow humans. This time, instead of pretending you're an alien, you're a detective, trying to get to the bottom of who this person is and what makes them tick. Look closely, listen for clues, and ask lots of questions.
This way you're making it all about them. And the more brain space you take up on others, the less brain space you have to worry about yourself.
Try to throw in at least one compliment every time you have a conversation with someone. Bonus points for multiple compliments. In order to give someone a specific compliment, we have to make observations about them. So, notice their clothes, their features, their vibe, and then let the compliments flow freely.
This will ensure that you're thinking more about others than about yourself, which is the key for how to stop overthinking and worrying.
Another everyday game that will help you get out of your head is You are a Unicorn Sliding Down a Rainbow. To master this game, you have to be looking closely for what makes the people you encounter magical. Look for their special unicorn power. Are they the most positive? The most unique? The most likely to win someone over with their urbanity?
By focusing on what makes people special, we focus less on ourselves. And that matters when we're trying to shift our focus to a more improv-like mode of thinking.
Conclusions on how to Stop Overthinking and Worrying
Curbing our overthinking and worrying doesn't have to be drudgery. By playing our way sane, we can supplement the hard work we're doing in therapy and on those mediation mats.
But the bonus with these everyday games is that they're fun. And when things are fun, we're much more likely to stick with them.
So challenge yourself and others to play some everyday games, so that you shift your focus from overthinking and worrying to the miraculous people, places, and things that are already all around you on a daily basis.
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