Emotions & Shame

How to Stop Overthinking Things: A User’s Manual for Your ADHD Brain

The ADHD brain worries too much about “what ifs” and “could bes.” You need strategies to calm your anxiety, reset your compass, and get back to sleep at night.

ADHD woman sitting and overthinking things

We all have days when we don’t get much done because we’re troubled by something that’s taken over our mind. Such ruminations may be triggered by someone looking at us funny while commuting on the bus (“Do I have mascara or shaving cream on my face?”) or waiting for blood test results (“OMG, what diseases do I have?”). It’s difficult to quiet the attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) brain when it is stewing about something, but here are strategies that work for me.

1. Write Away Your Worry

I’m pretty good at taking criticism. I see it as a learning opportunity. But if I get blamed for something that’s not my fault, I can spend the day having a unhealthy conversation in my head with the person who blamed me.

To put the brakes on this nagging worry, I tell myself that I will not let that person “rent space” in my head or take me hostage emotionally. Instead, I write about it later, when I am calm. Journaling is a great tool to process my emotions and help me figure out something I can do to rectify the situation—or if I should just let it go and move on.

2. Take Some Action, However Small

Much of our fretting can be diminished by taking action. If you’re worried about your health, make an appointment with your doctor to get a checkup and discuss your concerns. Ask for advice on ways to develop healthier habits.

3. Talk Things Over with a Friend

Talking a problem over with a friend quiets racing thoughts. She might have helpful advice to put your worries in perspective. Even if your concern is an annoyance that can’t be fixed, sharing your worry will help you feel better. A problem shared is a problem cut in half.

[Self-Test: Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Adults]

4. Shift Your Perspective

Some of our worries stem from unrealistic expectations of ourselves, so we need to adjust our goals or re-frame our negative thoughts more positively. Instead of fussing over a parking ticket all day, remind yourself that you’re human and aren’t perfect. Reframe a disaster into a reminder to read parking signs more carefully. If it’s other people that bother you, remind yourself that you can’t expect perfection in an imperfect world.

5. Create a Kudos File

I have many achievements to be proud of, but when I fail at something, I can feel sorry for myself until I do something to bolster my self-esteem. Over the years, I have put together a “kudos file” to use for these times. It’s a collection of thank-you cards, appreciative letters, emails from satisfied clients, and medals from races I finished despite terrible weather. Poring over these things can stop the voice in my head that wants to dwell on my mistakes.

6. Find Medical Help

The worry habit is often due to insecurities about being liked or having screwed something up. Everyday stressors, perfectionism, and unpredictable situations bring it on, but the cause can run much deeper, involving past trauma, codependency, or neuroticism. Find help to get to the root of the problem.

7. Practice Mindfulness

Sometimes we don’t need an external trigger to start worrying. All we have to do is think too much about things that haven’t happened yet. The uncertainties of life can be a big distraction. Practicing mindfulness by meditating or doing breathing exercises is beneficial in quieting those “what ifs” that consume our thoughts.

[Free Resource: Everything You Need to Know About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy]

8. Engage in Healthy Distraction

Distracting oneself is the quickest way for most to stop ruminating. The trick is to find the distraction that works for you. I keep a coloring book and crayons in my desk drawer. I get them out when I realize I have been staring at my computer screen for too long and haven’t touched my keyboard, often because I’ve been having a conversation in my head with customer support about my slow Internet speed.

External distractions can be annoying and sidetrack you from what you have to stay focused on, but you can always take steps to minimize them by closing your door or wearing a noise-blocking headset. It’s the internal distractions that are the most challenging for the ADHD brain.

[Your Own Worst Enemy: Silencing Negative Self Talk]