A Therapist Teaches You One Way To Conquer Your Overthinking Habit
Intentional daydreaming can help us switch from unhelpful rumination to relaxed, positive thinking.
By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | September 9, 2023
Many people come to therapy wanting to manage their tendency to overthink. They may say things like:
- "I can't stop worrying about tomorrow's meeting. I wish I could just relax."
- "I'm so bad at making decisions. What if I make the wrong choice?"
- "Whenever something happens, good or bad, I analyze it to death. I just wish I was quiet in my head for once."
As many of us know first-hand, it's mentally draining to constantly over-analyze things. Research indicates that individuals tend to avoid solitary reflection, potentially to dodge overthinking, opting for distractions like the internet to block out whatever it is they are worried about. Distraction, after all, is a coping technique.
Given the human propensity for fixating on negative information, our idle thoughts usually gravitate toward what we're stressed about. This is the brain's way of protecting us from future stress — but, counterproductively, it often leads to more anxiety, stress, and overthinking.
The good news is that the human mind is a powerful tool and with practice and intention, we can have more control over our thoughts than we ever imagined. And that's where daydreaming comes in.
Daydreaming Can Help With Overthinking, But There's A Caveat
Usually, daydreams are considered a distraction or a means of escape. However, given how we spend nearly half of our waking hours daydreaming, the ability to wander into a fantasy likely has an important role to play in our overall well-being. However, what you daydream about will make all the difference when it comes to taming your overthinking.
Intentional daydreaming, which is the deliberate attempt to have pleasant thoughts while disengaged from the external world, is one possible antidote to your unhealthy habit of overanalyzing every aspect of your life.
A 2021 study on intentional daydreaming found that for thinking to be pleasurable, people need to focus on topics that are both meaningful and positive, which is something we can all do by being more mindful of the thoughts that shape our daydreams.
Using the ability to daydream with the intent to cure your overthinking involves creating and maintaining focus on a positive imagined scenario. A 2017 study showed that deliberately thinking pleasurable thoughts became much easier when participants listed topics they would enjoy thinking about and were then given a simple "thinking aid" based on these topics.
So, having the intention to daydream and creating pre-planned topics to choose from can make the process a lot more enjoyable. In fact, there is evidence to show that thinking for pleasure (when done correctly) can be just as enjoyable as playing a video game.
So How Can We Daydream The Right Way?
According to psychologist and daydreaming researcher Erin Westgate, finding topics that are intrinsically rewarding for you to daydream about is key. These topics can include:
- A pleasant memory
- A future accomplishment
- An exciting future event, like a vacation
Westgate also emphasizes the importance of choosing the right time to daydream by avoiding it while engaging in important tasks like driving or when you're distracted or tired. It's best to engage in intentional daydreaming when you have the cognitive resources to go inward, like when you are doing something that doesn't demand much mental attention, like waiting for the bus, gardening, cleaning, showering, taking a walk or even brushing your teeth.
Of course, intentional daydreaming is only one of the ways to shift focus from unhelpful thinking patterns. It is also just as important to acknowledge our negative emotions, unlearn negative thought cycles, or use strategies like thought-challenging and journaling to externalize and reframe our thoughts.
We can learn to process our emotions, especially with the help of an experienced professional, without letting our worries consume us. That is where tools like intentional daydreaming come in to shift our focus when needed and create more positive experiences in our day. We can also use this repertoire of enjoyable thoughts during stressful times to "go to our happy place," which can, ultimately, make our minds a more relaxing, productive, and healthy place.
In a world where daydreams are often dismissed as distractions or a tool for escape, research has unearthed their potential as an active tool for self-improvement and joy. By nurturing the skill of intentional daydreaming, we uncover a means to elevate our mental landscape, shift our focus from negative ruminations, cultivate positivity, and embrace the beauty of our inner worlds.