How to Stop Overthinking: A Comprehensive Guide
It’s a process and takes practice.
Overthinking is a common problem that can affect just about anybody. And overthinking can focus in on just about anything. For example, you might get caught up worrying about what your boss, your friend, your sister, your boyfriend, or your neighbor really thinks about you. You might read way too much into the comment your mom or your teacher or your coworker said, just now, last week, or even, years ago. You might become so overcome by making plans—and considering all the options—that you literally can’t make a decision. Or you might feel confused or regretful about something in your past, present, or future that keeps you up at night, turning whatever happened (or didn’t or might) over and over again in your head.
Overthinking, which also is sometimes called overanalyzing, ruminating, or beating a dead horse, is a malady that can strike at any time and center on just about anything, big or small. Self-doubt, pessimism, and anxiety all play a role in this type of cyclical thinking. For some people, it sneaks up on them only occasionally. Others might feel like they’re in the grip of overthinking day in and day out. Just about everybody else falls somewhere in between.
But whether you’re prone to chronic overthinking or it’s rare for you, getting stuck in your head is something most people have experienced. Getting stuck in overthinking can be very frustrating, overwhelming, paralyzing, defeating, and counterproductive. And when it happens, most of us want out. Unfortunately that can be exceedingly hard to do. But with the right tools, it’s possible. In this comprehensive guide, learn how to stop overthinking. And discover how to calm your mind and think clearly instead.
Overthinking can slowly develop over a few hours or days or it can happen in a flash. Either way, once you’re in it, it can be hard to recognize and even harder to get yourself out. But there are effective ways to ease yourself out of this type of toxic thinking—and to prevent yourself from going down this path again in the first place.
Understand Why and How Overthinking Happens
There are many, many ways overthinking can manifest into your life. You might start on one thing, and then end up questioning just about every choice you’ve ever made—or are about to make.
For example, say you have a presentation you’re doing the next week at work. You might start worrying about how it’s going to go, then start questioning all the details of the presentation and how well you will deliver it in front of your boss. This might lead you to thinking you might get fired (or want to quit) or that you never should have taken this job (or career path) in the first place.
In other words, you can head down a rabbit hole that leads to all kinds of unexpected places, few of which are usually helpful, realistic, practical, or relevant for your decision-making, mental health, or life in general. This happens because our worries, stress, self-doubt, and fears start creeping into our thoughts, quickly magnifying what might otherwise be a straightforward situation. And left unchecked, these ideas can take over, steamrolling our common sense, our patience, our trust in ourselves (and in others), leaving us to question, doubt, and worry and catastrophize about anything and everything.
Identify your triggers
Know your own brain. Once you start overthinking, these thoughts tend to snowball. So, you might begin by trying to decide if you’re going to take a morning or an afternoon flight to visit your parents. Soon enough you might be questioning the whole trip—or if your parents even really love you in the first place. But if you can find patterns in when these issues come up for you, you can start heading them off from the beginning so that you don’t get trapped by overthinking.
To do this, look for triggers. Do you tend to get wrapped up over practical things, such as making plans with friends, or are you more likely to overthink about issues relating to your work or romantic life. For example, if someone you are dating doesn’t text back right away, do you tend to work that into something much bigger in your brain? Awareness can help keep you grounded and focused on the one thing you need to do or decide. Keep circling back to remind yourself that you may be overthinking an issue—a sign that you are is if your thoughts are making you increasingly distressed. If you know that you tend to overthink certain things, you’ll be more able to stop yourself before you get in too deep.
Focus on the one thing
Keep reminding yourself of the facts of whatever you are thinking about. What is it that you know. Then, aim to let anything that’s supposition go—at least for the moment. Check in with yourself. What is realistic; what is fact; what is practical; what might you have blown up in your mind? Ask yourself “What are you assuming?” What are you questioning that might not really be valid.
Consider how you are talking to yourself, too. Then, begin to tease out what is unkind, unhelpful, self-sabotaging, and getting you off track. And keep returning to what you know is true or whatever issue you need to resolve. Then, aim to discard the rest, especially anything that is based in self-doubt, unrealistic, or worst-case scenario assumptions.
Give yourself a schedule
Set a timer. If you feel you need to think about something, give yourself a set amount of time to do so. This strategy works even if you feel you need to worry or fret over something. Give yourself, say 5, 10, 30 minutes to do so. Then, tell yourself you are moving on. When your mind returns to the topic. Gently, say, “Nope, we’re done with that for now.” You can even give yourself time the next day, or later in the week, to think on it again, if needed. But if you can schedule it, then you are also giving yourself breaks when you are not going to be stuck in that thinking.
The same idea works if there is a decision to be made from this thinking. Give yourself a timeframe for making the choice. You can literally set a timer. Then, when the time is up, make your choice and move on.
Change your scenery
Often, you can release yourself from overthinking just by giving yourself a change of scenery. Go outside, go to the grocery store, go to a friend’s house, bike around the block, even just go in the next room. Putting yourself in another setting can help shift your brain out of overthinking, give you a fresh perspective, or simply knock you back into reality.
Practice positive self-talk
Consider how you are talking to yourself while overthinking. Consider if negativity is clouding your judgment. Often, this type of thinking goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem, which becomes a habit of undercutting yourself and not thinking you are worthy, important, valued, or good enough.
So, notice when your thoughts become uncharitable or toxic toward yourself. When you hear yourself say, “I can’t do that” or “I will fail” or “They don’t like me,” counter that with “I can do that,” “I will succeed,” “I am loved,” and “I am good enough.” Consider what you would say if a friend was in the same situation, and use the words for yourself that you would say to that person. Often, we’re the hardest on ourselves, but we should be giving ourselves the same love, consideration, encouragement, leeway, and support that we would give to others.
Self-care is so important for kicking overthinking to the curb. This type of thinking can happen any time but it’s most common in times of stress and when you’re not taking care of your basic needs. So, give yourself good, nutritious meals and snacks. Get regular exercise and good sleep. Sleep is particularly key to stopping overthinking. When we’re over tired (or hungry or not physically active), our thinking is bound to suffer. Practice stress relief techniques, too, such as yoga, deep breathing, mediation, going on a walk, and giving yourself breaks. Incorporate into your day whatever activities make you feel at your best, relaxed, and refreshed.
Talk it out
Talking out whatever you are overthinking can quickly help you get your thinking back on track. So, call a friend, a coworker, your sister, your mom, or a therapist. Get a fresh perspective on whatever it is that you’re caught up in your head about. Sometimes, hearing yourself just say it out loud (or writing it down and reading it back) can be enough to shake you back to reality.
Make plans with friends, get out of the house, or just get out of your bedroom (or your office). Talking with other people or doing a social activity helps you put things in perspective, or at the very least just get out of your head. You don’t even need to talk about whatever it is you’re overthinking for this approach to work. Just letting yourself emesh into whatever social interaction or activity you’re doing is often enough to jolt you out of the worries in your head.
Curate productive distractions
Give yourself background noise. This technique can help to keep your thoughts grounded. Listen to music or podcasts or watch tv. Give yourself something else to think about. Even if you start to overthink, having a favorite song or show on can help bring you back from getting too deep in your head.
Address your anxiety
Everyone experiences some anxiety now and then but if yours feels overwhelming, it’s probably a good idea to seek outside assistance. Often, overthinking is tied to anxiety. If you are having a lot of anxiety with your overthinking, consider talking to a therapist who can help you develop your anxiety coping skills to make your symptoms more manageable. Self-care, intentional thinking, reading, breath work, and behavioral therapy can all help quite a bit.
Key Takeaways on Overthinking
Don’t beat yourself up about overthinking—or your anxiety. Overthinking is just your brain’s way of telling yourself you are worried or stressed or uncertain about something. Honor those feelings, then aim to address what you can and let the rest go. Instead, of thinking and thinking and thinking about something and getting yourself nowhere, except into a frenzy. Think, what can I do about this? And is this thinking helpful or truthful or accurate or kind? Then, focus on the practical, take whatever steps you need or can do, and then, move on.
Overthinking doesn’t have to control you. Instead, realize that you are the director of your thoughts. So, edit out the ones that don’t serve you and focus on the ones that help the star of the show (that’s you!) thrive and shine. Moreover, have compassion for yourself as you work on these skills. You might still occasionally fall into the overthinking trap. That’s okay! Just keep working on modifying your thoughts and soon enough, you’ll leave overthinking in its tracks.