What is holding you back from the life that you truly want to live? One very common and destructive reason is that you may not know how to stop overthinking. Spending too much time in our head can be perilous to our mental and emotional health. Thinking about something in endless circles — is exhausting.
Overthinking is as debilitating as it is common. It can stop you from enjoying social events, disturb your sleep, undermine your job performance, and even ruin your holidays. While it’s human nature to think things through when making a decision or evaluating a situation, it becomes overthinking when relentless experiences of self-imposed mental interrogation mean you simply can’t get out of your head.
It happens to all of us at some point in our lives – we all experience events that cause us worry or stress. However, some people can’t seem to turn their concerns off. They worry about the future, making catastrophic predictions about unlikely events that haven’t happened yet. They endlessly deliberate when making a decision (and then question the decision), attempting to read minds, trying to predict the future, reading into the smallest of details. They also ruminate about the past, beating themselves up about “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” They fret over what others might think of them or let negative self-talk build up in their minds.
“I think and think and think, I‘ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
– Jonathan Safran Foer
Signs You Are Overthinking
It’s useful to have a definitive list of overthinking symptoms. This allows you to identify when you are really getting into dangerous territory for your mental health.
You can’t sleep.
You can’t turn off your mind, and you begin to feel agitated by worries or doubts.
Studies on overthinking suggest you might turn to drugs, alcohol, food or other external ways of regulating your emotions. This is because you don’t feel able to calm down using your internal resources.
You’re always tired.
This may be from insomnia, or just from the constant loop of your agitated thoughts.
You want to control everything.
You try to plan every aspect of your life, down to the last detail. This is the only way you feel safe, but it never quite works (because it’s impossible to control everything).
You obsess about failure.
You tend to be a perfectionist and often imagine how awful it would be to fail in any way. This fear of failure often paralyses you, preventing you from learning from any mistakes.
You fear the future.
Instead of being excited by all you’ve yet to accomplish and experience, you are trapped in your own anxiety about what could go wrong.
You don’t trust your own judgment.
You second-guess yourself on everything from what you’re wearing to where you’re going, what you’re saying and how you come across to others. Plus, you may rely on others to reassure you that your judgment is sound – which can lead to disaster.
You get tension headaches.
These feel like a tight band around your temples, and you might also notice pain or stiffness in your neck. Chronic tension headaches are a sign that you desperately need a rest.
“Your addiction to thinking will come back to haunt you.”
― Natsume Sōseki
When you analyse, evaluate and repeat the same thoughts over and again, instead of acting, you are overthinking. The worst part about this habit is that it prevents you from taking action. It consumes your energy, disables your ability to make decisions, and puts you on a loop of thinking and thinking over and again. This is a kind of thinking that wastes your time and energy and prevents you from doing new things and making progress in your life. It’s like tying yourself to a rope that is connected to a pole and going around in circles.
“Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere”
– Emma Bombeck
4 Common Costs of Overthinking
If you are overthinking important issues in your life, you can get stuck in indecision, avoidance, and procrastination. A person thinking about their relationships, health, career, and self-identity issues needs to spend time in thoughtful reflection, but too much time in the head can be costly. Spending time in negative repetitive thinking patterns can lead to significant personal distress.
1. Missing out on opportunities
It’s smart to do your research, but if you think for too long about a decision, you’re likely to see opportunities pass you by. Are there opportunities waiting for you that you don’t want to miss by overthinking your decision? Perhaps it’s a good time to make your move.
2. Feeling like you’re spinning your wheels
You probably recognise that you’ve been down the same mental road many times, and yet you continue, like you’re stuck in a mental loop. It’s frustrating and draining. Overthinking can be a hard habit to break because it feels like you’re doing something. But, in reality, it’s a waste of time and effort.
3. Friction with those around you
Just as overthinking can exhaust you, it can exhaust those around you. Your friends and colleagues might get tired of hearing you cover the same ground again and again, and your loved ones might get annoyed when you won’t make a decision. Your relationships suffer as a result.
Overthinking is the mental equivalent of pacing the floor, driven by the belief that you should be able to solve a problem by exerting enough mental energy. Not being able to find a solution makes you feel anxious and agitated and fills you with self-doubt.
“Don’t overthink yourself out of something good!”
― Akosua Dardaine Edwards
You might manage to convince yourself that thinking about something for a really long time is the key to developing the best solution, however, that’s usually not the case. In fact, the longer you think about something, the less time and energy you have to take productive action. Overanalysing and obsessing actually becomes a barrier. Research into Unconscious Thought shows that thinking too much makes it much harder to make decisions. Overthinking is different from problem-solving. Overthinking is about dwelling on the problem, while problem-solving involves looking for a solution.
Imagine there is a storm coming. Here’s the difference between overthinking and problem-solving:
Overthinking: “OMG a storm is coming – it’s going to be huge. I wish the storm wouldn’t come. What if the house gets damaged? Maybe we will be cut off by floodwaters. Why do these things always happen to me?”
Problem-solving: “I will go outside and pick up anything that might blow away. I’ll put sandbags against the garage door to prevent flooding. If the meteorologists predict high winds, I’ll go to the hardware shop and get some plywood so I can board up the windows.”
Problem-solving can lead to productive action. Overthinking, on the other hand, fuels uncomfortable emotions and doesn’t look for solutions.
“Don’t overthink things. Sometimes you can convince your head not to listen to your heart. Those are the decisions you regret for the rest of your life.”
– Leah Braemel
The Overthinking Mind
Those who “overthink” have an excessive tendency to monitor, evaluate, and attempt to control all types of thought. Overthinkers are not only highly aware of their thoughts, but they also spend a lot of time trying to understand the causes and meaning of their thoughts.
Sometimes this can be a useful characteristic if our thoughts are significant, and we need to decide on the best course of action. However, it quickly becomes detrimental when we dwell on negative intrusive thoughts. When we pay too much attention to such thoughts, overanalyse their meaning, and try too hard to control them, we can slip into unhealthy forms of thought, like worry, rumination, and obsession. When we overanalyse negative, intrusive thoughts, we can end up anxious, depressed, frustrated, and guilt-ridden.
“The sharpest minds often ruin their lives by overthinking the next step, while the dull win the race with eyes closed.”
― Bethany Brookbank
15 Patterns of Overthinking
according to John Spacey.
Going too far with abstractions that are detached from actionable realities.
Considering too many factors in a decision without filtering and weighing importance.
Using the decision-making process as an excuse to avoid something you really don’t want to do.
4. Cold Logic
Using logic for a decision that requires emotion.
5. Intuition Neglect
Ignoring or overlooking something you already know.
6. Premature Decisions
Wasting time and resources thinking about a decision that doesn’t need to be made yet.
7. Irrelevant Decisions
Making decisions you don’t need to make at all, such as thinking about unlikely future scenarios.
8. Creating Problems
Seeing problems where they don’t exist.
9. Neglecting Speed
Situations where a fast mediocre decision is worth more than a slow optimised decision.
10. Over Optimisation
Tweaking minor details while missing the big picture.
11. Ambiguity Aversion
Stalling on a decision due to missing information.
12. Lack of Principles
Establishing basic principles or variables to guide decisions tends to make them more efficient.
13. Paralysis by Analysis
Analysis is the process of breaking things down to their component parts. It’s a basic thought process that can be helpful but it also risks making decisions needlessly complex.
14. Big Thinking
Creating gigantic solutions to solve small problems.
15. Fear of Failure
Going too far to avoid the chance of failure.
“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
– Bruce Lee
We all get sucked into obsessive thoughts sometimes, but when this starts to consume our lives it turns into a serious, chronic problem. Your greatest asset, an analytical mind, can easily become an enemy when you get stuck in a loop of unproductive thoughts. In addition, high levels of uncertainty can trigger a spiral into unproductive obsessiveness.
“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute”
― Tina Fey
How To Stop Overthinking and Overcome Anxiety
Overcoming obsessive thoughts requires an action plan. If you want to stop overthinking, you need to find straightforward techniques that work, and repeat them until they become second nature.
Getting lost in your head by overthinking can result in becoming stuck and standing still in life. You are not here to sit on the sidelines and let life pass you by! You are much more muchier than that! Do not allow your thoughts to sabotage all the good things that a wanting to happen for you.
Know your triggers.
Even the most ardent overthinkers don’t do it all the time. You will have particular thoughts or issues that are more likely to trigger overthinking. Start paying closer attention to your thought processes and notice when you’re thinking in an unproductive way. Note down what you’re thinking, and the form it takes. For example, are you replaying a previous conversation on a loop, analysing it for your failures? Alternatively, are you picturing future disaster scenarios in your imagination? Write down what you think instigated the overthinking. Was it something to do with social interaction? Uncertainty? Going to a new environment?
Be Aware of Overthinking.
To reduce overthinking, you need to know when it’s happening. What are the tell-tale signs that you’re overthinking? Is it when you’re trying to interpret the meaning of an intrusive thought when it probably has no hidden meaning? Is it when you’re trying too hard to control or suppress the thought? Or is it when you become frightened or anxious with the thought? There may be other signs that indicate you’ve slipped into overthinking. A useful mantra might be “What are my thoughts and how do they flow?”
Fully Embrace its Futility.
You won’t be able to curb overthinking as long as you believe it has value. Review your past experiences with overthinking and write down how it helped. Did the overthinking result in any meaningful solution or revelation? Were there more positive or negative consequences associated with it?
Broaden Your Perspective.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of overthinking minor things in life. So, when you discover yourself thinking and thinking about something, ask yourself: Will this matter in 5 years? Or even in 5 weeks? This simple technique can quickly snap you out of overthinking and help you let go of the situation. If it’s not really that important, you can choose to focus your precious time and energy on something else that actually does matter.
Time Limit Decisions.
When you are under time pressure, a wonderful thing happens: decisions must be made so you can take action. Without a time-limit for making decisions and taking action you can just keep turning your thoughts around and around to view them from all angles in your mind. Train yourself to become better at making decisions by setting deadlines in your daily life. The size of the decision doesn’t matter. What matters is that you decide and take action. Life is about movement.
Set Up Your Day for Success
You can’t totally avoid overwhelming or stressful days. But you can minimise their number by not setting your day up for unnecessary stress, overthinking and suffering.
Three things to consider:
1. Get a good start. How you start your day sets the tone for the rest of that day. A stressed out morning leads to a stressed out day. Consuming negative information on the train into work tends to lead to more pessimistic thoughts during the rest of your day. Consider forgoing the fear porn mass media and choose to read something uplifting over breakfast. Getting started with your most important task first thing sets a good tone for the day and will help you to stay positive.
2. Schedule breaks (and take them!). This will help you to keep a sharp focus during your day and to get what’s most important done while also allowing you to rest and recharge so you don’t start to run on fumes. A break can help you to think clearly and decisively and avoid winding up in a stressed and overthinking headspace.
3. Minimise your daily input. Too much information leads to more input and clutter in your mind as your day progresses. This means it becomes harder to think in a simple and clear way which makes it easier to fall back into that familiar overthinking habit.
Become a Person of Action.
When you know how to get started with taking action consistently each day then you’ll procrastinate less. Setting deadlines and a good tone for the day are two things that can help you to become a person of action. Taking small steps forward and only focusing on the step in front of you will also help because you will not feel so overwhelmed.
Accept That you Can’t Control Everything.
Thinking things through time and again can be a symptom of trying to control everything. Are you looking to cover every eventuality so you don’t risk making a mistake, failing, or looking foolish? A life well-lived requires stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking a risk. Everyone makes mistakes. You are not your mistakes. Use any perceived failures as valuable feedback to learn from and course-correct as needed. A tragedy can turn out to be for your greatest good if you approach it from ways in which you can grow.
You Are in Charge
Don’t allow your mind to fool you when you’re hungry or lying in bed just about to go to sleep. You do not have to entertain those negative thoughts. You are in charge and you can say “No, we are not going to think about this now.”
Boogety-Boogety Vague Fears.
Do not allow yourself to get lost in vague fears. Imagination is powerful. A mind running wild can create all manner of disaster scenarios about what could happen. Honestly, what is the worst that could happen? Once you’ve figured out what that is, spend a little time considering what you can do if that pretty unlikely thing happens if you must, then let it go.
Get Plenty of Good Quality Sleep.
If you don’t sleep, you don’t heal physically, mentally and emotionally. When you haven’t slept enough you become much more vulnerable to worrying and pessimism. Inadequate sleep leads to muddled thinking and makes everything you do in your waking world much harder than it needs to be. Develop good sleeping habits and choose a frequency to play while you sleep. You may as well program your subconscious for success while your body repairs.
By being in the present moment in your everyday life, rather than in the past or a possible future in your mind, you can replace more and more of the time you usually spend on overthinking things with simply being here right now. Your point of power is in the present moment. Slow down whatever you are doing and become more aware of how you use your body. Smell the smells, feel the feels, and see the sights happening right now. Notice the rise and fall of your chest with each in and out-breath.
The Company you Keep
Your social environment plays a big part. Spend more of your time with people who do not overthink things. Not just the people and groups close to you in real life. But also what you read, listen to, and watch. The blogs, books, forums, movies, podcasts, and music in your life. Consider if there are any sources in your life – close by or further away – that tend to create more overthinking in your mind. What about people or sources that have the opposite effect on you? Find ways to spend more of your time and attention with the people and input that have a positive effect on your thinking and less on the influences that strengthen your overthinking habit.
It works with toddlers and it can work with your belligerent thought patterns too. One of the main reasons you overthink is because you have time to. Remove that spare time with an activity that engages your full faculties. Sudoku, learn a language or simply brush your teeth with the opposite hand. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something your future self will thank you for.
Learning how to stop overthinking, anxiety and restlessness have a lot to do with building better connections with your physical body. Both physical and mental forms of positive stimulation help to rewrite problematic, negative thought processes. Exercise can work wonders for the over-thinker because it focuses the mind on something straightforward, structured, and rewarding, turning pent-up energy into something you can use. It also floods the body with feel-good endorphins that make you more positive in general. Find something you genuinely love, whether it’s a team sport, running in a beautiful place, cycling with friends, or swimming laps after work.
Own your Decisions
Overthinking decisions often come from the fear that you’ll do something “wrong,” like buying something you regret or booking a bad weekend to travel. Keep in mind that all you can do is make the best possible decision with the information you have. Stand tall and keep your head up, no matter what the result is. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, you might have made an excellent decision at the time. Own it. Watch out for hindsight bias, where you judge your past decision based on information you didn’t have at the time. For example, don’t assume you “should have known” a month before that it would rain the whole weekend you were at the beach; meteorologists are less than perfect at predicting the weather even more than a day or two in advance.
“The more you rationalise, the more you move farther away from your authentic self.”
― Shannon L. Alder
Putting an end to rehashing, second-guessing, and catastrophic predictions is easier said than done. But with consistent practice, you can limit your negative thinking patterns. Overthinking can be harmful to our emotional health, especially when it’s directed at unwanted, spontaneous, negative thoughts, images, or memories. Fortunately, we can learn to curb this unhelpful way of thinking through greater self-awareness and the practice of mental disengagement. Once you discover how to stop overthinking and live in the moment, you’ll be happier, more rested, and have a positive influence on those around you. Always remember that life happens for you, not to you. Even your negative emotions can lead to positive outcomes if you treat them as gifts that have been given to help you grow.
There are so many activities that can help lift your mood. Try going out into the sunshine, exercising, making plans with friends, catching up with family members, or snuggling with a pet. Maybe you’ll find that the positive feelings that these activities create may make your thoughts more positive, too. While chronic overthinking can’t be fixed in the blink of an eye, with practice it can be better managed. Find out what works to make you feel better and stick with it in order to see long-term results.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.”
– Eckhart Tolle