We’ve all had instances when we can’t avoid thinking about something. We go over the information again and again, playing out various scenarios, beating ourselves up, or getting ourselves worked up or anxious beyond the point of no return. You may also get into imaginary quarrels and question why you can’t help yourself. This article looks at how to stop overthinking so much.
We hope thinking in this way might help us resolve our troubles, but it frequently just makes things a whole lot worse. When you are caught up in these kinds of thought spirals, it can be challenging to get out of them.
We don’t have power over our thoughts or what pops up when, but the good news is that we do have power over how we respond when they do surface. We just have to train ourselves to respond in a different way! If you are battling constant worry and rumination, here are some ideas to help you break out of the over-thinking cycle:
Why we find it hard to discover how to stop overthinking
Often called, rumination, overthinking is a very old brain process, an evolutionary leftover that isn’t usually as beneficial anymore. Our ancestors would have to be on red alert constantly since it was a matter of life or death.
Let’s say you narrowly missed getting eaten by a lion, your mind is going to replay that situation over and over to make sure you steer clear of it next time and live another day. It provides us a sense of making an effort to resolve a problem.
Nowadays, our mind thinks that presentation we found stressful is as serous a threat as that lion. It’s using that exact same “life or death” problem-solving template to keep us protected. There isn’t a huge difference to your mind between a physical danger and an emotional risk, it’s all terrifying and life-threatening. It’s a really helpful and important mechanism when we require it, but you can see how easily it can get overused in circumstances that don’t require it.
Overthinking and worrying are basically problem-solving gone into overdrive. Your mind is running around in circles in an attempt to eliminate unpleasant troubles from the past or frightening potential issues in the long term. They both carry a practical promise in that worry promises to prepare you for the future while overthinking pledges you that past errors will not be repeated. Sadly, it turns out the very opposite is correct.
How to stop overthinking in its tracks
We need to think about things in order to process events that have taken place, problem solve, and decide next steps. Studies have shown that a person temporarily feels less anxious when they worry. So ruminating and overthinking can help us steer clear of distressing feelings in our body and make us feel like we’re doing something.
Many people use worry as a coping tactic to try to avoid bad events from taking place, giving us an illusion of control. It appears helpful when we feel powerless, but it actually heightens our feeling of danger. This is because we concentrate on all the ways something could go wrong (the vast majority of which never happen).
How to spot and then stop overthinking
There’s a fine line between thinking and overthinking. How do you know the difference? If you are concerned that you are ruminating or overthinking, you’re probably going around in circles, not getting any solutions, or discovering anything new.
The next time you aren’t sure if you are thinking or processing something or ruminating, try asking yourself these two quick questions:
- “Does this really feel useful? “
- “Am I discovering anything new?”
If the answer to either of these inquiries is no, then you are most likely ruminating and overthinking.
How to stop overthinking and worst case scenario ruminating
We also find that rumination leads to catastrophizing. Which is concentrating on the worst-case scenario outcome. Catastrophizing is another example of a useful mechanism gone haywire.
Thinking about the worst-case scenario is helpful to some degree because it allows us to prepare for the worst and offset any prospective calamity. We don’t need to prepare or worry about best-case scenario, which is why our brains usually disregard or blow past that probability.
It makes sense because it’s the most frightening or difficult eventuality for which we need the most planning, since it will have the greatest adverse consequences. Your mind would be irresponsible if it didn’t think about this! Regrettably, most of the time we get tunnel vision and see the worst-case scenario as our only possibility, no matter how uncommon it occurs.
Think back to all the times you believed the worst would occur. How many times were you correct? Probably not that frequently. In fact, you were likely astonished that things turned out better than expected. If your mind is only thinking about scary what-ifs, then you’re probably ruminating and overthinking.
How to stop overthinking
You may be telling yourself about a range of unreasonable and outlandish scenarios and how likely they are to happen. Alternatively, perhaps you’re blaming yourself for something that took place, or perhaps your mind is only focused on worst-case scenario. Instead, just observe whatever arises and try not to judge it because, in reality, you have no power over what turns up automatically.
Here’s a really essential point to keep in mind:
Your thoughts are simply data and not necessarily the truth.
We have thousands of thoughts each day and a lot of them are just plain wrong, as I mentioned previously. So, think about all the occasions you’ve had a thought or worry that proved completely wrong. If worst-case scenario occurred every time we worried it would, we’d all be long dead by now.
Challenging your thoughts is not how to stop overthinking
When we see our thoughts as a stream of information as opposed to real truth, this permits us to take what is helpful and beneficial and throw away the rest.
Getting inquisitive lets us take a look at things instead of get caught up in or follow an unhelpful spiral. The reason this can be more beneficial than simply challenging and dismissing a thought is because we don’t know yet if a future-oriented thought is truthful and often times our crappiest thoughts about the past or present hold some truth.
Attempting to argue with yourself means you are missing possible useful information in your thoughts.
None of us are actually mind readers or all-knowing. So you can see how arguing whether a thought is true or false can be pretty pointless. What we are instead looking at is whether a thought is useful or unhelpful.
The key is to identify whether a thought that pops up is a useful guide
Two simple questions to disrupt overthinking
Instead of fighting with yourself by challenging whatever thought pops up or dismissing anything, think about two quick questions:
- Is this thought actually beneficial?
- If I’m led by this thought, could it help me acquire the outcome I desire?
If a thought is useful and seems like a useful guide, then we need to pay attention to it. If a thought pops up and doesn’t actually feel valuable, then we want to look into whether there is any helpful data, without necessarily being led by it.
The reason we still want to check out our thoughts is because a thought can be both true and unhelpful simultaneously. If we dismiss all undesirable thoughts, we are missing out on some potentially significant information.
Reframing unhelpful thoughts as a way how to stop overthinking
If you’re uncertain whether your thoughts are being unhelpful, here are a few instances of unhelpful thoughts reframed into more useful guides.
The next time you have a thought that appears unhelpful, try writing it out next to “unhelpful” and then consider a more useful reframe to write outbeneath.
Unhelpful: “I can’t believe I failed the evaluation, I’ll never pass this course.”
Helpful: “I was unsuccessful at the test and now I’m now nervous I’m likely to be unsuccessful at the class. I don’t want to fail.”
When you’ve got more into these unhelpful anxiety spirals in the past, what did you end up doing? Did you begin studying diligently and do better on the next occasion or did you begin avoiding your work? Or perhaps you started studying so much that your mind went into overdrive and you could no longer effectively study.
If something works, we tend to carry on doing it, and if something doesn’t work, we attempt something different.
There’s helpful information in that anxiety because you clearly don’t want to fail. What might happen if you’re guided by the thought, “I don’t want to fail the course?” What would change? What would you do in a different way? You might arrange a study group, work with a tutor, ask the teacher for support, or maybe watch some YouTube video clips on the subject. Any of these could be useful and might make it more likely you’ll successfully pass than if you’re guided by the thought “I’ll never pass this course.”
Unhelpful: “This is far too much work. I’ll never get it completed!”
Helpful: “This seems like more work than I can get completed in the time allocated. I don’t believe I can get everything completed.”
Here’s a great example of a thought that is both true and unhelpful! Let us say it’s true you were given an excessive amount of work and won’t be able to complete everything ahead of the deadline. What happens if you’re guided by that unhelpful thinking? You might sit and get worried about it and start to panic, so that it is almost a guarantee you won’t get much done. You’ll probably feel hopeless and discouraged, and more likely to quit.
The more helpful version of this thought acknowledges the reality that you most likely won’t get everything completed and permits more room for problem-solving. What can you get finished? I’d be far more likely to stick to that thought up with, “I suppose I should concentrate on the highest priority items to see how much I can get completed.”
Unhelpful: “I shouldn’t have made that joke. Individual) hates me right now.”
Helpful: “I’m noticing I’m concerned my joke didn’t land well and now (individual) might dislike me. I don’t want them to be annoyed with me.”
It’s hard to feel like you said something awful and now you’re being negatively judged for it. The way we switch here is to notice and validate the thought without agreeing with it so you can get to the real worry. You’re not a mind reader, consequently you have absolutely no idea whether your friend dislikes you or even recalls what you stated, but it’s totally reasonable that you’d be worried.
When you’re caught up in these concerns, does it allow you to take beneficial action? Or does it push you further and further into a negative spiral?
There’s some useful information in there. Perhaps that person is annoyed with you because of your joke. The part that’s not beneficial is presuming they now dislike you. If I’m guided by the thought they dislike me, I might begin avoiding them or even despise them back. If I’m instead guided by the thought, “I don’t want (individual) to be annoyed with me”, I’m more likely to take productive action to fix things instead of sitting and worrying about it.
Here is a very powerful and useful hypnosis recording to help stop overthinking. Ideal to use before going to sleep
How to stop chronic overthinking
If you can’t come up with solutions or get off a negative thought train, then you’re probably too panicky right now to think in a helpful way. You’re not gaining anything new from negative, repetitive thoughts, so it’s better to find a healthy distraction to soothe yourself so you can come back to this later. One important insight is the difference between avoidance and distraction.
Avoidance means we’re not acknowledging that something’s wrong, we’re ignoring it to go do something else. Distraction means we’re acknowledging something’s wrong and needs attention, and we aren’t in the right head space to handle it in that moment.
This is the difference between watching Netflix and feeling guilty about it or taking a breather to enjoy it, and coming back to your problem later with a fresh perspective. The same action can be a workable distraction or unworkable avoidance depending on your intention.
If you recognise that you’re stuck in a repetitive thought cycle, take a deep breath, ground yourself, and pick an enjoyable and positive activity. If you pick something and it’s not helping, switch to something that gets your body moving:
- Take a mindful walk
- Do a quick workout or jumping jacks
- Play with a pet
- Try anything that’s worked in the past to see if it works again
- Examine your thoughts to see if you’re worrying about a solvable or unsolvable problem.
If your worry is solvable, follow the steps I’ve outlined above so you can soothe your nerves and brainstorm. Focus on where you have influence and decide what actions you need to take.
Your brain’s job is to problem solve. It won’t stop even in the face of an unsolvable problem. That’s not your fault, that’s just your brain trying to do its job. If your worry is unsolvable or you have no influence over, trying getting in touch with what’s under the worry. We usually find feelings of helplessness or powerlessness, disappointment, insecurity, or regret.
Allow space by noticing and accepting whatever comes up. Your brain will try to problem solve its way out of an emotion and unfortunately emotions can’t be rationalized away. When we accept and allow them to be there, they tend to flow and move on without lingering.
Remember that accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it. Try saying, “I accept that this is happening (or did happen, or might happen) and I don’t like it.”
Always keep an eye on whether what you’re doing in the present moment is helping or harming and shift into something that feels more helpful. If you have no idea what might be helpful, first try the exact opposite of what’s been harmful in the past.
If you typically pace around the room lost in thought (or lose yourself in thoughts at any point), stop and look around your environment. Start naming the things you see, feel your feet on the floor, stay still. Notice the thoughts, urges, body sensations while you continue to notice your environment.
If you lay in bed circling the drain, try imagining the most creative and outlandish place in the universe or the weirdest creature from another planet, or the silliest thing you can think of.
If you start frantically calling or texting people, put your phone down and take a walk. Notice you want to talk to someone and try talking to yourself first like you would a friend.
How to stop overthinking using kindness
If you’re having trouble coming up with more helpful thoughts or distracting yourself, try starting with just being kinder to yourself. For many of us, our automatic default is to beat the crap out of ourselves and research shows that harsh criticism is demotivating and makes out-of-control thought spirals worst.
If you’re struggling with this, ask yourself:
If beating myself up worked, wouldn’t I be perfect by now?
Listen for that nasty inner critic and try softening it a bit by thinking about how you’d respond to a friend. This helps interrupt rumination and spiraling thoughts since we don’t typically let our friends do this.
Automatic critic: “I’m such an idiot, I can’t believe I did that. What’s wrong with me?”
Helpful response: “I am really getting mad at myself for messing up. Would I call my friend an idiot for messing up?”
Automatic critic: “I’ll never understand this, it’s useless.”
Helpful response: “It’s hard for me to struggle like this and feel like I’ll never understand it. What would I say to a friend struggling to learn this?”
Automatic critic: “What if something bad happens? I’ll let everyone down.”
Helpful response: “It’s hard to worry about something I can’t control, I don’t like letting people down. What would I say to my friend?”
Being kind to yourself instead of beating yourself up allows you to take accountability for blowing the presentation, failing your exam, or letting someone down, but also learn from it.
There’s no learning in harsh criticism.
Self-compassion allows us the opportunity to guide ourselves, to accept that we’re doing our best and we can do better. Make note of how different you talk to yourself than you do others and again ask yourself if what your critic says feels helpful.
How to stop overthinking without beating yourself up
If you take away nothing else from this post, I want you to remember that you don’t have control over what thoughts pop up. You will have unhelpful and true as well as unhelpful and untrue thoughts popping up regularly (along with helpful, irrational, loving, hateful, funny, silly ones…).
We’re not trying to stop your thoughts because we can’t! We’re noticing them as information, seeing whether there is any value or helpful guidance, and then bringing a wider perspective to the situation.
An unhelpful or negative thought is like tunnel vision. When we’re only focused on that tunnel, we’re missing a whole bunch of other useful information. When we widen our perspective to include the peripheral (alternative options, silver linings, etc.), we give ourselves more options.
We stop being at the mercy of our thoughts when we view them as information, not automatic truths or commands.
Getting caught in a rumination cycle can feel like there’s no escape. Remind yourself that it’s important to think things through, but that you don’t have to feel trapped by your thoughts. With some practice and a little patience, you can re-direct your focus and get yourself out of this nasty cycle.