Overthinking is a common issue I address in my therapy office. People often come to their appointments saying things like, “I can’t relax. It’s like my brain won’t shut off,” or “I can’t stop thinking about how my life could have been better if I’d done things differently.”
The link between overthinking and mental health problems is a chicken-or-egg type question. Overthinking is linked to psychological problems, like depression and anxiety.
It’s likely that overthinking causes mental health to decline and as your mental health declines, the more likely you are to overthink. It’s a vicious downward spiral. But, it’s hard to recognize that spiral when you’re caught in the middle of it. In fact, your brain might try to convince you that worrying and ruminating is somehow helpful.
After all, won’t you develop a better solution or prevent yourself from making the same mistake if you spend more time thinking? Not necessarily. In fact, the opposite is often true. Analysis paralysis is a real problem. The more you think, the worse you feel. And your feelings of misery, anxiety, or anger may cloud your judgment and prevent you from taking positive action.
Two Forms of Overthinking
Overthinking comes in two forms; ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. It’s different than problem-solving. Problem-solving involves thinking about a solution. Overthinking involves dwelling on the problem.
Overthinking is also different than self-reflection. Healthy self-reflection is about learning something about yourself or gaining a new perspective about a situation. It’s purposeful. Overthinking involves dwelling on how bad you feel and thinking about all the things you have no control over. It won’t help you develop new insight.
The difference between problem-solving, self-reflection, and overthinking isn’t about the amount of time you spend in deep thought. Time spent developing creative solutions or learning from your behavior is productive. But time spent overthinking, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 hours, won’t enhance your life.
Signs You’re an Overthinker
When you become more aware of your tendency to overthink things, you can take steps to change. But first, you have to recognize that overthinking does more harm than good.
Sometimes, people think that their overthinking somehow prevents bad things from happening. And they think if they don’t worry enough or rehash the past enough then somehow, they’ll encounter more problems. But, the research is pretty clear–overthinking is bad for you and it does nothing to prevent or solve problems.
Here are 10 signs that you’re an overthinker:
- I relive embarrassing moments in my head repeatedly.
- I have trouble sleeping because it feels like my brain won’t shut off.
- I ask myself a lot of “what if…” questions.
- I spend a lot of time thinking about the hidden meaning in things people say or events that happen.
- I rehash conversations I had with people in my mind and think about all the things I wished I had or hadn’t said.
- I constantly relive my mistakes.
- When someone says or acts in a way I don’t like, I keep replaying it in my mind.
- Sometimes I’m not aware of what’s going on around me because I’m dwelling on things that happened in the past or worrying about things that might happen in the future.
- I spend a lot of time worrying about things I have no control over.
- I can’t get my mind off my worries.
So, what’s an overthinking person to do? These tips can help you move in the right direction.
Step back and look at how you’re responding
The way you respond to your thoughts can sometimes keep you in a cycle of rumination, or repetitive thinking. The next time you find yourself continuously running things over in your mind, take note of how it affects your mood. Do you feel irritated, nervous, or guilty? What’s the primary emotion behind your thoughts?Having self-awareness is key to changing your mindset.
Find a distraction
Shut down overthinking by involving yourself in an activity you enjoy. This looks different for everyone, but ideas include:
- learning some new kitchen skills by tackling a new recipe
- going to your favorite workout class
- taking up a new hobby, such as painting
- volunteering with a local organization
It can be hard to start something new when you’re overwhelmed by your thoughts. If finding a distraction feels daunting, try setting aside a small chunk of time — say, 30 minutes — every other day. Use this time to either explore potential distractions or dabble in existing ones.
Take a deep breath
You’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it works. The next time you find yourself tossing and turning over your thoughts, close your eyes and breathe deeply.
Here’s a good starter exercise to help you unwind with your breath:
- Find a comfortable place to sit and relax your neck and shoulders.
- Place one hand over your heart and the other across your belly.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose, paying attention to how your chest and stomach move as you breathe.
Try doing this exercise three times a day for 5 minutes, or whenever you have racing thoughts.
Developing a regular meditation practice is an evidence-backed way to help clear your mind of nervous chatter by turning your attention inward. Not sure how to get started? We’ve got everything you need to know in this how-to guide. All you need is 5 minutes and a quiet spot.
Look at the bigger picture
How will all the issues floating around in your mind affect you 5 or 10 years from now? Will anyone really care that you bought a fruit plate for the potluck instead of baking a pie from scratch? Don’t let minor issues turn into significant hurdles.
Do something nice for someone else
Trying to ease the load for someone else can help you put things in perspective. Think of ways you can be of service to someone going through a difficult time. Does your friend who’s in the middle of a divorce need a few hours of childcare? Can you pick up groceries for your neighbor who’s been sick?
Realizing you have the power to make someone’s day better can keep negative thoughts from taking over. It also gives you something productive to focus on instead of your never-ending stream of thoughts.
Recognize automatic negative thinking
Automated negative thoughts (ANTs) refer to knee-jerk negative thoughts, usually involving fear or anger, you sometimes have in reaction to a situation.
You can identify and work through your ANTs by keeping a record of your thoughts and actively working to change them:
- Use a notebook to track the situation giving you anxiety, your mood, and the first thought that comes to you automatically.
- As you dig into details, evaluate why the situation is causing these negative thoughts.
- Break down the emotions you’re experiencing and try to identify what you’re telling yourself about the situation.
- Find an alternative to your original thought. For example, instead of jumping straight to, “This is going to be an epic failure,” try something along the lines of, “I’m genuinely trying my best.”
Acknowledge your successes
When you’re in the midst of overthinking, stop and take out your notebook or your favorite note-taking app on your phone. Jot down five things that have gone right over the past week and your role in them. These don’t need to be huge accomplishments. Maybe you stuck to your coffee budget this week or cleaned out your car. When you look at it on paper or on-screen, you might be surprised at how these little things add up.
If it feels helpful, refer back to this list when you find your thoughts spiraling.
Not ready to commit to a meditation routine? There are plenty of other ways to ground yourself in the present moment.
Be here now
Here are a few ideas:
Unplug. Shut off your computer or phone for a designated amount of time each day, and spend that time on a single activity.
Eat mindfully. Treat yourself to one of your favorite meals. Try to find the joy in each bite, and really focus on how the food tastes, smells, and feels in your mouth.
Get outside. Take a walk outside, even if it’s just a quick lap around the block. Take inventory of what you see along the way, noting any smells that waft by or sounds you hear.
Consider other viewpoints
Sometimes, quieting your thoughts requires stepping outside of your usual perspective. How you see the world is shaped by your life experiences, values, and assumptions. Imagining things from a different point of view can help you work through some of the noise.
Jot down some of the thoughts swirling around in your head. Try to investigate how valid each one is. For example, maybe you’re stressing about an upcoming trip because you just know it’s going to be a disaster. But is that really what’s going to happen? What kind of proof do you have to back that up?
Sometimes, you might go over the same thoughts repeatedly because you aren’t taking any concrete actions about a certain situation. Can’t stop thinking about someone you envy? Instead of having it ruin your day, let your feelings help you make better choices.
The next time you’re visited by the green-eyed monster, be proactive and jot down ways you can go about reaching your goals. This will get you out of your head and channel your energy into taking actionable steps.
Dwelling on past mistakes keeps you from letting go. If you’re beating yourself up over something you did last week, try refocusing on self-compassion. Here are some ways to get you started:
- Take note of a stressful thought.
- Pay attention to the emotions and bodily responses that arise.
- Acknowledge that your feelings are true for you in the moment.
- Adopt a phrase that speaks to you, such as “May I accept myself as I am” or “I am enough.”
Embrace your fears
Some things will always be out of your control. Learning how to accept this can go a long way toward curbing overthinking. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it won’t happen overnight. But look for small opportunities where you can confront the situations you frequently worry about. Maybe it’s standing up to a bossy co-worker or taking that solo day trip you’ve been dreaming of.