It’s hard to live in the moment or maintain a healthy mindset when you have the tendency to overthink. We all do it, but some of us are prone to overthink until we stress ourselves out about virtually anything. We worry that we didn’t handle a situation properly and think through each scenario of what we wish we would have done or said. We obsess about what will happen tomorrow and all the things that could go wrong.
Deep thinking is not always bad, but if you find yourself anxious and stressed when you’re thinking too much, you’re probably overthinking, which can lead to overly negative and unpleasant feelings that impact your life.
Let’s look at why we might overthink and ways to combat this habit that can get out of control quickly.
Why do we overthink?
There are many causes of overthinking. It can be a result of our minds being stimulated constantly, always on the go and thinking about what could happen next. Will I get all my work done tomorrow? Will I get anxiety on the plane? Am I going to mess up this presentation? All possible negative outcomes flood our brains and it’s hard to get past those thoughts.
But, overthinking is also often the result of overidentifying with an experience and having trouble managing our thoughts around it. Relational psychotherapist and interpersonal dynamics consultant Colleen O’Brien says that overthinking can also be a result of feeling shame, embarrassment, regret, or worry. It's easy to rework situations and conversations in our heads, coming up with scenarios about how these experiences could have gone better. Or to try to understand how our actions and words may have impacted others.
These are common thoughts when overthinking: What are other people thinking about me right now? What could I have done differently? Why did I say that really dumb thing?
Overthinking can easily happen when we’re under a lot of stress, whether from past regret and shame or because of something we have to do in the future.
Read more: 3 Practical Ways to Relieve Stress
Is overthinking always a bad thing?
Because we all overthink sometimes, it’s worth discussing whether it’s always a negative. O’Brien says, “I think this depends on how you feel when you do it. Our thoughts can move very quickly and sometimes we are so caught up in them that we don’t realize what’s going on in our bodies.”
She suggests paying closer attention to your body and how you feel moment by moment: “If you find yourself overthinking, bring your attention into your body and notice if you are experiencing any unpleasant sensations (i.e., tight throat, constricted chest, butterflies in the stomach, etc.) or feelings (anger, frustration, sadness, grief, etc). Being aware of your sensations and feelings can be an effective guide to knowing what’s happening in your mind.”
And, it also helps to simply understand that it’s going to happen sometimes. We all go through challenging times, have negative feelings, and experience unpleasant sensations. It’s a part of life. O’Brien recognizes this and adds, “but if you find yourself spending much more time in an unpleasant or negative body/mind, you may be overidentifying with whatever experiences you are thinking about.”
It’s also important to understand that thinking through things carefully and overthinking are two different things. “Thinking in a reflective and contemplative way is a valuable skill that can lead to using wise discernment when making decisions,” O’Brien says. Overthinking, on the other hand, is more like rumination, or “going over something in your mind over and over and over again with no real benefit.”
It can sometimes be this latter scenario, ruminating and rehashing the past, that pushes us into that detrimental downward spiral, eventually leading to us overly focusing on the past. One study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed that rumination can link stressful life events to depression and anxiety symptoms. Overthinking this much can also lead to poor sleep quality.
So, what can you do?
How to stop overthinking
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid overthinking, both before it happens and when you notice it happening.
1. Practice mindfulness
O’Brien says mindfulness is an effective way to stop overthinking. “When we are practicing mindfulness, we are aware of what’s happening within ourselves in the moment it’s happening, and we focus on keeping a balanced, non-judgmental awareness. When we are able to do this, we don’t over-identify with negative experiences and go into that downward spiral.”
Mindfulness increases our awareness so we can start to notice when we’re overthinking. We can notice the thoughts without being hooked by them. Mindfulness helps us practice observation instead of letting thoughts take over. Is what we’re thinking actually based in reality? What are the chances of this being true? With more awareness, you will usually be able to discover whether you are exaggerating past events and potential outcomes.
2. Show yourself compassion
Self-compassion is a related practice that encourages us to be kind to ourselves in the moment. “One thing we know is that self-compassion helps with rumination and is consistently associated with a reduction in post-traumatic stress symptoms,” O’Brien says.
This means that you can become aware of your overthinking, noticing when you’re calling yourself stupid or being annoyed with your thoughts, and you can treat yourself with kindness, like you would treat a good friend. Think about what you would tell someone else when they’re dealing with the thoughts you’re having.
Read more: 20 Signs You’re Too Self-Critical at Work
3. Work toward a goal
Other ways to not overthink can be to have deadlines at work or to create goals for yourself. Sometimes overthinking can be the result of having a little too much time on our hands to think about things. A deadline on a project can help us to focus on getting a task completed, which is usually a way to avoid thinking too much. Problem-solving is a great way to activate and occupy the brain in a more satisfying way.
Read more: 25+ Short-Term Goals to Strive for Right Now
4. Focus on a hobby
Taking up a hobby or activity that requires your undivided attention can also accomplish this. Gardening, exercising, creating art, cooking, knitting, dancing, or going for a walk can help us stay focused on something. Watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a podcast helps us to focus on other things when we find ourselves overthinking, approaching that downward spiral we want to avoid.
Read more: 14 Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Stressful Times
5. Do something for someone else
Another tactic to try is to redirect your focus to doing something positive for another person. Maybe you want to start volunteering at a nonprofit, visit a parent or friend, or cook a surprise dinner for your partner. Not only does this allow you to focus on something other than yourself and your thoughts, it also fosters positive feelings that can help you build more self-confidence and satisfaction.
About our source
Colleen O’Brien, LCPC, is a Relational Psychotherapist and an Interpersonal Dynamics Consultant in private practice in Chicago. She teaches Mindful Self-Compassion to the general public and Self-Compassion for Healthcare Communities to our essential workers. These days when not working, Colleen can be found hanging out with her sweet 7-month old baby, reading about how to raise said baby, or playing with her dogs. Prior to pandemic and baby life, Colleen worked at Cathedral Counseling Center, a non-profit mental health agency committed to making mental health available to everyone, and on-site at The University of Chicago and Northwestern Memorial Hospital as the Staff and Faculty/Employee Assistance Program Counselor.