How To Stop Overthinking

how to stop overthinking



Have you ever had this happen?

You get in your car and start driving to work. You begin to think about something unpleasant or frustrating. The next thing you know, your thirty minute commute is over, and you have no memory of driving yourself to the office. But you do have strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, or self-doubt.

Over thinking our problems or worries traps us in a mental loop from which it is very difficult to disengage. I've had periods in my life when I was going through an emotional difficulty or a big decision, and I simply couldn't stop thinking about every detail and possible outcome. I felt imprisoned in my own mind. Even though I knew I was over thinking, my finger was permanently pressing the “on” button in my mind.

According to the American Psychological Association, over thinking involves “repetitive, prolonged, and recurrent thought about one's self, one's concerns and one's experiences.” Over thinking entraps us in a variety of ways — through rumination, worry, self-reproach, and anticipating negative outcomes.

You can certainly over think about positive situations and memories as well, through savoring, anticipation, and reminiscing. However, this kind of over thinking doesn't have the same effects as thoughts about negative or painful experiences or fears.

Aside from making you feel trapped in your mind, negative over thinking can lead to mental and physical problems. Repetitive negative thoughts over a prolonged period of time can lead to stress, anxiety, and clinical depression.

Negative brain activity can weaken your immune system, leading to  a variety of physical ailments. Studies have shown patients who ruminate about getting sick or having certain side effects of medications (even placebo medications) will actually get sick or experience the side effects.

There's plenty of reason to stop over thinking, but if you're trapped in it, all of those reasons only make you feel worse and give you something more to fret about.

Ever wonder how to stop overthinking? Here are 10 ways.

1. Create awareness

When we're trapped in these negative thought loops, we become so immersed in our thoughts that we don't recognize how deeply entrenched we are. If you recognize over thinking as one of your regular patterns, then set a mental intention to become aware of it when it's happening.

When you notice yourself thought looping, just be the observer of your thoughts without judging them or adding a second layer of stress, worrying about your over thinking.
 
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Say to yourself something like, “Oh I'm doing that over thinking thing again.” The ability to mentally stand back and observe your own behavior is the beginning of releasing the grip of repetitive thoughts.

2. Trigger a pattern interrupt

pattern interrupt

photo credit:it.wikihow.com

In addition to noticing your over thinking, do something physical to interrupt the looping pattern. Just noticing might do the trick, however, it helps to create some actual “break” in the pattern.

Wear a rubber band on your wrist (which itself will be a reminder about your thinking), and gently snap it when you notice yourself over thinking. Or if you wear a ring or watch, switch it from one hand to another. The goal is to momentarily activate another part of your brain through a physical reminder, and to bring your thoughts back to reality.

When you snap the rubber band or switch your watch or ring, say the word “Stop” out loud. Repeat the physical reminder several more times, saying the word “Stop” again each time. Notice what you are feeling, seeing, smelling, and hearing immediately after this exercise. Be in the reality of the moment rather than in your head.

3. Practice thought replacement

After you interrupt your pattern of over thinking and take a moment to be in the moment, create a positive affirmation or replacement thought that contradicts your negative thinking pattern.

For example, if you are worrying about a comment your boss made to you, you might say something like, “I have an open, positive relationship with John, and my performance at work always exceeds his standards.”

You don't have to believe your replacement thought, but you do want to flood your brain with these positive affirmations in order to create new neural pathways that loosen the grip of negative thoughts. The practice of positive thinking has been shown to affect real change in feelings and actions.

Repeat your affirmation or positive thought out loud if possible or in your head several times after the rubber band exercise. You may have to repeat this entire process several times an hour when you first practice it, especially if you have been over thinking for a long time.

But keep at it, as you'll notice over time your negative thoughts will diminish, and you can break free of them much more quickly and easily.

4. Reframe reality

During times when you aren't trapped in your thoughts, take some time to examine the reality and truth around your thought pattern. Several years ago, I lost two friends to ovarian cancer within six months. I became trapped in fear and negative thinking that I'd get this disease too.

After fighting with my thoughts for weeks, I finally did some research about this cancer. Although I happened to have two friends die from it, the statistics I read proved to me in black and white the low odds of my getting it. I made a copy of these statistics and looked at them every time I got trapped in my fearful loop.

You can practice this analysis with your negative thoughts. Ask yourself, “Is this thought really true?” If there is some truth to it, how much truth and how likely is it a bad outcome will materialize? How much are you projecting your worries on to reality?
 
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Act as if you are your own best friend with a more realistic perspective of the situation. Become a detective and seek out the facts.

5. Phone a friend

Sometimes an actual friend or a counselor, coach, or advisor, can give you real perspective on the issues related to your over thinking. Take the time to talk with someone whose judgement and common sense you trust, and share the topic of your thoughts and the extent of your worry and thinking.

They can give you feedback on whether or not your thoughts are out of proportion to reality and offer counsel and support to help you break free of your thoughts.

If your over thinking relates to a physical ailment or concern about your health, go see a doctor (even if you fear you'll get bad news) and find out for sure whether or not your concerns are justified.

Most of the time they aren't, and if there is a problem, it's likely not nearly as bad as you think. Having a voice of knowledge and authority reinforce that everything is OK will help break the over thinking pattern.

6. Get busy

When you are trapped in your head, you can't be present in the moment. One of the best ways to get out of your head is to get busy doing something that engages and occupies your mind so your negative thoughts can't take over.

Physical labor is often a great way to break up over thinking. But you can do anything that requires focus and attention — from painting, to organizing all of your books alphabetically, to calculating your yearly expenses.

You're thoughts may still try to creep in to distract you, but keep steering yourself back to the task at hand. Eventually, you'll get lost in the task. It will likely take a fight between your determination to stay focused and your intruding thoughts, but keep at it.

You want to show your thoughts who's in charge, just as you'd keep redirecting a naughty toddler back into the “time-out” chair. In time, they get the message you mean business.

7. Learn to meditate

Meditation has a myriad of physical and mental health benefits, but for your purposes here, meditation is another tool to help you tame your mind. Of course, it's hard to meditate in the midst of an over thinking episode.

But you can practice meditation in between these events. Through your practice, you'll become more and more adept at quieting your mind and observing your thoughts without judgement so they lose their power over you.

You learn to stop identifying with your thoughts and view them as you view pop-ups on your computer screen. They are neutral (albeit annoying) affectations of consciousness that don't represent reality.

When you first practice meditation, you might feel you're giving your over thinking habit the perfect forum to run free with wild abandon. Just return your attention to breathing or observing your thoughts.

[Enjoy this guided meditation below]

Even in the midst of a negative thinking carnival, you can force yourself to focus on your breathing for five minutes. This teaches your brain that you have control and can calm and relax you long enough to implement some of the other techniques outlined here.

8. Exercise

When I've been trapped in worry thoughts, it sucks my mental and emotional energy. The last thing I want to do is exercise. However, I've learned from experience it's the absolute best thing I can do.

Exerting yourself through cardiovascular exercise boosts endorphins and serotonin, the feel good chemicals in your brain. Exercise has been proven to increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

When you exercise, you generally must have some level of focus to perform the exercise, so it distracts the mind from intrusive thoughts and forces you to be in the present.

When you're trapped in your thoughts, go out and run, hop on an exercise bike, or take a cardio fitness class. Even if you don't feel like exercise, force yourself to do it for at least thirty minutes.

Don't allow your negative thoughts control your decision to take action on something you know will make you feel better and help manage your thoughts.

9. Make the decision

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Sometimes we get trapped in looping thoughts around a big decision. Should I take the job or stay put? Is divorce a better option for both of us or should we keep working on our marriage? Should I put Dad in a nursing home or try to care for him in my home?

When you're trying to make a decision that has potential negative outcomes for each alternative, you can get stuck in the paralysis of analysis. No clear solution is apparent, and you believe if you keep thinking about it, you'll get more clarity. Some analysis is necessary for any decision, but eventually you reach the point when there's nothing more to be considered. You simply have to choose.

This is a very frightening place to be. It's like standing on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, and you're smack in the middle of the rope, too afraid to go forward or backward. If you keep standing there, you'll only make fear stronger. Make a decision, whether or not you feel sure if it's the best one.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

10. Write it down, tear it up

According to an Ohio State University study, researchers found that “when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well.”

Professor Richard Petty, co-author of the study, says, “At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts.” When the study participants wrote down and then threw away their thoughts, they didn't consider them any longer.

If you are over thinking a problem or decision, write it down first thing in the morning. Then tear the paper up and throw the pieces into the trash can. Do this three or four times a day, depending on how much you are over thinking. At the end of the day, give yourself an over thinking score, with ten representing a lot of thinking and one representing very little.

Continue this practice for a week, writing down and tearing up your thoughts several times a day, and then rating yourself at the end of the day. This will help you see how well the technique is working for you.


Although it might feel like you're a prisoner of your thoughts, you do have control of them. You can retrain your mind to obey your will in order to release the grip of over thinking. As you practice the techniques outlined, you'll build your mental muscle and create new neural pathways in your brain so you can release or direct thoughts.

Be patient with yourself and diligent in your efforts. Remember, your thoughts don't own you, and you aren't your thoughts. Reclaim your inner power so you can enjoy peace of mind and emotional freedom.


photo credit: Flickr


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Comments

  1. It’s amazing that over-thinking has so many potential negative consequences, but we hardly ever give that a thought. I’m keen on #6 now in my own way. I spend time working in the garden, which almost always creates more space in my mind and more distance from negative thinking.

    Like you, I’m also a champion of meditation, which offers so many benefits. I find it helps to be gentle with ourselves as we slowly learn to keep returning to the breath or whatever object of mindfulness we might be using. There’s a danger of making negative thoughts an enemy in meditation and then they will only become stronger. I like your approach of recognizing, “Oh, that’s just my mind doing it’s thing.” And, then not giving it too much attention. That way, the thoughts start to settle down on their own.

  2. This is a great article. I really enjoyed the mediation audio sample you added. Really robust post and the point on pattern interrupt triggers was my favorite.

  3. Over thinking is one of those traps that seems to be so easy to fall into, especially when it involves something negative. I’ve fallen into this trap many times myself, and even though I know it’s not good for me, I still seem to do it anyway. I like the tips you give here for breaking this bad habit. I think they can all be effective in their own rite. I think the best thing is to pick the ones that you think you can use and stick with and go with those in order to have the best chance to make a change. Anyway, great post!

  4. Julia Snyder says:

    I have this problem all the time, I tend to over think the smallest things at times. I know that if I stay centered I feel better and make better decisions and I don’t over think. I read a group of stories by Catherine Auman called Shortcuts to Mindfulness, her site is catherineauman.com. I recommend it, I get centered and I have more control and then no need to over think!

  5. I have a very hard time shutting my mind down. I have to physically exhaust my body to where I can’t stay awake to at least let my body direct the shutdown. Overthinking is a big problem for me.

    Most of the time, it just creates stress. But occasionally, it will take my to a darker place, seeing the worst in every possible situation and filling me with anger or hurt.

    I’ve been working on stopping the overthinking with many of the techniques here. But the process is well, just that – a process. One that I have not tried -at least not consistently – is the pattern interrupt. I know this can be a valuable technique, so I guess it’s up next.

    Thanks for a great resource article.

  6. Great article! Love the ideas and examples! 🙂

  7. Such a good reminder that overthinking is a confidence killer! Sometimes I overthink my actions, too. I tend to pick at my cuticles, for example, and it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. I go through all sorts of mental convolutions that make it very, very personal when really it’s just a habit that I need to interrupt … I’ll try the rubber band! We tend to overanalyze everything, but it rarely helps!

  8. That is one great article! And very true… over thinking is the little bugger that disturbs self development class.. I tend to forget about how important it is to do not over think things.. Great site you have! I enjoy comments back too 😀

  9. The subconscious mind does not distinguish between painful events that actually happened, and painful events that have not happened, but that we worry about happening. The emotions produced are the same, so the negative “scarring” and the formation of negative beliefs are the same. In short, we wound ourselves by worrying and having dominant thought patterns that are negative. Good article.

  10. Thank you 😊 Mrs.Barrie for this document. I am also suffering from this problem of over thinking and after reading this document i am very sure that i will be able to overcome this problem to some extent. It was very helpful and amazing.😊👌👍

  11. The writing-down and throwing-away exercise sounds valid. But what to do when everything I’m considering (HUGE decision) is carefully noted in my XL spreadsheet? In fact, there are about 10 worksheets, half of them reflecting alternative outcomes. I’m afraid I’m somewhat obsessive about them. I check them most days to see where my head is at that particular time.

    There is no way I could throw these away, much as I’d like to…