Overthinking is when your brain’s problem-solving abilities won’t shut-off…
- Waking up in the middle of the night thinking about everything on your to-do list
- Not being present and really listening in a conversation with your spouse or partner because you can’t stop thinking about all the things they should be doing to fix their problem
- Worrying constantly about your child and their poor choices despite not being able to do anything about it
Of course, we all fall into overthinking from time to time.
But if you’re a chronic overthinker, it’s because you have an unhealthy relationship with your own mind—you’ve allowed the analytical, problem-solving aspect of your brain to dominate and run rampant.
As a result, you’re regularly anxious, stressed out, indecisive, and or just plain exhausted.
Thankfully, chronic overthinking is a habit. And all habits can be broken with the right approach.
Here are 4 ways to stop overthinking:
1. Acknowledge the emotion behind your overthinking
Do ever get frustrated with your overthinking:
- Why do I keep doing this—I know it only makes me more anxious and stressed?!
- I wish I could just shut my brain off!
- Why won’t my brain just be quiet for once?!
Like all self-defeating behaviors, overthinking is frustrating because we know we shouldn’t do it, but it seems nearly impossible to stop.
And there’s one big reason for this most people don’t realize….
Overthinking is an avoidance mechanism for painful emotions.
Many people learn early on in life that they can use problem-solving and analytical thinking to avoid feeling something uncomfortable:
- As a kid, your parents tell you to stop being sad and think rationally, so you develop the habit of intellectualizing your emotions.
- Or maybe to avoid the shame of failure at school, you learned to respond to any academic setback by immediately studying more.
Regardless of the origin, many people unwittingly spend their whole lives using thinking to avoid their emotions.
And while this often brings some immediate relief, like all addictions, it only brings more pain and suffering long-term…
By immediately avoiding your emotions, you’re teaching your brain that they’re bad—which only makes them more intense in the future.
So what does this mean for overthinking? Well, a great way to stop overthinking so much is to put it out of a job.
If you can start to acknowledge and validate your difficult emotions rather than avoiding them with more thinking, you won’t need overthinking anymore. As a result, you’ll find it much easier to let go of.
So try this:
- When you notice yourself overthinking, hit the pause button.
- Then ask yourself: What emotion or emotions am I experiencing right now that I don’t want to feel?
- Once you identify one or two, acknowledge them plainly. E.g.: I feel anxious right now. Or I’m actually really angry.
- Finally, take a moment to validate the emotion, which means reminding yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. It’s okay to feel anything regardless of how painful or unlikable the feeling is.
“You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously.”
— J Donald Walters
2. Just because a thought is true doesn’t mean it’s helpful
I’m always shocked at how few people have ever considered the following:
Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to keep thinking it.
Thoughts pop into our minds all the time and for all sorts of reasons. And this is not something you can or should try to control….
- An ad on a billboard reminds you of that time you made a huge mistake at work and got fired. That memory is in your head now, but just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to dwell on it for the rest of the ride home.
- Or a coworker says something that triggers you and now you’re worrying about what everyone at work thinks of you. That worry is in your head now, but just because it’s showed up doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to keep focusing on it.
Think about it this way…
You don’t have to have a conversation with every thought in your head.
That’s essentially what overthinking is… A thought pops into your mind for any of approximately 5,000,000 possible reasons. Then you assume that you need to keep thinking more about it: elaborating on it, analyzing it, maybe even criticizing it (or yourself for thinking it!)
The problem is that if you can’t set boundaries on your thoughts—if you say “yes” and give every thought that enters your mind your full attention—you’re training your mind to overthink.
Your mind overthinking is like a toddler throwing a tantrum: It feels natural to give in, but you’ll only be making future overthinking more common.
If you want to stop overthinking, you need to get better at setting and enforcing good boundaries with your mind. Practically speaking, this means learning to acknowledge your thoughts without thinking more about them.
To get better at this, mindfulness training is probably the single best exercise I know of.
“To think too much is a disease.”
3. Stop trying to control your thoughts
A common misconception overthinkers fall into is the belief that they need to control their thoughts when they’re overthinking…
- This is irrational—I need to stop having thoughts like this!
- Ugh… I’m overthinking again—just stop, brain!
- This is totally irrational… obviously worrying about him isn’t going to do him—or me—any good!
In truth, the more you try to control your overthinking, the more thoughts your brain will throw at you.
But didn’t you just say in the last section that “Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to keep thinking it.”?
Yes, but the key distinction is that trying to control or get rid of a thought is very different from letting it go.
Decades ago in his famous white bear experiments, the psychologist Daniel Wenger showed that thought suppression—trying hard to not have a thought—only leads to a massive increase in those types of thoughts.
See, when you try to control or change your thinking, your mind interprets that as a threat response, which only activates you further and increases your odds of continuing to problem-solve and overthink.
The alternative is to get better at briefly acknowledging those thoughts then letting them go.
Okay, but what does that mean, exactly: “letting them go”?
Letting go of your thoughts means that you’re willing to have them, but instead of engaging with them, you are shifting your attention onto something else.
In other words, it means…
Strive to control your attention, not your thoughts.
But keep this in mind: If you immediately just distract yourself or avoid the thought, you’re still signaling to your brain that it’s a threat, and therefore making it more likely to recur.
The key is that before you shift your attention, you need to (briefly) acknowledge and validate the thought. This brief approach behavior teaches your brain that the thought isn’t dangerous, which means you can now redirect your attention elsewhere without falling into un helpful avoidance.
To sum up, rather than trying to change or control your thoughts, practice briefly acknowledging them then controlling your attention and refocusing on something more productive.
And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of getting self-critical of your overthinking—no one ever became less of an overthinker by getting judgmental with themselves for overthinking!
4. Do your overthinking on paper, not in your head
A common question I get from overthinkers is:
But what if I DO need to think more about this thing?
It’s true: The line between helpful thinking and overthinking is not always crystal clear.
But before we get to my advice for how to handle dilemmas like that, let’s take a brief second to emphasize something…
Most of the time it’s pretty obvious when you’re overthinking!
Don’t fall into the trap of rationalizing your overthinking. In the majority of cases, it’s not that hard to figure out if a certain line of thinking is helpful and productive or whether you’re just spinning your wheels with nothing but more stress and anxiety (and maybe insomnia) to show for it.
That being said, if you’re not sure whether you do in fact need to think more about something, here’s a simple tip for getting sorted out:
Only overthinking on paper, not in your head.
Instead of immediately reacting to your thoughts with more thoughts in the moment, take a more intentional approach:
- Think of a time in the near future where you can spend 10 or 15 minutes reflecting carefully.
- Block that time off in your calendar.
- When you show up for your thinking time, have a pen and paper.
- Now, do your “overthinking” in written form, like a journaling exercise—just put your thoughts down on paper.
The biggest reason this is helpful is because it will slow you down…
Thoughts travel at near-light speed. But you can’t write nearly that fast, which in this case is a feature, not a bug.
By confining your thinking speed to the speed of writing, you’ll be much less likely to fall into unhelpful overthinking and much more likely to engage in truly reflective and productive thinking.
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” —Eckhart Tolle
All You Need to Know
If you want to stop overthinking, here are four habits that can help:
- Acknowledge the emotion behind your overthinking
- Just because a thought is true doesn’t mean it’s helpful
- Stop trying to control your thoughts
- Do your overthinking on paper, not in your head
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