Too much of anything is bad, right? The same goes for thinking. Overthinking is a key symptom for people suffering from mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, OCD, and extreme stress.
It wouldn’t be so bad if we were overthinking our happy thoughts (as long as they didn’t stop us from living our lives), but overthinking tends to be focused on negative thought spirals caused by fear.
A study from the University of Michigan found that 73% of adults aged between 25 - 35 overthink, as do 52% of 45-55 years of age, and 20% of 65-75 years of age. For the younger age bracket, that is quite a high percentage of people who overthink.
At its worst, overthinking can leave you paralysed, unable to take action, and stop you from going after your dream goals for fear of something going wrong.
Which is why it is crucial to take a stand and tell your overthinking who’s boss!
Using the techniques in this post, you’ll have six different tools you can use to stop overthinking and start thriving, free of fear.
Overthinking leads to catastrophising
In psychology, different maladaptive thought patterns or tendencies have specific labels.
The main negative thought processing that occurs when overthinking is called ‘catastrophising.’ This is when you start with a small thought and snowball it into a big, scary deal that is guaranteed to ruin your life.
An example of catastrophising would be if you were going to go to the swimming pool. Even though there will be lifeguards there, you start to panic because you haven’t been swimming in years and wonder if you’ll be able to keep yourself afloat. Then you worry that the pool will be too deep, and you are going to sink. Then you fret over whether the lifeguard would see and that you might drown.
It's an extreme example of catastrophising, but the point is, it takes an innocent event and turns it into the worst-case scenario. (Think of it as the Dr Pepper effect – ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’)
Overthinking and anxiety can be closely linked, but it is also common for overthinking to be linked with depression, stress, and fear.
What are some of the symptoms associated with overthinking that would help identify it in ourselves?
Some overthinking symptoms are:
You experience reoccurring thoughtsYou may have repetitive thoughts, or relive a concern over and over in your head. It may be that an overthinker relives an embarrassing situation they were in, and struggles to stop thinking about it.
You suffer from insomnia or poor sleepOverthinking can create a restlessness in ourselves, and can interrupt our sleeping patterns. It is quite common to have struggled to get to sleep while thinking about something or someone. Of course lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on our energy levels for the following day
You find it hard to be decisive and make decisionsOverthinking can lead to a lack of decisiveness when it comes to making a choice. Often overthinking to think about the positives and negatives of making a decision, and not have clarity on which is the best decision. An over thinker may find that they frequently second guess their decisions.
You are worried and nervousOverthinking tends to happen when we are worried or nervous about a certain situation, such as taking exams, going for a job interview, or speaking at a public event. In most cases, the things that worry us are out of our control.
You ask yourself ‘What if…’It is common for those who overthink to ask ‘what if’ questions in a negative sense. For example, ‘what if I don’t arrive there on time’, ‘what if I don’t meet anyone there’, ‘what if I find the course too difficult’.
You dwell on situationsOver thinkers may dwell on a situation or circumstance that they don’t particularly like. It could be that someone in your workplace made an unkind comment about you, or you had a confrontation over a parking spot. An overthinking will dwell on this situation, even though the moment has passed.
Benefits of conquering your overthinking
If you can get a handle on your overthinking, the benefits to your mental health and wellbeing are numerous.
Firstly, reducing overthinking will help reduce your stress levels. This is because often, we think ourselves into a nervous wreck, convincing ourselves that we are stuck in a negative situation, unable to get out. Once you are able to stop the spiralling thoughts and take action to deal with the root cause, your stress will be significantly reduced.
Secondly, for those suffering from anxiety and depression, stopping your overthinking tendencies will allow you to continue the path to healing your mental health. Anxiety and depression feed off of negative thoughts and insecurities, so cutting them off at the source is beneficial to recovery.
Finally, when you stop overthinking situations, you’ll find yourself slowly able to take more action. In time, this will translate to taking new opportunities and going on new adventures that your overthinking previously prevented you from doing. As such, not only will your happiness increase, but your self-confidence will soar.
And this becomes a cycle. The more opportunities you take, the happier you get, the more confident you feel, the more likely you are to seek new adventures (rinse and repeat.) Does that sound good to you?
Six ways you can stop overthinking
The five-second rule
Best-selling author and motivational speaker Mel Robbins created the popular motivational technique – the five-second rule.
The rule is simple, when you have something you dread doing, you simply take a breath, count up to five, and then begin.
This way, you don’t have time to overthink and talk yourself out of whatever situation your mind is catastrophising.
It’s essential to do whatever action that your overthinking has you avoiding at the end of the five seconds, as delaying action will allow the overthinking spiral to begin.
Try it next time your alarm goes off, and you don’t want to get out of bed. The five-second rule will get you out of bed before your mind gets the chance to give a long speech about why it’s better to stay in bed!
Question your thoughts
We know all about how overthinking leads to catastrophising. So, what is the opposite of the worst-case scenario? The best-case scenario!
Next time you find your mind drifting into a spiral of negative thoughts, interject. Challenge the thoughts. How does that thought know that something terrible will happen? Where is the evidence? Is it realistic?
And then turn the focus to what the best-case scenario could be. If we take the swimming example from earlier, the best-case scenario would be that you go to the swimming pool, have a great time with your loved ones, and find that somehow your swimming has improved since last time! Maybe you even learn a trick or two from your friends.
If you find it challenging to question your own thoughts, give your negative, overthinking discourse a name and a persona. Address the persona by name and ask them to explain why they are overthinking and trying to scare you with negative thoughts.
As you practice challenging your thoughts, you will find it easier to stop overthinking dead in its tracks before it is able to flow into catastrophising.
Journal your fears
Picture your overthinking and fears as an electric circuit. Each negative thought feeds the next until it’s made a full circle and is back to the start, just like an electric charge flows through wires. So, how do you stop the electricity looping around? You break the circuit.
Obviously, you don’t have access to your brain, nor is it structured in such a simplistic circuit, so we need to get creative.
Your journal can become your circuit breaker.
As you write down your negative thoughts and feelings, imagine them draining from your mind, down your neck, through your shoulder, down your arm and into your pen. They are the ink being released from your pen. And once that ink is on the page, it’s there to stay.
Getting those negative thoughts out of your head feels freeing, so don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and completely honest on the page. The more open you can be, the greater the benefit you will feel.
Not only does journaling provide a circuit break, but in writing down what is troubling you, you may find you are able to troubleshoot the core issues driving your overthinking and start making small goals to begin addressing the problems.
Improve your self-esteem
Overthinking mainly stems from fear. And it is normal to be afraid. It is a primal instinct in place to keep us safe.
But when fear is ruling your life, stopping you from taking opportunities, it becomes a major problem.
The difference between someone who is scared but can silence the overthinking and negativity, and someone who is afraid and cannot rid themselves of the negative overthinking spiral, comes down to just one thing. Self-confidence.
Having the self-esteem to know that no matter what happens, you will be ok is one of the most effective ways to stop overthinking.
Because, sure, negative thought this, and worst-case that, but when you know that you can survive whatever is thrown at you, the need for overthinking disappears.
So focus on building your self-confidence through mindfulness, kind self-talk, and changing your self-perception. Each day, you’ll find that that long script of overthinking gets shorter, and the door to exciting new opportunities opens wider.
Learn your triggers
Do you find that a particular place, person or event jumpstarts your overthinking process? It is natural for this to be the case. As humans, we are quite sentimental and tie these things to our emotions.
So, if you had a negative experience with someone, you may find that seeing them triggers your brain to start overthinking and catastrophising. Similarly, a negative experience at a location can cause a spiral of negative thoughts in anticipation of more bad experiences to come.
Try spending a few weeks writing down the time, location and subjects of your overthinking spells. You may find that they have common links and themes that can help you understand where your overthinking is coming from.
Once you learn what your triggers are, you can then start the work on either healing the wounds, or where possible and healthy to do so, avoiding it altogether.
Try mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness – the art of keeping your mind in the present moment. It’s such a simple exercise, yet the benefits for overthinkers are immense.
Mindfulness meditation works by finding a quiet space, sitting down, closing your eyes, and attempting to focus on the here and now. You do this by dialling into the sensations in your body. For example, where do you feel tension? Visualise releasing the pressure.
Meanwhile, allow any thoughts to simply pass through your brain. When an intrusive thought pops into your head, label it as such, then return your focus to your body.
This exercise teaches you that while you cannot control thoughts popping into your head, you can control where you put your focus. Because if you try and prevent your thoughts from entering your mind in the first place, you are already fighting a losing battle.
The below instructional video is a useful guide to meditation for overthinking.
How to stay kind to yourself on your journey to stop overthinking
If overthinking is a habit for you, it won’t go away overnight – it’s going to take a lot of practice. As such, it is essential to be kind to yourself on this journey. Here are a few tips on being easy on yourself as you learn to stop overthinking:
Progress isn’t linear
Think of the most complicated rollercoaster you’ve ever seen. It goes up, down, backwards, forwards, sideways…there’s no rhyme or reason. The same goes for progress when confronting any problematic mental health behaviour.
Some days will feel as though you have finally defeated your nemesis, only to be plagued with intrusive thoughts the next day. And while it’s easy to be discouraged and assume it is a step back, remember that progress is not linear. Instead, steps back help propel us further forward. And if you need something to remind you of this, keep this quote handy:
‘You have to pull the arrow back first for it to soar.’
Once you have decided to take action and start learning how to stop overthinking, it’s normal to want to try all the techniques immediately and hope they miraculously work overnight.
Unfortunately, this is a fast-track way to disappointment and breaking your self-confidence.
Instead, it is better to pick one or two tools for recovery and start implementing them into your life slowly. Coping mechanisms such as those listed in this post work best when they become second nature. By starting slowly, you allow yourself the time and space you need to focus on making this a habit.
Trial and error
If you try one of the techniques listed and find it doesn’t work for you, your first instinct might be to assume the problem is you. It’s not. It may just mean the technique doesn’t work for you or needs adapting to your life.
So, if you’ve given it a few weeks to see if it works, and it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself. Instead, choose another technique and work on incorporating it into your life.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary until you find what works for you because, I promise you, there is a coping tool out there for you!
Overthinking is synonymous with negative thought spirals and holding us back from our dreams.
It causes unwanted stress and anxiety that can break your self-confidence and stop you from living the life you want.
Tackling overthinking can be challenging, but stick with it because the rewards are priceless. Before too long, you’ll find yourself evolving in ways you never allowed yourself to for fear of something going wrong or not deserving to.
Think of one thing you want to achieve if overthinking didn’t block your path and use it as a motivator to carry you through this journey.
You can do it!