Are you an overthinker? Do you analyze and investigate situations a lot more than the average person? Do people tell you to ‘stop overthinking’ when you express your worries and concerns?
Our thoughts can become our reality if we’re not mindful of them. “To think too much is a disease,” writes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Thoughts we hold and consider true manifest as our experience. The happiest and most successful people among us have realized this fact. Thoughts are profoundly powerful, so it’s important, crucial even, to develop a good relationship with them. When your thoughts run wild, you’re at their mercy. When you can tame them, you can harness their power.
In this article, we’ll explore why we overthink and why it’s important to address and tackle your tendency to overthink and offer some practical ways to stop overthinking everything, regain control of your mind and achieve a better quality of life as a result.
Before we learn how to stop overthinking, let’s define overthinking.
What is overthinking?
Overthinking can be defined as thinking about too much or for too long. It’s normal to think things through – that’s how we understand what’s happening around us, make plans, and find solutions. Still, thinking can become a problem when we can’t seem to stop. It’s problematic when we can’t seem to get out of our heads and get stressed or anxious about the thoughts we’re having.
You may have experienced it yourself, or you may have a friend who overthinks. Either way, you probably know it looks and feels uncomfortable. When a friend comes to us with racing thoughts and excessive worry, all we want to do is tell them not to worry so much. You might not say exactly that because you know that when you overthink, hearing somebody say ‘stop overthinking’ or ‘just calm down’ rarely helps.
When we’re caught in the throes of overthinking, we tend to think about all the possibilities and potentialities of the future. We engage with catastrophic thinking, believing the worst-case scenario will happen.
Overthinking also involves worrying or ruminating about past events over which we have no control. We might think about what should have been and what could have been. The result of rumination, especially if it involves past mistakes, usually leads to harsh self-criticism and negative self-talk, which is toxic to our mental health and well-being.
Some people tend to overthink when faced with a difficult decision. Overthinking in this context seems to make sense because the decision might be very important and worth spending a lot of time considering.
Still, overthinking doesn’t necessarily equal better decision-making. It can compromise your ability to make good decisions. Overthinking about a specific situation may cause you to worry and even lose sleep, which can negatively impact your cognitive abilities—further, overthinking leads to procrastination regarding the actual decision.
Why do I overthink?
There are several causes of overthinking. Some of the most common causes are stress, anxiety, and fear, which can manifest following various experiences.
If you’re an overthinker, read the following causes of overthinking and see if any of them resonate with your experience. The good news is that if any of the following are true for you, all hope is not lost. You can stop overthinking and develop a healthy, beneficial relationship with your mind in place of this destructive habit.
Many overthinkers learned to do so in their early life. This destructive and stressful habit may have developed as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable, overwhelming, or frightening experiences.
For example, if the child of an abusive parent feared that at any moment their parent’s mood would shift and they would be hurt or abused, as a result, overthinking may serve to prevent that from happening.
The overthinking child might figure out a tactic to get out of harm’s way when their parent is on the verge of lashing out. They might analyze their parent’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to achieve foresight about their impending abusive behavior.
If excessive thinking and analyzing served to protect the child, they might carry the habit into their adult life and still use it as a means of protection and self-preservation.
Trying to gain control
As humans, we’re typically averse to feeling helpless. We go to great lengths to gain and maintain control of our lives because the idea that we may not be in control can seem frightening.
Most of our attempts to gain and maintain control center around those we love, particularly our romantic partners. We might overthink about our behavior, about a mistake we made, or about someone else that may have caught our partner’s attention. We think and think about all the possibilities, all the hypothetical pain and hurt, and all the tactics we can use to keep them by our side.
Overthinking for control can also be seen when someone we love is in a difficult situation, but we can’t do much to help. We might think and worry, ruminating excessively on the fact our loved ones need help because we falsely believe that if we don’t overthink so much, that shows that we don’t care or aren’t willing to help.
We overthink to keep feelings of helplessness and a lack of control at a distance because we struggle to accept that we’re not as powerful or in control as we would like to be.
Fear of uncertainty
Similar to the feeling of wanting control and being averse to helplessness, people tend to fear uncertainty. It is a breeding ground for anxiety and makes many people struggle to ‘figure things out’ so they can feel more certain about life and their role within it.
We thrive on feeling confident and sure of how things are going to go, even if we expect things to go poorly. We’re often so frightened and anxious about the uncertainty that we may even deny how uncertain things are. We dissociate from the reality that some things are unknowable and instead live inside our head, where we can live in a fantasy about everything being under control.
Overthinking maladaptively serves to negate uncertainty, at least in our perception. If we overthink, we secretly tell ourselves that the problem at hand – the uncertainty – really does have a solution and that we just need to figure it out. As such, we keep ourselves busy with thinking until the events unfold, which were inevitable anyway.
Perfectionism is one of the leading causes of overthinking and is closely related to anxiety. People with perfectionist tendencies understand that in reality, nobody is perfect. It’s not so much that they’re trying to be perfect that’s the problem, but rather poor tolerance of what it feels like to be less than perfect.
Perfectionism often stems from deep-seated guilt or shame, which may have been learned in childhood. People who are perfectionists may overthink because they fear that they will feel bad within and about themselves if they don’t consider the possibilities and outcomes. The feelings of guilt and shame surrounding being less than perfect may overwhelm one’s ability to cope, so overthinking and striving for perfection serve to keep them leveled.
Tips on how to stop overthinking
You don’t need to stop thinking to stop overthinking. Below you will find some practical tips and advice to tackle your tendency to overthink and start using your mind to benefit your mental health and well-being instead of making it worse.
Identify negative thinking
During times of stress, anxiety, fear, and conflict, we often enter and engage in negative thought patterns. Sometimes, we engage with negative thoughts even when there is nothing dramatic or stressful happening in our environment.
It helps to identify your negative thoughts when they come up. Often, we catch thoughts like trains without asking where the train is headed. Before you board, look at the thought and ask yourself whether it’s going to take you somewhere positive or negative.
It also helps to recognize when you’re ruminating. Rumination is a negative, destructive habit that leads to depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. If you find yourself revisiting a negative thought over and over and not making any progress with it, then you’re ruminating and would benefit from putting your attention somewhere else.
People who overthink turned to ruminate and worry over their past. They focus on mistakes they’ve made, times they’ve been hurt, or on how things could have been having they done things differently. If you’re an overthinker, understand that you can’t change the past, but you can change how you look at it.
To truly let go of the past means to forgive yourself and others and to refuse to allow your past to control your future. It can be challenging and may evoke a lot of sentiment, but letting go of the past is one of the most effective ways to stop overthinking.
Change your narrative
Listen to the stories you tell yourself about yourself. If you constantly criticize or berate yourself with internal comments such as ‘I’m not any fun,’ ‘people don’t like me,’ ‘I’m never on time’ or ‘I always overthink,’ then you might manifest those thoughts into your lived experience. We become the stories we tell ourselves, so be mindful of your self-narrative.
Ask yourself if your narrative about your life is helpful or a hindrance to your happiness. If you notice that it’s a hindrance, stop your narrative right there and rewrite it. Replace your negative thinking patterns with affirmations and more positive self-talk.
Be here now
To stop overthinking, learn to live in the moment. This means living in the here and now, the only place where life is happening. Overthinkers often get so caught up in their thoughts that they forget to live their lives in the here and now, instead choosing to inhabit a non-existent mental world of worry and rumination.
When you live in the here, and now by being as present as possible, you put yourself in a position to solve the problems that make you overthink. In the present, you can tackle negative emotions and thoughts, shift your focus, and replace them with healthy and growth-oriented thinking patterns and beliefs.
How to live in the present
Daily meditation, prayer and mindfulness practices can help you rewire your brain and use it for positivity rather than negativity. Focus on your breathing, give yourself space to stop and pause and choose to live in the present instead of focusing on things you are unable to change from the past.
Make a decision and take action
Overthinking is a form of procrastination. We think the same thoughts repeatedly because the more time we spend thinking, the more time we spend without having made a decision.
Therefore, if you want to stop overthinking, make a decision. Of course, your decision doesn’t have to be final, but the simple act of making one will let you know how it would feel if you were to choose one alternative over another.
Speak to a therapist
Overthinking is a huge burden. Those who overthink may understand that their thought processes and thinking habits are unhelpful but feel unable to stop. If you have tried the tips above to help you stop overthinking and have found no relief, consider speaking to a mental health professional.
A therapist may help you identify and address the root causes of your unhelpful thinking patterns in a safe space, in which you can explore your past experiences and see what led you to overthink so much.