As humans, we have the extraordinary ability to reflect on our actions. There’s much to be learned from our decisions, so it can be useful to go over past situations to find the lesson in them. When it comes to the future, anticipating what’s to come and making plans can also be useful. Doing this can help us grow and be more successful, but it’s also easy to end up overdoing this type of analysis. In fact, overthinking can have precisely the opposite effect, leading to constant worry and a feeling of being stuck or unproductive.
This can become a self-destructive behaviour with negative effects on our mental health. Overthinking can become chronic and is the kind of toxic habit that may end up leading to other problems, such as anxiety and depression. Because having control over our thought patterns is critical to our well-being, it's important to learn how to avoid the overthinking trap. In this article you'll find a list of practical suggestions on how to stop overthinking and making your overall thought processes more positive.
If we’re to learn how to stop overthinking, learning to identify it is important. Overthinking can have two aspects: one is rumination (going over past events) and the other one entails worrying about the future and dwelling on worst possible scenarios. In both cases, the overthinker focuses on the negative aspects of an experience, and also on those aspects that cannot be changed. Common scenarios for people who tend to overthink include worrying about falling ill or losing their job. “Should have” scenarios are also typical, for example, those involving a relationship that ended, something that wasn't said in a conversation, etc.
Pause for thought: thinking too much can lead to anxiety
Overthinking is related to anxiety because the focus is often on things we can’t change (such as what has already happened or unknowns in the future). This thought pattern can easily create feelings of powerlessness, which in turn generate high anxiety levels. Overthinking is characterised by a snowball effect that leaves us feeling overwhelmed, helpless and distressed. And as it happens with other harmful thought patterns, it can take over our life, interfere with everyday functioning, and make us lose control over our thoughts.
Other dangers of overthinking include mental health issues, increased chances of developing depression, and impaired problem-solving abilities. This happens because overthinkers are under the false belief that they’re working on a problem, when in fact, overthinking keeps them from doing so. Later, overthinkers realise they can’t find a solution and this creates even more anxiety.
“Because having control over our thought patterns is critical to our well-being, it's important to learn how to avoid the overthinking trap.”
Overthinking is also linked to sleep issues, as people who suffer from it fail to switch off and can't sleep because of intrusive thoughts. Lack of sleep is also connected to depressive symptoms and poor concentration during the day. And there are physical symptoms too, like headaches, muscle aches, digestive issues and fatigue. Moreover, overthinking has even been linked to binge eating or drinking and even self-harm.
Despite its dangers, the number of people affected is substantial enough to take it seriously and know how to stop overthinking. A US study called it a national epidemic, and bestseller books have been written about the subject, suggesting women are more prone to overthink. The female to male ratio is 57-43, and those aged between 25 and 33 seem more vulnerable too.
Before we move on to how to stop overthinking, it’s important to understand the mechanism behind this problem. Scientists believe it activates parts of the brain involved in fear or anxious responses. Overthinking begins in the cortex, where memories and future events are processed. As we dwell on it, obsessive thoughts engage the amygdala, the seat of emotional responses. Once the amygdala starts working, it triggers physical responses like a higher heart rate, muscle tension, and feeling paralysed by the negative thought.
It’s worth noting that overthinking starts with a good intention, usually problem solving or protecting ourselves, but more often than not, it takes us to a dead end and develops into anxiety. However, it’s possible to fight this habit and learn how to stop overthinking.
If you struggle with thinking too much, these nine tips could help you free your mind and live in the present moment more.
Overthinking is a habit, so there’ll be something that sends your brain into overthink mode. It could be at bedtime as you take stock of the day, or it could be asking yourself a “what if?” question, re-reading a journal, looking at family photos, etc.
Recognise anxiety as it appears and ask yourself if this is in your head or how productive these thoughts are. Will this way of thinking help you see things in a new light?
We usually overthink because we want to protect ourselves, so think about what practical measures you need to take to achieve that.
Overthinking can lead to a lack of focus
Telling yourself “you shouldn’t think about that” may have the opposite effect (the “don’t think of an elephant” effect). The more you try to suppress those thoughts, the more nagging they become, so instead try to give your mind something else to focus on. This could be picking up a creative hobby that has a challenging element, working out, or calling a friend.
Train your mind to think 'what if' to create best-case scenarios. Inadvertently, you trained your mind to think about the worse, so don’t doubt you can train it to do the opposite also.
The information that enters our minds can contribute to the snowball effect of overthinking. It’s important to read/hear positive and constructive information at the start and/or end of the day to counter an overthinking habit.
As I said earlier, thinking about the past or future isn’t necessarily bad. But there’s a difference between reflecting and obsessing, and this is an important distinction if you want to learn how to stop overthinking. Choose a time to reflect on things that matter to you but don’t give your thoughts free rein. You can even set an alarm if necessary so you know when to stop.
You can try controlled breathing exercises to help your brain slow down and shift your attention somewhere other than your worries.
Mindfulness techniques can help you focus on the present and make the most of it, bringing enjoyment instead of the anxiety triggered by overthinking.
If you’ve experienced the draining effect of rumination, you should know it’s possible to break the cycle and learn how to stop overthinking. Finding triggers, becoming more aware of harmful thought processes, and developing strategies to distract and relax your mind can help you make the switch from passive to active thinking and take control of your thoughts.
Don’t let anxiety and irrational negative thoughts interfere with your well-being. Put in practice the suggestions listed here on how to stop overthinking and you’ll realise that you can learn to cope with whatever life throws at you.
Main image: shutterstock/TeodorLazerev
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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