Many of us get caught up in overthinking. It’s very common.
We analyze things excessively. We worry too much. We replay things over and over in our head. We ruminate.
It’s a big problem for many people.
In my Traps Test, with responses from more than 600 people around the world so far asking about more than 60 common traps that inhibit people’s quality of life, overthinking is the number-one trap. (See my article, “18 Signs You’re Overthinking,” to determine whether you struggle with this.)
The question then becomes how to stop it.
How to Stop Overthinking
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address our overthinking. Below are 28 practices from which we can choose.
- Catch ourselves in the act of overthinking. If we can bring this habit into our awareness, then we can begin reprogramming our brains with more enjoyable and productive ways of thinking. Author Melody Wilding recommends using a pattern interruption technique such as silently saying “stop” when we start overthinking. Or we can swipe our hand to the side, symbolically casting our overthinking away.
- Recognize that a key to success in life is taking more action more often. One of the biggest mistakes we make in our lives is having a thought-to-action ratio that’s way too high. Change the focus from problems and worries to solutions and actions.
- Decide to become a person of action instead of an overthinker. Enjoy getting lost in doing things.
- Recognize that our thoughts are like a dial, not a switch. This insight from David Thomas, author and Director of Family Counseling at Daystar in Nashville, teaches us that we can’t switch off our thoughts, but we can turn the volume down on rumination and negative thoughts.
- Practice making quick decisions. Start with small things and count down from three: “three, two, one… choose.” Then go with it. Get used to a faster decision cycle and note the results.
- Determine what’s creating fear in us. Get better at recognizing how many of our fears are false phantoms, much like the childhood monsters we feared under our beds. And get better at overcoming our fears.
- Focus intensely on something. Listen to music and focus intently on something in it, like the lyrics or the guitar line. Or study a drawing or painting and examine the shapes, lines, and colors.
- Learn what our overthinking triggers are and avoid them. They could be certain social media accounts, news sites, or sticky situations with certain people.
- Give ourselves a time budget for how long we’re allowed to think about something. Then choose to move on after that.
- Develop our confidence and learn to trust ourselves more.
- Determine the things that we do have control over and focus on them. If we’re worried about an important upcoming meeting, we can do a great job preparing for the meeting and then make sure we get a good night’s rest and arrive early to set up. Then we can be satisfied that we’ve done our job.
- Get better at letting things go. We’re probably placing way more weight on things than the situation warrants. People think way less of us than we imagine.
- Change our thoughts into questions. For example, we can shift a thought from “I can’t believe I said that” to “What could I say differently next time?”
- Get some exercise. This leads to a reduction in stress hormones and comes with so many benefits, including better mood and higher greater energy levels.
- Get out into nature. Our brains become calmer and sharper after we spend time in nature, according to researchers.
- Try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or yoga.
- Do things that interest us and that occupy our attention (e.g., fun activities and hobbies).
- Connect to our senses. Try the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.
- Journal. Writing our thoughts and feelings down can stop us from ruminating. It can restore a sense of control. Journaling doesn’t have to be formal or structured. We can just write down our thoughts as they arise.
- Help others with small acts of service or simple acts of kindness. This is a great way to add more meaning and connection in our lives while also getting us out of our own heads.
- Lean into positive relationships. By being with others, we can connect, have fun, support each other, and silence our mental gremlins.
- Replay happy memories. Relive good times. Talk with an old friend or flip through a cherished photo album.
- Find sanctuary—places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)
- Go out on adventures. They make us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It’s hard to ruminate when we’re climbing a mountain or trekking in new areas. (See my article, “Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It.”)
- Bring awe into our lives. How much can we worry when we’re gazing at the cosmos or studying the intricacies of a spider web? (See my article, “The Power of Awe in Our Lives.”)
- Engage in prayer or worship. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our overactive mind and tap into something larger than ourselves.
- Meditate. It can calm our sympathetic nervous system and decrease our anxiety, stress, and emotional reactivity.
- Talk to a friend—or a professional therapist or counselor. Getting things off our chest can reduce our propensity to keep thinking about them.
Clearly, there are many things we can do to stop overthinking. The point isn’t that we must do all of them. We should experiment with the ones that are most appealing and see which ones work the best.
We should also note here what doesn’t work in trying to overcome overthinking. According to the research, we can’t just tell ourselves not to have certain thoughts. That can lead to more thoughts on the subject at hand. For example, if we’re told not to think of something, our brains will do the opposite and think about it. Instead, we need to replace negative thoughts with different and better ones.
Wishing you well with it.
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
- What helps you stop overthinking?
- What new practices will you try?
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
- “18 Signs You’re Overthinking”
- “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying”
- “The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves”
- “How to Stop Catastrophizing—Managing Our Minds”
- “Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think”
- “How to Be More Decisive in Your Life and Leadership”
- “What Are You Avoiding?”
- “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented”
- “The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It”
- “The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside“
Appendix: Support Resources
- BetterHelp (online network of licensed therapists)
- SonderMind (connecting people with therapists)
- Befrienders Worldwide (helplines outside the U.S.)
- 7cups, a free help network
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!