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Whether you’re ruminating about the past or constantly worrying about the future, overthinking makes life a lot less fun.
Rumination is the tendency to repeatedly review or obsess over the same thoughts––typically negative ones. That can then affect your cognitive power, mood, and even physical health.
Over time, this can lead to higher stress levels, poor sleep, and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, binge eating, or substance abuse (Michl, 2013; Kaiser, 2015).
If you’re struggling with overthinking, here are 10 tips to help you overcome it.
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How to stop overthinking
Instead of making you feel better, overthinking only makes you feel worse. For the sake of your mental health, try these strategies to alleviate obsessive thoughts.
1. Pay attention to your thoughts
Awareness is the first step to stop overthinking. Taking a step back and looking at your thoughts puts you in the position of an observer, which helps separate you from your thoughts, giving you leverage.
Notice your thoughts, but don’t criticize yourself for thinking them. Simply notice when you’re overthinking without judgment. Writing thoughts down can also help.
Take things a step further and see what else you notice. How does it make you feel when you overthink? Research shows chronic overthinkers tend to feel angrier or more depressed after they spend time ruminating (Thomsen, 2003).
2. Ease anxiety by thinking about solutions
Part of what makes overthinking so frustrating is it feels like you can’t control it. What you can control, however, is your response to it.
Instead of letting your thoughts overwhelm you, start to think about solutions. For example, if you’re worried about something happening (like failing a big test, for example), think about what you can do to prevent it.
There’s no need to be unrealistic if fear is a likely outcome. You can control the situation by planning how you might deal with it when it happens. In the case of potentially failing a test, you could deal with it by repeating the class or retaking the exam.
Write down your thoughts or sketch them out. Problem-solving in this way helps distract you from your thoughts, putting you back in control. Over time, this makes it easier to control overthinking in the future.
3. Reframe things from negative to positive
Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, think about what could go right. It feels like a revolutionary idea, doesn’t it? Your brain has already proven itself to be imaginative. All you’re asking it to do now is be creative with positive thoughts instead of negative ones.
The vague nature of negative thoughts can make things seem worse than they are. This is especially true when you keep worries in your head. As with tip #2, writing down positive thoughts can help you stop spiraling. According to one study of chronic overthinkers, replacing negative images with positive outcomes can lessen worry and anxiety (Eagleson, 2016).
4. Question your thoughts
Go ahead, cross-examine yourself. Do you have evidence to support your worries? Part of what makes negative thinking feel so powerful is that we rarely stop to question it.
Dig deep and examine any information you have that backs up those thoughts. Is what you’re thinking really the case? Make sure to review all the positive evidence you have that disproves your insecurities and anxieties. Worried you’ll be passed over for a promotion? What has your job performance been like? How have your previous reviews gone? Make sure that your thoughts are rooted in reality.
5. Think thoughts all the way through to their natural end
If you’re worried about something, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen, really. Whatever it is, you’ll likely survive it. Will that one thought matter tomorrow, next week, or in a few years? Probably not.
Give yourself permission to think your worries all the way through to the potential catastrophic end. If you can step away from how your thoughts make you feel and think about what could realistically happen, it might not be so scary after all.
6. Schedule some worry time
One way to brush off negative thoughts is devoting a set time for them.
Each day, schedule 15 to 20 minutes to worry. Outside that clump of time if you start ruminating, notice it, and then remind yourself you can worry later. When worry time finally arrives, you might not even remember what you were so worried about in the first place. But don’t let yourself go into worry overdrive. Keep it to 20 minutes max––that’s it.
You can also write down your worries during this time. Later, you can review them and see how many turned out to be true. This practice reinforces that no matter how often or intensely you worry, those thoughts aren’t reflective of reality.
7. Let go of perfectionism
Does fear of failure paralyze you? If so, repeat this mantra: 100% done is always better than 100% perfect, but only 50% done. Perfection is paralyzing and often unattainable.
Your goal is to get started and do the best you can do––not to achieve perfection. Focus on taking action and give it your best effort. That’s what you can control.
8. Express gratitude
People practice gratitude in a variety of ways, from saying grace to thanking people. Gratitude has been linked to better overall wellbeing (Sansone, 2010).
One practice that can be helpful for overthinkers is a gratitude journal. While you journal, remind yourself of all the positive things from the day and everything you’re grateful for. You might find that writing these thoughts down makes it easier for you to reframe things in a positive light, reducing any repeating negative thoughts.
9. Stay in the moment
Worrying about the future steals you from the present moment. No one looks back on their deathbed and wishes they had spent more time worrying.
Mindful meditation can help you stay in the present instead of the past or future. A meditation session can be as simple as doing a body scan and focusing on deep breaths. When thoughts enter your brain, notice them without judgment and let them go while you return to noticing the sensations of your body and your breath (Wielgosz, 2019).
In addition to practicing mindfulness, you may want to talk to a therapist. They can work with you on exercises like the attention training technique, which helps build self-acceptance and compassion. These exercises have been shown to reduce worry and intrusive thoughts among people with anxiety disorders (Ainsworth, 2017).
10. Do something
Remember, taking action puts you back in control. By now, you’re a pro at interrupting negative thoughts and brainstorming solutions instead. Now all that’s left to do is put these solutions into practice.
If you’re worried about something, take action to solve it. Strategize what steps you need to take to reach your goal, and then implement them.
If you’re obsessing over something and finding a solution isn’t applicable, distract yourself. Work or do an activity that engages your focus instead. You can exercise, read, go outside, cook a new recipe, volunteer, or call up a friend––it’s up to you.
As you practice putting the brakes on overthinking, be patient and compassionate with yourself. The brain is a powerful thing, and it takes time to rewire thought patterns. Negative thoughts will never go away completely, but you can learn to quiet them and live your life to the fullest.
- Ainsworth, B., Bolderston, H., & Garner, M. (2017). Testing the differential effects of acceptance and attention-based psychological interventions on intrusive thoughts and worry. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 91, 72–77. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.012. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28160721/
- Eagleson, C., Hayes, S., Mathews, A., Perman, G., & Hirsch, C. R. (2016). The power of positive thinking: Pathological worry is reduced by thought replacement in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 78, 13–18. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2015.12.017. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26802793/
- Kaiser, B. N., Haroz, E. E., Kohrt, B. A., Bolton, P. A., Bass, J. K., & Hinton, D. E. (2015). “Thinking too much”: A systematic review of a common idiom of distress. Social Science & Medicine, 147, 170–183. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.10.044. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26584235/
- Michl, L. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 339–352. doi: 10.1037/a0031994. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713497/
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking Rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400–424. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26158958/
- Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: the benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa.: Township)), 7(11), 18–22. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21191529/
- Thomsen, D. K., Mehlsen, M. Y., Christensen, S., & Zachariae, R. (2003). Rumination–relationship with negative mood and sleep quality. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(7), 1293–1301. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00120-4. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2003-00479-018
- Wielgosz, J., Goldberg, S. B., Kral, T., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2019). Mindfulness meditation and psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15, 285–316. doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093423. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30525995/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.