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Advice from a Therapist: What to Do When You Can’t Stop Overthinking Every Little Thing

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March 22, 2024
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Aaron Gilbert
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Overthinkers know who they are. While most people overthink on occasion, there are those whose brains seem to get stuck in overthinking until it becomes the default. It can feel like a facet of one’s personality, which can make it seem like there’s nothing to be done about overthinking — that it is what it is.

While it’s certainly true that some people have personalities, temperaments, and brain wiring that may gravitate towards overthinking more than others, being a chronic overthinker doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. Rather, people can slip into an overthinking cycle that can become habitual. But just like any habit, the overthinking cycle can be broken.

What Is Overthinking, Exactly?

At its most basic level, overthinking is simply thinking excessively about something (or everything). To overthink is to be consumed by what you are focusing on to the point where it’s difficult to think about much else.

Overthinking is not necessarily negative, although our brains do tend to err that way thanks to our negativity bias, which serves as an evolutionary skill to protect us from harm at every turn. For this reason, overthinking is perceived as a less-than-ideal tendency and according to this study, people often link their proclivity to overthinking with feelings of distress and depression.

Overthinking vs. Rumination

Many people use the terms overthinking and rumination interchangeably, but I do believe you can overthink without necessarily ruminating. Ruminating is a pattern of negative thoughts that play on a loop in your mind. Certainly, you can overthink something you said in a meeting yesterday and have a running loop of all the terrible things everyone probably thought about you. That would be both overthinking the incident and ruminating on the possible negative outcomes.

But overthinking without rumination can seem like a fruitful effort — like wanting to think about the wording of an email thoroughly just to make sure you get it right. This can happen with or without negative thinking loops, but the problem is this sort of overthinking isn’t nearly as helpful as it feels. It usually leaves you feeling even more unsure, stressed, and frustrated than you would have been had you just made a choice and not overthought it.

Thinking Deeply vs. Overthinking

It’s worth mentioning here that there is a difference between thinking deeply and overthinking. Overthinking is thinking excessively without a beneficial result. Thinking deeply is the art of following curiosity to an unknown — but often beneficial — end. To think deeply is to contemplate thoroughly every facet of an idea which sometimes only leads to more questions and sometimes results in a ‘eureka’ moment. The ability to think deeply about a topic or a relationship or an idea is a gift that will lead to thoughtful actions — or at the very least, helpful thoughts — while overthinking these things will lead to frustrating stagnation.

The Overthinking Cycle

Again, everyone overthinks on occasion, but those who consider themselves ‘overthinkers’ likely slip into the overthinking cycle regularly. Once the brain begins to latch onto one thought, decision, or concern, it often continues to latch on to more and more with increasing frequency and intensity. Before long, you can find yourself overthinking every little thing.

The brain does this because it convinces itself that overthinking equals avoided mistakes and better outcomes, and is therefore necessary for every decision. The cycle continues, the habit is formed, and it becomes second nature.

Signs You’re in the Overthinking Cycle:

  • Always feeling like one worry leads to another
  • Second-guessing yourself more and more
  • Experiencing fleeting comfort in overthinking
  • Reliving situations again and again in your mind
  • Trying to think hard enough to solve circumstances beyond your control
  • Increasing negative thoughts, especially about yourself or your circumstances

When overthinking becomes a habit, rumination is often part of the equation. Again, because the brain often gravitates towards negativity as a means of self-protection, stopping the overthinking cycle requires a deliberate strategy.

Kicking the Overthinking Habit

Like any habit, breaking the overthinking cycle is easier said than done. It requires mental agility you might not have practiced before. If this is all new to you, know that it takes practice to develop these skills. Most people live most of their lives at the mercy of their minds, so it will take time to get the hang of interacting with your thoughts more proactively.

3 Steps to Overcoming the Overthinking Cycle:

1. Notice

The first step is simply to notice when you are overthinking. This might sound easy, but it’s harder than you think. When you’re in the midst of overthinking, you are often too consumed by the thoughts to notice anything else, much less notice that you are overthinking in the first place. So before you attempt to break the habit, just notice when it happens. It can be as small as a fleeting thought of, “Hm…I think I am overthinking this…” even as you continue to overthink. That’s a great first step!

Pro tip: A helpful aspect of noticing when you overthink is to also notice other components that may be making the habit worse. Get curious about your overthinking: Does it happen more with certain situations, people, or topics? Do you tend to overthink more when you are tired or trying to fall asleep? Do your eating and exercise habits affect your overthinking tendency? Assessing these facets can help you disrupt the cycle and ultimately break the overthinking habit.

2. Disrupt

Once you have begun noticing when you are overthinking, the next step is to work on disrupting the overthinking cycle. While it may be tempting to disrupt it with thoughts like, “I am going to stop overthinking this,” this sort of forced willpower rarely works. Instead, come up with some helpful thoughts, prayers, or mantras that shift your thinking just enough to give your brain some relief from all that intense overthinking. Studies show that even a brief disruption helps to break the overthinking cycle.

Here are some helpful thoughts to try:

  • This situation is difficult, but I will get through it.
  • I am safe. I am loved. I am okay.
  • I don’t need to overthink to find a solution here.
  • These are the worst-case scenarios. What are the best-case scenarios?
  • These are thoughts, not facts.

Again, the goal here is not to stop overthinking cold turkey. Instead, you want to practice shifting your focus to more productive thoughts to disrupt the overthinking habit just enough to slow the cycle.

3. Replace

Ultimately, one of the best ways to break a habit is to replace it with a healthier one. This is true of the overthinking habit as well. Nurturing more productive strategies for dealing with stressful situations or anxiety-producing thoughts will help keep you off of the overthinking cycle.

These are a few replacement strategies that can work well:

  • Journaling — getting your thoughts down on paper can prevent the ongoing loop in your mind
  • Meditation — practicing deliberately emptying the mind can act as a sort of detox from overthinking habits
  • Self-compassion — Accepting that you may be prone to overthinking can help you find compassion for yourself in breaking the habit, according to this study. Practicing self-compassion in all areas of life, including painful past experiences and current worries can help you interact with those thoughts in more positive and productive ways.
  • Seek help — If you are struggling to break the overthinking cycle on your own, a therapist can provide helpful support. Chronic overthinking and rumination can have negative consequences for your mental health, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Overthinkers, your overthinking tendencies may always be part of your life, but you need not be defined by them. The goal is not necessarily to stop overthinking altogether. Rather, it’s implementing a proactive strategy to break the habit and prevent the cycle from starting up again. Learning to tame and temper the overthinking habit can keep you off the overthinking cycle for good.

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