How To Reduce Overthinking

Overthinking can be a tough habit to break that can lead to anxiety and even depression. But here are six strategies that can help reduce overthinking.

How To Reduce Overthinking

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Are you an overthinker? Excessively analyzing and evaluating things, sometimes to the point of becoming obsessive? When we overthink, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of a situation and can experience a sense of dread or anxiety. We might worry about something that’s coming up or hypothetical scenarios that may or may not happen. Or dwell with regret on our mistakes or anger about something that’s happened. Or stress about how we’re going to be able to manage everything we’ve got going on right now.

Or we might overthink what we say or do in social situations and then afterwards replay interactions we’ve had over and over in our heads. We can overthink personal issues such as relationships or health problems. And it’s really common to overthink decisions.

So why do we overthink, and what can we do about it? Often, overthinking arises out of fear of the unknown. We attempt to think through every possible outcome and scenario as we try to gain some control over a situation, hoping that eventually, we’ll figure out a way to resolve it that avoids any possible negative consequences. If we find ourselves doing this, we can ask ourselves, “Is this something I have control over?” And if it is, then we ask ourselves, “Is there anything I can do about this now?” And if there is, then rather than continuing to think about it, we take some action.

Engaging in productive action is an effective way to break free from overthinking, especially when it stems from feeling stuck or powerless in a situation. Shifting our focus towards taking action can help us feel more in control, lower our anxiety, and reduce the time we spend worrying, ruminating, and overthinking.

But often, there’s no action to take because our overthinking is an attempt to control the uncontrollable or to answer questions that just don’t have any answers, at least not with the information available to us right now. And so, these aren’t things we can act on, but we’re just so uncomfortable with the uncertainty, we keep trying to think our way out of it.

So setting boundaries and limits is crucial. Rather than allowing ourselves to constantly worry and overthink throughout the day, we set aside a specific time to spend 20 to 30 minutes looking at these situations and our thoughts and feelings about them. And we use this time for structured problem-solving or reflecting about a difficult situation, or maybe journaling or talking to a friend about what’s going on, or engaging in whatever activities help us explore our thoughts and feelings. And then once our 20 to 30 minutes are up, we allow ourselves to stop thinking about this because thinking about it any longer is likely to become unproductive and just lead us back into overthinking. So instead, we let go of these thoughts and move on to something else, which is easier said than done. But we’ll learn some strategies to help us do this in a moment.

Setting boundaries is also crucial if our overthinking stems from perfectionism and we get stuck agonizing over the smallest details. We can limit the time we give ourselves to find the best way to do something and set limits on our expectations. And resist falling into all-or-nothing thinking, recognizing that we can strive for a very high level but still be satisfied with the result that is good enough.

And if our overthinking is triggered by decisions, in addition to setting a time limit on how long we’re going to give ourselves to think about the decision, we can try to limit the number of decisions we have to make or limit the options or choices we give ourselves.

And then, regardless of the source of our overthinking, once we’ve reached whatever limit we’ve set for ourselves, rather than continuing to engage with our thoughts or trying to forcibly push them away, we can practice being mindful of our thoughts, which involves simply noticing our thoughts as they arise, and acknowledging them, and choosing whether or not we want to continue thinking about them right now. And if we don’t, rather than allowing them to pull our minds away from what we want to be doing or thinking about, which is often the first step in overthinking, we can simply let them go.

A common metaphor is to just allow our thoughts to come and go through our minds like clouds passing through the sky. They float into our minds, and we notice them, and then they float away.

Another mindfulness strategy is to label our thoughts. And as each thought passes into our minds, labeling it as thinking, or worrying, or obsessing, and so on. And this labeling helps create some distance between ourselves and our thoughts, reducing our tendency to get caught up in them. And using the qualifier “just” can also help give us some distance from our thoughts and put them into perspective, reminding ourselves, “I’m just thinking,” “I’m just imagining,” “I’m just having the thought I can’t deal with this,” or “This is just a thought and not a fact.” And when we create this distance between ourselves and our thoughts, it’s less likely we get pulled into a cycle of overthinking, and it becomes more possible to let these thoughts go.

Mindfulness is also a great way to prevent overthinking from getting started in the first place. We often become caught up in our thoughts without even noticing we’re doing it. But if we can become more aware of our thoughts as we’re having them, then we can choose how we engage with them and consciously decide whether or not this is a line of thinking we want to go down right now. And if our thoughts are unrelated to what we’re doing at the time, like worrying about our relationship while trying to get work done, then probably not.

And the 10-second rule can help whenever we notice overthinking starting to take hold. We pause for 10 seconds and take a slow, deep breath. And then, during this pause, remind ourselves that we have a choice in how we engage with our thoughts. And instead of getting carried away by worries or frustration, we can simply ask ourselves if dwelling on this issue right now is helpful or if there are better ways to approach it, like taking action if there’s anything we can do about it right now, or engaging in some sort of structured problem-solving. We’re just giving ourselves permission to not think about it now, letting the thought go, and refocusing our minds on whatever we want to be doing or thinking about.

We can also try modifying our negative thoughts. When we overthink, we often magnify problems and imagine worst-case scenarios. And these types of thoughts can be difficult to just let go. So it can be helpful to take a step back and try to objectively evaluate the situation. Ask ourselves if our thoughts are based on evidence or if they’re simply assumptions or fears. And then consider alternative perspectives and try to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts that may not be completely accurate. And once our thoughts become less negative, less worrisome, or anxiety-provoking, there’s more chance we’ll be able to let them go.

But this can be a double-edged sword because it involves thinking about our thoughts. It can feed into more overthinking. So anytime we notice that we’ve slipped from trying to modify our negative thinking back to overthinking, we need to take a break, set some boundaries, postpone thinking about it until later, and come back to it with a clearer mind.

So sometimes we might prefer to take a few minutes to just write down our thoughts or worries without trying to change or modify them. And just this act of writing can help get our thoughts out of our heads and clear our minds a bit. And then, once we look at what we’ve written down, sometimes it can all seem a bit ridiculous, which can help make it easier for us to let go of thinking about this for now. Talking to a friend about what’s been going on and what we’ve been thinking about can have a similar effect.

And finally, distraction is often the first thing we try when we find ourselves overthinking. And sometimes it works. The more engaging the distraction, the more likely it is to help. Something like watching TV or scrolling through our phones often won’t be interesting or compelling enough to hold our attention, and our minds will keep wandering back to whatever we’ve been thinking about.

Doing something with our friends or something a little physical, like going for a walk, can help get us out of our heads a bit. But still, it’s often not enough to keep our minds from wandering back to whatever we’ve been thinking about. And many people find that strenuous exercise is the only thing that helps clear their minds. But even if distraction does work, often once the distraction ends, we resume our overthinking almost immediately. So distraction can be hit or miss.

But we don’t need to be discouraged if it doesn’t work because there are lots of other strategies we can try. And whatever strategies we use, the key is to implement them as soon as we’ve noticed we’ve started to overthink because that’s when they’re going to be most effective. And let me know in the comments how you manage overthinking.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.