Are you an overthinker? If your response isn’t an immediate no, then the answer is probably yes.
Recent research1https://news.umich.edu/most-women-think-too-much-overthinkers-often-drink-too-much/ indicates that 73% of 25-35 year-olds and 52% of 45-55 year-olds overthink!
So… most of us are overthinkers.
And here’s the problem: Overthinking drains us, causes burnout, contributes to severe depression and anxiety, and is linked to increased alcohol and drug abuse.
Phew! What a list! And for those living with the effects of one or more of these challenges, trying to change can feel like a Herculean feat.
Thankfully, there have been recent developments in the study of overthinking research and management techniques that make addressing overthinking a manageable task.
Science of People was lucky enough to dive into the topic with author Jon Acuff!
What is Overthinking?
Overthinking is when you think about something too much or for too long. It’s when you focus on the same thought patterns that feel trapping. Overthinking is when what you think gets in the way of what you want. When we overthink, we tend to get stuck in a negative thought loop, called rumination, instead of taking action.
This causes us to be stressed and waste our time, and it can even cripple our ability to make logical decisions. It can be hard to quiet your mind when you’re feeling anxious or stressed, and overthinking both feeds and feeds on those feelings.
Even worse, research2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26158958/ shows that overthinking doesn’t just cause insomnia. Overthinking is linked to:
- Depression and fatigue
- Anxiety disorders
- Increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse
- Higher likelihood of suicide attempts
- Lack of decision making
- Lower quality friendships
Overthinking is caused by many factors, such as social expectations, relationship anxiety, and past trauma. Here are some more examples of overthinking:
- Thinking about a conversation with a friend yesterday and wishing you’d said something different.
- Not being able to let go of your past mistakes.
- Thinking about an upcoming event and imagining the worst possible scenario.
- Worrying about things out of your control, like the economy or a global crisis.
- Always asking yourself, “What if…?”
Why Do Some People Overthink?
Overthinking was actually developed as a survival mechanism for our ancestors. Those who were able to predict where and how danger might occur and how to avoid it managed to live longer.
We are far less likely to face life-threatening situations on a regular basis today. But at a primal level, there is a neurological connection3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273616/ between physical pain and social, economic, or any number of other modern-day threats.
So why do you overthink? Because every morning, your brain wakes up and is on the lookout for a saber tooth tiger in the form of a sarcastic comment from your spouse, a frustrated sigh from your boss, or the person who cuts you off in traffic.
There are several types of people who are particularly vulnerable to overthinking: the shy type, the insecure type, and highly sensitive people.
The shy type constantly thinks about people. He lies in bed at night, replaying every conversation or interaction from the day. He’s worried about what others think of him and whether or not he made a good first impression after meeting new people. He often has anticipation anxiety, and his biggest fears often revolve around public speaking.
The insecure type, on the other hand, worries about her circumstances. She has sleepless nights agonizing about all of her decisions from the day… and possible decisions for tomorrow.
She might have low self-esteem because she’s underperforming at her job or constantly worries about her finances or health. If someone tells her something negative, she takes it personally, and that comment will linger in her head for far too long.
Highly sensitive people can include both types of people above. They have increased sensitivity in their central nervous system with emotional, physical, or social stimuli.
They tend to have stronger emotional reactions, more compassion, and greater sensitivity to criticism, to name a few.
Are you wondering if you’re an HSP? Take the quiz in Highly Sensitive People: How to Harness This Superpower.
How to Differentiate Thinking vs. Overthinking
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to just think about something rather than overthink something? Let’s look at some examples of when thinking becomes overthinking.
Thinking: List the pros and cons of a new car you want to buy.
Overthinking: Analyzing the pros and cons of five different cars, three of which you’re not interested in but want to have as reference points.
Thinking: Reflecting on an uncomfortable conversation with your boss to determine how to improve and learn from the experience.
Overthinking: Rehashing the conversation word for word, feeling guilty and ashamed, and being unable to let go of anything you think you could have said differently.
Thinking: Planning where you’d like your career to go and setting goals to get there.
Overthinking: Obsessing over all the obstacles that could stop your career from moving forward and feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
Generally, thinkers will evaluate the past and the future in order to make rational decisions on how to move forward. At the same time, overthinkers will think about the same things over and over with little progress or decision.
How to Recognize Overthinking
Being able to recognize when you’re in a pattern of overthinking is the first step to being able to address it. It can be hard to identify because it can often masquerade as problem-solving or planning. Overthinking is often associated with thoughts becoming repetitive, obsessive, or negative. It is also tied to feelings of anxiousness, irritability, or exhaustion.
Overthinking could make you feel like you’re losing control of your emotions and actions, but that’s not true. You’re still in charge, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first.
Here’s the good news: Once you know what you’re thinking about, you can change it by challenging negative thoughts, setting realistic expectations, and practicing self-compassion.
How To Overcome Overthinking
1. Release The White Bear
Here’s a thought experiment for you:
Try not to think of a white polar bear.
Seems impossible, right?
But that’s exactly what participants did in Harvard professor Daniel Wegner’s famous ”White Bear” experiment. In the experiment, Wegner asked students to verbalize their thoughts for 5 minutes while trying not to think of a white bear.
The surprising result? Students, on average, were pretty bad at not thinking of a white bear and thought of it at an average of more than once per minute!
Wegner even found that students who were told to suppress the idea of a white bear did worse than students who weren’t told to suppress their thoughts. You can watch the fascinating study here (timestamp 1:37):
Wegner’s remarkable study tells us it’s almost impossible to suppress unwanted thoughts. And trying to do so might end up causing us more harm than good. So instead, focus on releasing your unwanted thoughts.
While it may sound counterintuitive, research shows that trying to suppress unpleasant thoughts4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3931447/ actually increases their recurrence long-term.
What thoughts are you suppressing?
First, just think of your unwanted thoughts. If we can’t control overthinking, let’s give it the attention it deserves.
Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and allow yourself to think.
Think of your problems and why they’re bothering you so much. Allow yourself ample time to think. Don’t push them away. What is your mind telling you? What are you worried about? Go deep.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of being highly aware of your senses and feeling in the moment without interpreting or judging. While mindfulness has been practiced for centuries in forms like meditation and Tai Chi, the rigorous scientific study of mindfulness is still fairly new.
One study5https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner asked novice meditators to attend a 10-day retreat. By the end, participants reported less rumination (overthinking!) than the control group and performed better on memory and performance tasks.
Research also indicates6https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016643281830322X that mindfulness increases in value over time. The study showed improvements in mood, emotion, and memory for participants who practiced meditation for 13 minutes a day for eight weeks.
Try some of these to break the cycle of overthinking:
- Mindful Breathing: Sit upright, close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose for four counts, then out through your mouth for a count of four. Your goal is to simply focus on your breathing for as long as possible without being distracted by other thoughts or feelings.
- Cloud Gazing: Focus on the sky. As a cloud moves by, you can imagine each cloud as a problem or challenge floating away from you.
- Full Body Scan: Imagine a scanner moving from your head to your toes, noting any physical muscle tension or emotional experiences without assigning judgment.
- Finger Tapping: while taking deep breaths, touch each finger to your thumbs – index, middle, ring, pinky, then reverse. (This is great for work meetings and video calls!)
For more meditation ideas, read 30 Mindfulness Activities To Keep Your Mind Calm (At Any Age),
3. The Paper Ball Technique
Grab a pen and paper and set a timer for 10 minutes. Start transferring everything down from your mind to your paper. List all the things you’ve been worried about so you have a place you can visualize them. Don’t worry about making it pretty—the point is to just get it down on paper. Give it your all!
Now, when the timer’s up, take a look at your list. How do you feel? Does it feel relieving to get all your unwanted thoughts down on paper?
Finally, here’s the fun part: crumple up that paper ball and throw it in the trash can.
The physical “throwing away” of your problems is a great technique to help you “feel” as if your worrying thoughts are gone. I find this helps if I’m stuck with something that’s been bothering me for days.
4. No News is Good News
Following the news can be overwhelming and stressful, especially for overthinkers who internalize problems out of their control. Try spending several weeks without watching or reading the news.
Turn off notifications from news apps on your phone, or delete them entirely for a time. You can change your car preset radio station to classical music. You may even consider taking a break from social media, which can often contain stressful and overwhelming news.
If removing yourself entirely from news doesn’t appeal to you, try switching out your regular news app for one that focuses on positive stories, like Good News. Want something to watch? Try The Good News Show or other uplifting programs like Random Acts or Queer Eye.
Take time to consider how your view of the world changes as the content you consume changes.
5. Practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of therapy that includes identifying troubling situations in your life, becoming aware of your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, then identifying and reshaping negative or inaccurate thinking. CBT is one of many forms of therapy used to treat the root causes of overthinking, such as depression and anxiety.
A licensed therapist can offer professional help and answer questions you have about therapy.
6. Positive Reframing
Do you have a hard case of impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon that makes you feel like you aren’t good enough:
- “I’m not a good enough speaker.”
- “I’m not fit to be a manager.”
- “I don’t deserve to make lots of money.”
No matter how successful someone is on the outside or how much external evidence there is of their skills or competence, people with impostor syndrome are convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved. They may have pervasive thoughts about their incompetence or inferiority.
Impostor syndrome isn’t easy to combat, but here’s a great exercise…
When you catch yourself with negative internal dialogue, reframe your comment to be an “I’m great” statement:
- “I’m a great speaker.”
- “I’m a great manager.”
- “I have great wealth.”
So if you’re in a constant negativity loop, keep repeating to yourself, “I’m great.” Make it a daily habit. Stick Post-it notes on your bathroom mirror. Save your favorite quote on your desktop wallpaper.
Practice other forms of mind control! How to Control Your Mind: 20 Science-Backed Strategies
7. Make Positivity A Habit
Positive self-talk works because it replaces your negative self-talk. In Wegner’s experiment, students who were told to think of another object—a red convertible—instead of the white bear did rather well in focusing their thoughts.
In the same vein, try replacing your unwanted thoughts with positive ones. Being positive overall, according to Mayo Clinic, can:
- Increase your lifespan
- Lower your stress
- Lower levels of depression
- Reduce the risk of death from cancer, stroke, infection, and more.
8. Test out Positive Affirmations
You know that feeling when a friend tells you that jacket looks great on you, or a co-working exclaims, “You’re amazing. I couldn’t have done this without you!
Those are positive affirmations; we all love hearing them from people around us. But did you know that when you offer yourself positive affirmations, you can rewire your brain8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814782/ to challenge negative self-talk and increase self-esteem over time?
Here are some examples of positive affirmations:
- Today is full of opportunity
- I have everything I need
- I am here to be helpful
- I’m learning
- Today I will be fabulous
For more examples, check out 120 Positive Daily Affirmations For Happiness (w/ Science!)
9. Take A Walk
Allow yourself time to clear your head by going on a brief walk. Research has concluded that even a 10-minute brisk walk9https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064756/ will improve one’s mood to a similar degree as meditating would.
Leave your phone at home and notice things around you on your stroll. What is the weather like? Is the area urban or rural? Are there other people around? Other animals? What season are the plants in? Can you find a beautiful flower to admire?
10. Journal Your Emotions
I recently found myself sitting at my desk looking at an email that made me mad. There was nothing particularly offensive about the email, but I felt lousy when I read it and thought about the situation.
I pulled out a notebook and began writing everything I was feeling. At the end of the page, I stopped, read what I’d written, and felt like there was still more behind my reaction, so I turned the page and kept writing. Ten minutes later, I was staring at a piece of paper that had nothing at all to do with the situation in the email but was the core of why I was upset.
When you can feel yourself reacting to something, take time to write it out. You can choose to combine this with the paper ball technique or not.
11. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Another variation on positivity reframing, try keeping a gratitude journal for one week. Write down things that make you happy, things you are grateful for, and what is going well in your life.
- Write about a time when you laughed uncontrollably.
- Look around and list 5 things that help you in your day-to-day life.
- What is something that you can do today that people 30 years ago couldn’t?
- What aspect of your health do you feel grateful for?
12. Practice Goal Setting
One way to manage overthinking is by setting and achieving attainable goals. Having successes to look back on can help reframe your mindset to be more positive and grounded. Check out how to set better goals:
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework that will help you achieve your biggest goals.
13. “I Will”
Think of all the successes you’ve had in the past. Perhaps you got promoted at a job, aced a speech, or did something kind for a friend. Failure to live up to your past successes can be another major cause of overthinking.
If you’re struggling to get something done because you’re afraid of not living up to your past, you MUST realize this is a different opportunity.
And to help that mindset shift, try saying “I will “:
- “I will finish my work project on time.”
- “I will have a great vacation with my family.”
- “I will make it to my son’s soccer game and cheer for him.”
The “I will” technique is especially helpful if you’re under pressure. Research shows that athletes who give themselves instructional self-talk have improved attention and perform better.
Instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to do well,” replace it with an instructional “I will” to conquer your overthinking tendencies.
14. What Can I Control?
When facing overwhelming thoughts, it can help to focus on one thing at a time, identify the problem, and ask yourself if you can do anything about it. If the answer is yes, take action. If the answer is no, accept that as a reality and move on.
- Which of my thoughts are helpful and which aren’t?
- Am I thinking about a problem in a way that helps solve it?
- Am I trying to find an easy solution where none exists?
- Is it time for a different approach?
For example, an overthinking loop might sound like this: “It’s so late, and there’s so much to do, and I haven’t sent all the emails I need to, but it’s too late now, but I have to get it done…”
This can be broken down to “What actually needs to get done right now? The emails can wait until tomorrow, but I have to get the review done before the end of the day. It’s getting late, so I’m going to stop sending emails and focus on the review.
“Then I’m going make a note to myself of the emails that still need to go out tomorrow. I’ll put that on my desk and work on those first thing. And maybe I’ll go grab a snack first since I haven’t eaten in a while”.
15. Take the Fear Pill
If you were given a pill to totally get rid of your fears, would you take it?
You probably realize that’s a bad idea since we NEED fear to avoid doing reckless things, like walking in the middle of a busy highway or ostracizing all our friends.
So let’s work with fear.
The idea isn’t to totally get rid of your fears. When you start anything new or go through something potentially life-changing, there will always be fear.
Fear gets a voice, not a vote.
And we may never get rid of our fears—but that’s a good thing! You can learn to overcome your fears and become a Fear Boss.
How do we do that? To be a Fear Boss, we have to manage our fear rather than conquer it. Learn how in our article here: How to Overcome Fear and Conquer Self-Doubt.
16. Change Your Environment
If the environment you’re in isn’t working for you, shake things up!
Does the photo on your wall remind you how long it’s been since you went on vacation? Switch it out for a picture from the last dinner you went to with friends.
Are you anxious when you see your messy desk? Take a break and clean it off.
Looking for some inspiration? Put up a poster for the race you’re training for in your bathroom.
Find ways to make your environment work for you, whether that’s offering a fresh perspective, providing some light distraction, allowing a place to relax, or being inspiring.
17. Learn to Ask the Right Questions
One of the most frustrating parts of overthinking can be the feeling that no matter how much you think, you keep coming around to the same questions that don’t offer satisfactory answers.
In his book Questions Are The Answer, MIT Professor Hal Gregersen interviewed hundreds of creative thinkers to learn how to ask questions that provide breakthrough discoveries.
Changing the way you view questions, their role, and purpose can open up new opportunities for seeing questions as something to discover and enjoy rather than dreading the fear of an endless, unsatisfying loop.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, if you give yourself a week to finish an assignment that could be done in a day… you’ll likely take the whole week to finish. It’s just human nature.
Parkinson’s Law also applies to overthinking. When we give ourselves too much time to think or complete a goal, it often delays our decision-making.
The good news is it also works the other way around. This is where Parkinson’s Deadline comes in:
“Work shrinks so as to meet the deadline when it’s due.”
If you’ve got a project due in a day that would normally take you a week, you’re much more likely to finish it. Even though it might not be as pretty, the important thing is you’ve finished it.
Common Traps Of Overthinking (And How To Overcome Them!)
There are several common traps for overthinkers, most of which we’ve already touched on in some form or another.
Catastrophizing: that worst-case scenario you play in your head that could range from getting fired for a single mistake to the entire western United States being buried in lava when a supervolcano erupts.
Solution: Challenge the thought by considering the most realistic outcome instead.
Analysis Paralysis: getting stuck in a mental habit of analysis and indecisive behavior, leading to missed opportunities and procrastination.
Solution: Set a time limit for making the decision.
Negative Self-Talk: a constant internal dialog of criticism, shortcomings, and mistakes.
Solution: practice self-compassion and reframe negative thoughts for realistic or positive ones.
Perfectionism: Setting impossibly high standards for yourself and obsessing over tiny details and flaws.
Solution: Practice setting and obtaining realistic goals, focus on progress and celebrate small wins. See mistakes as part of a learning process.
Overthinking can be an exhausting experience! Remember, your brain goes out every morning trying to protect you from the same life-threatening dangers your ancestors faced and had to overcome to survive.
Thoughts that are repetitive, obsessive, or negative can be an indicator you are overthinking, but thankfully, there are ways to overcome the negative cycle.
Try some of the suggestions above, like practicing mindfulness, reducing your access to negative news reports, and keeping a gratitude journal.
And if you’re ready for more ideas on improving your life, read How to Live a Good Life: 5 Tips.
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I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.