13 Proven Ways To Stop Overthinking, From Psychology Experts
Racing thoughts, worrying, thinking too much. The frenetic thought pattern has so many names yet describes a single common experience: overthinking.
What is overthinking?
Overthinking is defined as repetitive and unproductive thought patterns. It is usually an uncomfortable experience in the mind where it feels crucial to think through the issue at hand over and over. However, the "thinking through" oftentimes leads nowhere.
According to licensed therapist Kimberly Martin, LMFT, there are different ways overthinking can manifest, such as:
- Rumination: Repetitive thinking and dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings
- Hypervigilance: Constantly assessing for potential danger
- Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst will happen
There are evolutionary reasons why humans do so much of this type of thinking, according to licensed therapist Chay Tanchanco, LMFT. "Part of our survival as humans has depended on anticipating danger," she explains. "If our ancestors could predict where or when their life was threatened, they could plan to get away safely or prepare for a conflict, giving them a better chance at seeing the next day."
So, overthinking is a survival mechanism that was actually useful to our primal ancestors. But it's proving not so useful in today's world.
"In the modern world, we don't have the same kind of dangers as humans did thousands of years ago—however, our brains are still operating with many of those same systems," Tanchanco says. "Overthinking is our brains' way of trying to predict harm while applying the complex modern layers of societal stigmas, expectations, and safeguards."
Why am I overthinking so much?
There are many reasons why someone might be overthinking. Here a few of the big causes:
You're dealing with heightened emotions.
"It is very common to overthink things when we are feeling strong emotions toward them," says Martin. That is, if a situation is eliciting a strong emotional response from you, you're more likely to start overthinking about it.
According to Martin, some emotions that can spark overthinking include:
These are obviously common emotions, so in that sense, overthinking is simply a natural response to certain types of life experiences. "However, overthinking becomes a mental health concern when it becomes unmanageable and causes unwanted disruptions to one's day-to-day life," says Martin.
It may be a sign of other mental health concerns.
Overthinking has been associated with depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, and eating disorders1. "It is a common symptom of many mental disorders, commonly couched inside of self-doubt, excessive worry, or overwhelming [feelings] that others are out to get us," says licensed therapist Cynthia Siadat, LCSW.
So, overthinking can be thought of as a warning sign that something may be off, and it's worth working with a mental health professional if you feel like overthinking is getting in the way of your daily life.
Relatedly, a 2018 study2 also found that if you already have depressive symptoms, overthinking can reinforce depressive thought patterns. One way to get at the root cause of the depressive symptoms is to change the negative beliefs fueling the overthinking thought patterns. This process is best explored with a therapist.
It's what you saw growing up.
Siadat says some of us overthink because the thought pattern was modeled to us by the adults in our early lives.
A 1963 study3 tested the power of observing behavior with an experiment that exposed moral judgment to children. They found that children who observed adult models and who received reinforcement held on to the moral teachings more effectively.
So, if we observed overthinking in our caretakers and had the thought pattern reinforced by common warnings like "make sure you don't…" and "double-check if…" we may have a higher likelihood of developing overthinking thought patterns.
It's a trauma response.
"People who have witnessed [or] experienced traumatic events may be especially prone to overthinking due to fears and worries that the same events may happen again," Martin explains. "This causes hypervigilance as a way for our brains to keep us safe."
It's part of the culture.
Our culture and environment can also contribute to overthinking, says Siadat. For example, "The old adage that has been the basis of much of Western thought, 'I think therefore I am' has encouraged a sort of disembodied experience in Western-influenced cultures that encourages more of a focus on what's happening above the neck versus below," she says.
One review4 published in the Social Science & Medicine journal studied the language around "thinking too much" across global populations. It found that expressions like "I'm thinking too much" can be found in many cultures, and it's usually a sign that people are in mental distress. Although solutions for overthinking are available, the review found that solutions to treat "thinking too much" need to be culturally relevant. The good news is cultural sensitivity is starting to become more commonplace in therapy practices.
Your job encourages overthinking.
Your job may also be adding to your overthinking thought pattern. Some occupations require multiple facets of thinking before taking action, leading to chronic overthinking, says Siadat. The conditions of your surroundings shape the way you think.
Some personality types may be more prone to overthinking.
Some people have minds that are just wired for jumping from idea to idea without pauses, says Siadat. For example, she says, one particular personality type that might be prone to overthinking is intelligent folks.
"Overthinking is a plague of the brilliant," Siadat asserts. "The capacity that brilliant people have to think quickly and with great depth can be astounding. It can also be difficult to turn off, especially in a culture where we are so frequently stimulated."
Tanchanco also sees overthinking as common among certain personality types. "I identify as and work with people I call 'Anxious Perfectionist Givers' (APGs)," she says. "We are notorious overthinkers and often got far in life because we tend to be planners, high achievers, and work in service industries such as nursing, education, and other care-related jobs. Because we are juggling many things and empathizing with others as part of our work, we tend to overthink past what is helpful or necessary."
13 ways to stop overthinking.
If overthinking is getting in the way, try these tips to alleviate some of the mental chatter:
Notice when you're overthinking.
Overthinking is a habitual thought pattern that is specific to you. For example, you may tend to overthink when you're home alone. If you notice that you've been by yourself in your room with spiraling thoughts for a while, it could be the first sign that you're overthinking—and the signal that you need to transition to one of your coping strategies.
Becoming aware that you're overthinking is the first step to disrupting the behavior, says Siadat. "Ask yourself: What is usually the first clue that I've been overthinking?" she suggests. "Then the next step would be to identify what you would like to do instead."
Become aware of your patterns.
After you notice that overthinking is happening, start to practice mindful awareness. When you have the ability to tap into mindfulness, you can start to observe the full cycle of your overthinking pattern.
- What starts your overthinking pattern?
- How does it behave?
- How long does it take?
- Where do you feel it in your body?
Once you understand all the pieces of your overthinking pattern, you can get better at mindfully moving yourself out of your overthinking cycle.
Move your body.
"When someone has practiced identifying that they have started to overthink, in the moments they are in the throes of it, I highly recommend using that moment as a green light to tell them to engage in activities that involve them being engaged physically," Siadat says.
Some of her suggestions:
- Practical movement, like standing up and walking to a different room, or house-cleaning
- Physical-health-related movement, like drinking a glass of water or exercising
- Joyful movement, like dancing or wiggling
Relevantly, a healthy balance of exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on our emotions. Allowing your body to process thoughts can help ease the unnecessary chatter in your mind.
Practice other forms of mindfulness.
"Mindfulness practices are proven to be helpful in managing overthinking and disruptive thoughts," says Martin. "Mindfulness practices could be any healthy activity/skill that allows you to practice shifting your mind to the present moment rather than in the past or the future."
For example, she recommends mindfulness activities such as:
- Body scans
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Strength training
"The key is staying connected to what you are experiencing internally and/or externally in the present moment," she notes.
Don't try to suppress the thoughts.
"Suppressing negative thoughts can lead to more overthinking," says Martin. "It's like when someone tells you not to touch something, and it makes you want to touch it even more."
If you're dealing with overthinking and recurring negative thoughts, simply take notice when it's happening as you're building up your other coping tools. "Allow yourself to have the negative thought while strengthening your ability to let go of it and be in the present moment. And whenever you feel ready to take it a step further, you can practice challenging your negative thoughts and stopping your mind from going down the rabbit hole of overthinking."
Reflect with a journal or other creative expression.
Journaling is a useful tool to get your thoughts out into the physical world because once on paper, thoughts can be processed and released. A good place to start is to jot down your thoughts, then gradually move into gratitude journaling.
Additionally, you can use alternative ways of getting your thoughts out like doodling or crafting.
Schedule worry time.
Scheduling worry time is a classic technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy, says Martin. "The idea is to table your worries until your scheduled worry time. This prevents you from spending too much time dwelling on random worries that appear throughout the day."
Here's how she suggests doing it:
- Schedule "worry time" and add a time limit, preferably no more than 30 minutes. Use a timer if helpful.
- Make sure it's not too close to bedtime.
- Let all your thoughts out, and think through all your worries during this time frame.
- Stop when the scheduled worry time is over.
- Throughout the day, write down any worrying thoughts as they come up so that you have them ready to review during the worry time.
- At the next scheduled worry time, use previous notes to process and problem-solve the worries you had during your day.
Shift your environment.
Sometimes being in a specific space can trigger you to overthink. So moving to a new space or changing up the environment that you're in can help.
"Playing some white noise or relaxing music can also help shift your mind, silence unwanted thoughts, and remind your brain to take a break," Martin suggests.
Prioritize things you enjoy.
If overthinking is paired with worry, anxiety, and depressing thoughts, using joy can be a great antidote. Engage with your favorite activities that get you outside of your own head like going for a walk with your dog, calling a friend, or mindfully cooking your favorite meal. If you don't know what brings you joy, it is a worthwhile journey to find out what does.
If your overthinking tends to revolve around your own insecurities, Siadat suggests developing a dedicated self-compassion practice. Self-compassion allows us to hold ourselves with kindness.
Siadat acknowledges, "Developing a practice of self-compassion can be helpful and can be incredibly difficult for people who find themselves overthinking." But self-compassion is closer than you may think. These practices can help you to start cultivating self-compassion right now.
Talk it out.
If you're finding yourself overthinking about relationship issues—such as situations involving friends, family, or romantic partners—try to talk it out with the other person directly instead of ruminating about it on your own.
Worrying in relationships is normal, especially if trust is fragile. Since you are engaging with someone who has their own complex patterns of behavior, it's easy to misinterpret signals, words, and actions. The best way to understand another person is to open a line of clear communication. After all, if you're worried about the state of your relationship, remember that studies show time and time again that communication is a foundational element in relationship satisfaction5.
If you're not ready to talk directly with the person you're overthinking about, tap a mental health professional like a therapist.
Talk it out with a therapist.
Regardless of what subjects your overthinking revolves around, talking to a professional can help identify habits and patterns you aren't able to notice on your own. A therapist can act as a neutral third party who can help you move forward to overcome your overthinking pattern.
Cut yourself some slack.
"Overthinking is not a weakness," Siadat reminds us. "It is a natural byproduct of being brilliant and in a world that encourages a lot of heady-ness. It has served us throughout our lives, and when it has limited our ability to live fulfilling lives, all that means is that it isn't the right tool for the task at hand and that we need to find and try a different tool."
The negative effects of overthinking.
It can help to consider the trade off that you're choosing when you overthink versus moving on. While it is important to take time before acting, dwelling for too long can often lead to unwanted consequences.
- Cause you to miss out on opportunities. Since time is a nonrenewable resource, the time spent thinking may be used up instead of pursuing actual opportunities that will help move you forward.
- Make you feel out of control. When you're stuck in your own thoughts, you can easily feel like you're spiraling without anything to ground you. Left unchecked, this can lead to unwanted mental health complications.
- Spark friction in relationships. To move forward with your loved ones, you need action to engage. Sitting in thought alone often comes at the cost of honest communication and can lead to isolation.
Is overthinking a mental disorder?
Overthinking by itself is not a mental disorder, but it can be a symptom of one. This behavior is common among those dealing with anxiety, PTSD, or depression. Diagnoses aside, overthinking may simply be an indication that something is off internally. Journal, reflect, or work with a mental health professional to find the root cause of your overthinking.
Is overthinking every day normal?
It depends. Overthinking is certainly common, and your environment, upbringing, job, and biology can all affect the way you think. Some of us are also predisposed to overthink more than others. That said, overthinking can be a sign of other mental health concerns, and if it's disrupting your day-to-day life, it may be worth exploring what's causing it and how to soothe your mind with a mental health professional.
How can I stop overthinking?
The first step is to notice that you're overthinking. Slowing down to notice when, where, and how your overthinking pattern manifests can help you figure out your next step to work through it.
Once you've identified your overthinking pattern, you can start to try grounding activities like meditation, journaling, shifting your body and environment, CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, working on clearer communication, or talking with a therapist. Finding the right approach to address your specific overthinking pattern may take some time, so be patient. Know that every bit counts toward creating new thought patterns for yourself.
Overthinking is a habitual thought pattern that can be reinforced by our surroundings. As with other habits, there are ways we can consciously choose to behave differently and reinforce new behaviors so that we can have a different outcome.
If overthinking is something that is getting in the way of living a full life, the best first step is acknowledging that it's happening. From there, many tactics, communities, and mental health professionals are available to help you live a life beyond your thoughts.
Stephanie Catahan is a health coach and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine and iPEC, she applies a holistic lens to her wellness writing. She also has experience building corporate wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google, encouraging members to build sustainable health strategies to prevent burnout.
Catahan currently runs, writes, and lives in San Francisco.