“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

10 Ways How To Stop Overthinking Everything

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: July 20, 2019


10 ways how to stop overthinking everything

Are you an anxious person who overthinks everything? Chances are, you are according to a recent online poll we conducted. The poll, which ran from July 4 to 11, 2019, showed 99.6 percent of respondents said they overthink everything.

And it’s not just the anxious who overthink. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, found 57 percent of women and 43 percent of men are overthinkers. She also found that overthinking is much more prevalent in young and middle-aged adults than it is in older adults. For example, 73 percent of 25-35 year-olds overthink compared to 52 percent of 45-55 year-olds and just 20 percent of 65-75 year-olds.[1]

Harms of overthinking

As innocuous as overthinking might seem, it can cause significant lifestyle impairment, such as:

  • Issues with procrastination
  • Pessimism, which can lead to depression[2]
  • Issues with anxiety[2]
  • Loss of production
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Inhibits creativity[3]
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Performance problems

To name a few.

Symptoms of overthinking

Common symptoms of overthinking include:

  • Non-productive rumination
  • Anxiety[4]
  • Depression[3]
  • Analysis paralysis
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Rumination-caused sleep problems
  • Chronic stress and its many symptoms[4]

And so on.

Overthinking stresses the body and can cause many physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms. For more information about the many symptoms, visit our anxiety disorders symptoms and signs section or our stress response and hyperstimulation sections.

Recovery Support members can visit our extensive anxiety symptoms section (chapter 9).


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What Causes Overthinking

Two main factors contribute to overthinking:

  • Behavior (the ways we think and act).
  • Stress

1. Behavior

Behavior – the ways a person thinks and acts – is the primary cause of overthinking.

Research shows we learn most of our behaviors by the age of 8, and those behaviors are heavily influenced by those who raise us during our formative years. Consequently, the environment we grow up in and the parenting styles used by our parents play a major role in how we behave as adults.

With that in mind, here are some of the many reasons why we become overthinkers. Overthinkers generally:

  • Are highly analytical.
  • Have higher than average IQs.
  • Were often raised by an overly-critical parent(s).
  • Experienced a traumatic event(s) when growing up.
  • Experienced abuse (physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or spiritual) when growing up.
  • Typically grew up in families with poor to no boundaries.
  • Were often raised by parents who over-protected and/or over-indulged them (over-protected means they tried to protect their children from every potential harm, and over-indulged means they gave their children everything, or nearly everything they wanted).
  • Generally have issues with self-esteem.
  • Are generally perfectionists (thanks to overly-critical parenting).
  • Are worriers (imagine the worst, then dwell on worst-case scenarios).

To name a few.

Any one of the above reasons can lead to the development of overthinking behavior. The more reasons you have, the more prevalent the behavior.

For instance, being highly analytical means overthinkers think things through as completely as they can. This isn’t a bad thing. Being well informed and reasonably certain has many benefits.

The problem is that overthinkers sometimes don’t know when they’ve arrived at a “reasonably certain” conclusion. And this is even more problematic when they’ve learned that making a mistake could cause harm, including serious life-altering harm. This is where some of the other factors come into play.

For example, when you combine highly analytical with worry, or have experienced trauma with creativity, or having been overly criticized with low self-esteem, you create the perfect recipe for overthinking everything.

Moreover, when you combine any of the above factors with chronic stress that alters brain function – stress can reduce executive function and heighten fear sensing in the brain[5][6] – that further increases the likelihood of overthinking everything with a reduced ability to stop.

Any one or all of the above factors can lead to overthinking behavior.

Overthinking is a behavior

Overthinking is NOT who you are as a person, but a behavior you’ve learned, which has become a habit. Therefore, overthinking is a behavior you can change if you want to. You can learn healthier ways of managing adversity, uncertainty, and risk, and still make good decisions and remain safe.

Why we overthink

Fear is one of the most common reasons why people overthink. For example, in an online poll we conducted (July 2019), 90 percent of respondents said they overthink everything either to prevent bad things from happening, to avoid making serious mistakes, to avoid looking foolish, or to avoid having one more reason to believe they aren’t good enough.

Therefore, fear is one of the most common motivating factors for overthinking. Examples include:

  • Fearing something bad might happen if you don’t think things through thoroughly (fear of harm, loss, unpleasantness, reprisal, or rejection).
  • Fear of making a serious mistake (fear of harm, loss, unpleasantness, reprisal, or rejection).
  • Fear of making a mistake that could make you look foolish in front of others (fear of ridicule).
  • Making a mistake or doing something foolish could cause others to reject you (fear of rejection and loss of love).

And so on.

For instance, many of my (Jim Folk) anxiety disorder clients were told by their parents or teachers, “How could you make such a silly mistake? THINK before you act!” Or, “What’s wrong with you? How could you do something that stupid?” Or, “If you don’t think better than that, you could get yourself killed!!” To name a few.

While parents generally love their children and want them to be safe and successful, the parenting styles often teach their children that they are stupid and careless if they make a mistake that caused harm, unpleasantness, or failure.

Many parents also use emotional tactics to try and keep their children safe, such as acting upset and withholding affection when their child did something they disagreed with. Many anxiety disorder sufferers heard, “You’ve made me so upset with that foolish decision! Why would you do this to me?”

Some parents even physically abuse their children, thinking that style of parenting will “teach their children important life lessons.”

Consequently, during their developing years, children learn to overthink out of necessity and survival. As such, they come to believe that overthinking is the best way (or worse, the only way) to get along in life. Then, overthinking becomes their “safety net” that protects them against the harsh realities of life, such as harm, failure, and rejection.

Is it any wonder why overthinkers tend to overthink?!

Yet, based on a cost/benefit analysis, overthinking causes far more harm than it prevents. The anxiety, stress, and stimulation overthinking creates can sabotage our very life experience. Rather than being helpful protection, overthinking creates hardship and fuels issues with anxiety and stress.

2. Stress

Stress negatively affects brain function and in important ways that affect critical thinking.[2] For instance, stress hampers the areas of the brain responsible for critical thinking (the cortex). As stress increases, suppression of the cortex increases.[3]

But that’s not all. Stress also increases the activity in the fear center of the brain,[4] which cause an increase in thought generation.[5][6] This increased thought generation takes on a more dire tone due to the fear center’s heightened influence.

Moreover, the cortex is also responsible for applying the “anxiety brake” that stops anxious thinking.[5][7] When the cortex is suppressed, and the fear center is more active, we have a much more difficult time shutting off anxious thinking.

As such, stress, and more importantly, chronic stress is the most common cause of incessant mind chatter with a reduced ability to rationalize and shut it off.

Furthermore, problem-solving causes mental exertion, which also stresses the body.[8] As mental exertion increases, stress increases, incessant mind-chatter increases, and our ability to think clearly and critically decreases.

Chronic stress is a common factor that fuels overthinking.

How to stop overthinking

There are two main ways to stop overthinking:

  • Self-help
  • Therapy

10 Steps To Stop Overthinking

Here are some self-help ways to stop overthinking everything:

1. Awareness

To change a behavior, we first have to become aware of the behavior. So, the first step in making healthy behavioral change is to become aware of when you are overthinking.

You can do this by paying attention to your thought-life and making a note of every time you catch yourself overthinking. As your awareness of overthinking becomes more apparent, you are then prepared to begin the change process.

Awareness will alert you to common situations and circumstances where you overthink. When those situations and circumstances arise, they will alert you to pay attention to what you are thinking.

Awareness is the first step in making healthy behavioral change.

2. Write out what you are overthinking about

Too often we dwell on issues without clearly articulating what we’re overthinking about. Then, we run in thought circles without a definite direction.

Writing out what you are overthinking about, then clearly identifying the problem you are concerning yourself with can bring clarity that can help with problem-solving.

Sometimes, overthinking isn’t about problem-solving but ruminating about something that is bothering you. Either way, clearly identifying what you are overthinking about can help bring it to a successful resolve.

3. Research your options

Many people overthink based on the options they think they have without knowing all of the options that are truly available. Take time and research what options are realistic and available, rather than limiting yourself to just the ones you initially think are available.

4. Write out your options

Once you have your options, write them out. Writing out your options solidifies them, making decision-making easier and less about thinking and ruminating.

5. Set a time-limit for your problem-solving

Setting a time limit gives you a concrete time-frame to work with. Leaving the decision-making process open-ended sets you up for unlimited overthinking.

This time-limit can be a few hours for some problems and up to several days for more complicated problems. Nevertheless, you need to set a time limit that you can work toward. The goal is, once you reach the end of that time limit, you want to have made your final decision.

Do your best to adhere to that time limit. Continually changing the time limit encourages overthinking.

6. Give yourself a break from the problem

Many people try to come up with a decision quickly so that they can move on to other things. They believe that if they think enough, and consecutively, they can solve the problem and move on to the next one. Trying to solve a problem in one stretch, however, doesn’t give you time to reflect with a fresh mind and attitude.

It’s recommended to build in some time away from the problem so you can reflect on it with fresh thinking to ensure your decision is sound. Time away can be a few hours for less important decisions, or up to a week or more for more important decisions.

Also, when you take a break, be sure to set a specific time to revisit the problem. That way, if your mind wanders back to the problem during your break, you can reassure yourself that you are working on it and will complete the process at that specific time.

Knowing that you intend to solve the problem at a specific time makes it easier to dismiss meandering thoughts when they intrude on your time away from the problem.

Furthermore, taking a break can reduce stress since overthinking creates stress. A reduction in stress can recharge the areas of the brain responsible for rationalization (the cortex).

7. Give yourself permission to take time away

While it’s great to take time away from decision-making, you have to hold yourself accountable to that decision so that you can come back to it with a fresh mind. You can accomplish this by giving yourself permission to take time away from your decision-making.

Giving yourself permission is saying, “It’s good to stop thinking about this so that I can revisit it with a fresh perspective. Therefore, I’m giving myself permission to ignore it for now knowing I will revisit it later.”

Then, whenever your mind cycles back to the problem during that away time, you can say, “No, I’m not focusing on that now. I’ve given myself permission to ignore it until later. I will revisit it at the specified time. I’m not being irresponsible.”

Giving yourself permission can make it easier to ignore the problem for the short-term, especially when you know you will revisit it at a predetermined time in the future.

8. Hold yourself accountable with your time away

Okay, you’ve given yourself permission to ignore the problem until the predetermined time. That’s great! But when your thoughts cycle back to the problem, you have to hold yourself accountable to not revisiting it until the predetermined time.

You can do that by saying to yourself, “No, I’m not resuming this problem-solving until the predetermined time. Taking a break from it is an important  part of the overall problem-solving process. I’m not going to sabotage it by re-engaging too soon. I have permission to take a break and I’m going to take it.”

Also, remind yourself taking a break reduces stress, which can benefit the decision-making process (not to mention your overall health).

9. Come up with a final decision during the predetermined revisit time

Be sure to set a time limit on this revisit time. It can be whatever you think is appropriate to arrive at a good decision. For instance, some problems require a revisit time of only 10 to 15 minutes. Others might take an hour or so. Others might require an entire day.

Whatever the problem, set an appropriate time limit to arrive at a final decision. Then, it’s your goal to come up with a final decision during this predetermined revisit time.

10. Hold yourself accountable to your decision and deliberately “put a pin” in the problem

Once you’ve reached the end of your time limit and have made a decision, hold yourself accountable to that decision and to stop the thinking process.

You can view this final decision as being completed with no wiggle room. Whenever your mind wants to cycle back and revisit your decision, you need to stop and remind yourself that the decision-making process is completed. You’ve done your best, and the results will be what they will be.

If the results aren’t producing the desired outcome, you can always revisit the problem and change course if need be later on after you’ve given your decision suitable time to have an effect.

Following the above-mentioned process can significantly reduce overthinking…as long as you hold yourself accountable to it. If accountability is a skill you have to develop, so be it. Working at stopping overthinking is a good way to develop that skill.

Since we are all in charge of the thoughts we think, all of us can learn the ability to “contain,” which means limiting behavior (the ways we think and act). We all have the ability to direct our thoughts so there is nothing holding us back other than habit and effort.

If you are having difficulty containing your behaviors, we recommend connecting with one of our recommended therapists to help you learn the important skill of containment, one of the seven principles for lasting success over anxiety disorder (and other behavioral disorders).

10 Ways To Help You Stop Overthinking

To assist with the self-help process, here are 10 ways to help you stop overthinking:

1. Instead of dwelling on what can go wrong, think about what can go right.

Just because we can imagine something bad can happen doesn’t mean it actually can. Imagination is just that: conjuring up the imaginary. But dwelling on the negative does cause instant stress. Chronic stress has been linked to many medical and mental health issues.

Changing the direction of your thinking can illuminate possibilities rather than negatives. Having possibilities fosters hope and determination, which can insulate the body from unnecessary stress.

2. Distract yourself with a hobby, visiting with loved ones and friends, or doing something that makes you happy, etc.

Being distracted with positive influences is a great way to change the channel on overthinking.

3. Take a nap.

Research shows that sleep declutters the mind making way for clearer thinking. Taking a nap is a great way to clear the mind and stop overthinking.

Taking a nap also reduces stress.

4. Sleep on it.

As mentioned previously, sleep clears the mind of clutter. Rather than staying up and trying to come up with a solution, pause your thinking and sleep on it. You might be surprised at how clear a solution is in the morning.

5. Put it into perspective.

Are you blowing things out of context? Are you overreacting? Will it really matter next week, in six months, in one year, in five years? Putting things into perspective can also clear away the unnecessary clutter that often fuels overthinking.

6. Nothing is perfect, so stop waiting for the perfect decision.

Nothing on earth is perfect and neither are our decisions. We are going to have a combination of good decisions and not-so-good decisions. We can only do the best we can based on the information we have. As the saying goes, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.”

Many successful business people know that often the best way to get started is to jump in and adjust as you go. I’m (Jim Folk) not suggesting you don’t spend any time on planning and careful evaluation. You should, and diligently. But once you have a plan that has been thought through, get at it and adjust as necessary. If you wait for the perfect solution or timing, you’ll most likely miss both.

7. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s normal.

Yes, we want to do the best we can and avoid as many mistakes as possible. But we’re going to make mistakes. That’s life.

Successful business people know that making mistakes is an important part of what makes them successful. Rather than viewing mistakes as being “bad,” we want to view them as being an important part of building toward success.

Do the best you can, celebrate the successes, and learn from the mistakes so that you can be more successful next time.

8. Accept your best and expect the rest.

Again, no one is perfect. We all make good and not so good decisions. That’s life. Accept doing your best because most everyone else does. You can, too. Expect the rest, because everyone else does, too.

We are a combination of pluses and minuses. No one is all pluses. No one is all minuses.

9. Make sure you ARE problem-solving rather than just ruminating.

Problem-solving is working toward a solution to a problem. Ruminating is often referred to as negative role-play where we imagine all kinds of negative scenarios over and over again with no end goal in mind.

When you find yourself overthinking, determine if you are actually trying to problem-solve or just ruminating. If you are ruminating, turn it into problem-solving. If you can’t and continue to negative-role play, that requires a different kind of solution. Connecting with an experienced therapist can help you uncover the reasons why you are negative role-playing. Addressing those reasons can end negative role-play, and with it, unhealthy overthinking.

10. Stop overthinking before it gets rolling.

Once overthinking gets rolling, it becomes harder to stop. As part of your awareness, when you notice you are overthinking, stop it. You can use any of these ideas to help derail overthinking so that it doesn’t turn into a runaway train.

Recovery Support members can access 30 more ways to stop overthinking in the article “How To Stop Overthinking Everything” in Chapter 14.

Bonus Tip – Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness means focusing your mind on the present rather than letting it ponder the future.

You can do that by noticing and appreciating the things around you at that moment, such as objects, smells, feelings, and sensations in that moment. You can also focus on what you are doing in that moment, such as washing your face, brushing your hair, having a snack or your favorite beverage, and so on.

By focusing solely on what you are doing in that moment, you prevent the mind from imagining the future. But more importantly, focusing on the present increases the pleasure of what you are doing, which enhances your life experience.

If you notice your mind wondering into the future, you can gently redirect it back to the present and on to things more pleasant and enjoyable.

Therapy

While a self-help approach can be helpful in making behavioral change, working with an experienced therapist can bring about deep-seated, and therefore, more meaningful results. An experienced therapist can help you retool the very core of your system of beliefs – those values, beliefs, and preferences that motivate behavior.

To that end, an experienced therapist can help you identify and successfully address the many underlying factors – those behaviors (thoughts and actions), situations, and circumstances – that drive unhealthy overthinking. An experienced therapist can also guide and support you through to lasting success.

If you want to stop overthinking everything and gain results that last, working with an experienced therapist is the best and most effective option as it addresses the very core of the problem rather than just the behaviors that stem from the problem.

We wish you every success in overcoming overthinking behavior!


Here is a graphic you can download to help remember how to stop overthinking everything!

10 Ways How To Stop Overthinking

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


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REFERENCES:

1. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. "Women Who Think Too Much." Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2003

2. LC, Michl, et al. "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, May 2013.

3. Luft, Caroline, et al. "Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex." Scientific Reports, 2017.

4. Kaiser, Bonnie, et al. "“Thinking too much”: A Systematic review of a common idiom of distress." Social Science & Medicine, Dec 2015.

5. R. Sladky, A. Hoflich, M. Kublbock, C. Kraus, P. Baldinger, E. Moser, R. Lanzenberger, C. Windischberger. "Disrupted Effective Connectivity Between the Amygdala and Orbitofrontal Cortex in Social Anxiety Disorder During Emotion Discrimination Revealed by Dynamic Causal Modeling for fMRI." Cerebral Cortex, 2013.

6. Dias-Ferreira, Eduardo et al. "Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making." Science, Aug. 2005.

7. Xin, Jim, et al. "Chronic stress affects decision-making strategies: structural and physiological correlates." Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Jan. 2009.

8. Mizuno, Kei, et al. "Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity." Behavioral And Brain Functions, 23 May 2011.