11 Simple Tricks to Stop Yourself from Overthinking Everything
Thinking too much can trap the brain in a worry cycle. When you find yourself going round-and-round over an issue, try using some of these tips.
Learn to be aware
How to stop overthinking? The first step is to recognize when you’re doing it. “Recognizing that you might be anxious about the outcome of the decision may help you look at the root of your decision,” explains Kathryn Smerling, PhD, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City. The simple act of taking a step back, breathing and surveying the whole situation can help to stop overthinking in its tracks. Also, don’t beat yourself up for overthinking in the first place, since that can make things worse. “In my clinical experience, people who tend to overthink/ruminate can be pretty hard on themselves,” says Joan Cook, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Yale School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. “My hope for people who overthink is to be kinder and more patient with themselves.” Try these mindfulness tips that can help you live in the moment.
Get a second opinion
You’re used to going at it alone, but the old adage “two heads are better than one” may be a good mantra for you. Ask someone else about the point you’re overthinking and see what he or she has to say. “Having friends and people to turn to in times of need or crisis to give you a broader focus is important for good mental health,” says Cook. Something else that can help you get to the root of your overthinking? Seeing a therapist. “Being a psychologist who practices therapy, I’m a big fan, but it’s not just my clinical experience that makes me a believer,” says Cook. “Decades of rigorous empirical study prove that it works: [It helps] people solve problems or gain a more clear perspective on thoughts, feelings and behavior they are struggling with.”
People often start to overthink because they’re scared and they worry about all of the possible things that could go wrong. Instead, start to picture all of the things that could go right, and keep those thoughts in the front of your mind. This type of thinking is also called reframing, and it can help build resiliency, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. So the question might not be how to stop overthinking, but actually how to change the tune of your thoughts. Start with these 10 things naturally optimistic people do every single day.
Look for distractions
Sometimes, the more you try to avoid thinking about something, the more it’ll keep popping up in your brain. But consciously switching gears and channeling your energy into another activity can halt overthinking. “It helps to move away from the situation and meditate for a bit,” says Smerling. “I often avoid making decisions until after I’ve done yoga, which helps clear my mind and give clarity to a situation.” She also suggests activities like drawing or going for a walk, though any activity can really do the trick, from running to knitting to trying your hand at an instrument. Even just getting up and changing your location can help.
Make visual clues
Keep a handwritten stop sign on your desk or bathroom mirror, or write down a mantra that helps keep you on track. Smerling also recommends writing out a pro and con list: What are the benefits? What are the negatives? By outlining the best and worst of a situation, you’re essentially beating your brain at its own game because you’ve already figured out all of the possibilities and they’re staring right back at you. Writing things down or making lists is one of the instant mood boosters you won’t want to live without.
Stop being a perfectionist
Not everything has to be perfect. No, really. Doing your best is one thing, but perseverating over every little detail can push you into a state of paralysis, anxiety and procrastination. This isn’t good for your overall mental health either, and in fact, the World Health Organization links severe anxiety disorders to this desire for perfectionism. Unfortunately, according to a 27-year study published by the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is on the rise, so it may take a concerted effort on your part to break from this trend. It’s more important to find satisfaction in making progress than in making sure everything’s perfect. These are the clear signs that you really are a perfectionist.
Envision a happy ending
Focusing on or meditating about a positive outcome can help to block confusing or negative thoughts. Picturing that end goal can keep you motivated, as well as distract you from the immediate worry. In fact, one study published in Behavior and Research Therapy in 2016 found that people with generalized anxiety disorder who replaced their worried thoughts with images of possible positive outcomes, as well as those who imagined unrelated positive things, experienced a decrease in anxiety and worry. While their thoughts were still negative when they did pop up, they occurred less frequently in the short- and long-term. Envisioning a happy ending is just one of the daily habits of people who never get stressed.
Set a timer
When you give yourself too much time to make a decision, it can lead to overthinking. You’ll view the situation from too many angles and outcomes and end up stressing yourself out. Cook likes the idea of scheduling a worry break, in which you give yourself a set time to identify the fear and think about worst-case scenarios. Adjust that time depending on how big of a decision it is.
Let go of control
Sometimes you think that the only way something is going to get done correctly is if you do it. That puts ways too much responsibility on your shoulders. Instead, understand that it’s OK to make mistakes and that potentially making a mistake can lead to learning and growth—both of which are very good things. To do this, you’ll need to be kind to and patient with yourself. When you’re overthinking—say, about a test or job interview—Cook suggests telling yourself something like: “I know I tend to overthink things. I have plenty of evidence that I’m well-prepared for and can manage this test/job interview. I’ll put my arms around these thoughts like I would do to comfort a friend, let flow in and out, and not grasp onto them.”
Surround yourself with positive people
Friends and family can also help you stop overthinking. One big caveat: Steer clear of “worry buddies,” friends who tend to overthink things just as you do. One Harvard study that spanned nearly 80 years found found that good relationships keep people happy and healthy. Reaching out to a positive thinker will help you think positively, too. For inspiration, check out these positivity quotes that will help you to see the glass half full.
Live in the moment
Stop, slow down, and be grateful for the memories you are making right now. Explore the different parts of your life that bring you joy. This can help build your self-esteem and lead to less rumination, according research on mindfulness. Mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy (MBCT), which is very popular right now, may help in this regard. “It can teach you how to understand the relationship between the way you think and how you feel, and it also incorporates mindfulness practices such as meditation and breathing exercises,” explains Cook. One small study, published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that both MBCT and compassion focused therapy (CFT) significantly increased mindfulness and decreased rumination, anxiety and stress. Mindfulness is one of brilliant healthy tricks you’ll want to make into habit.
- Kathryn Smerling, PhD, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City
- Joan Cook, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Yale School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "The Power of Positive Thinking"
- World Health Organization: Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates
- American Psychological Association: "Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016"
- The Harvard Gazette: "Good genes are nice, but joy is better"
- Harvard Second Generation Study: Study of Adult Development
- The Journal of Positive Psychology: "The positive effects of mindfulness on self-esteem"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Effects of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) on Symptom Change, Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Rumination in Clients With Depression, Anxiety, and Stress"