Overthinking doesn’t sound so bad on the surface–thinking is good, right?
But overthinking can cause problems.
When you overthink, your judgments get cloudy and your stress gets elevated. You spend too much time in the negative. It can become difficult to act.
If this feels like familiar territory to you, here are 10 simple ideas to free yourself from overthinking.
1. Awareness is the beginning of change.
Before you can begin to address or cope with your habit of overthinking, you need to learn to be aware of it when it’s happening. Any time you find yourself doubting or feeling stressed or anxious, step back and look at the situation and how you’re responding. In that moment of awareness is the seed of the change you want to make.
2. Don’t think of what can go wrong, but what can go right.
In many cases, overthinking is caused by a single emotion: fear. When you focus on all the negative things that might happen, it’s easy to become paralyzed. Next time you sense that you starting to spiral in that direction, stop. Visualize all the things that can go right and keep those thoughts present and up front.
3. Distract yourself into happiness.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a way to distract yourself with happy, positive, healthy alternatives. Things like mediation, dancing, exercise, learning an instrument, knitting, drawing, and painting can distance you from the issues enough to shut down the overanalysis.
4. Put things into perspective.
It’s always easy to make things bigger and more negative than they need to be. The next time you catch yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself how much it will matter in five years. Or, for that matter, next month. Just this simple question, changing up the time frame, can help shut down overthinking.
5. Stop waiting for perfection.
This is a big one. For all of us who are waiting for perfection, we can stop waiting right now. Being ambitious is great but aiming for perfection is unrealistic, impractical, and debilitating. The moment you start thinking “This needs to be perfect” is the moment you need to remind yourself, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.”
6. Change your view of fear.
Whether you’re afraid because you’ve failed in the past, or you’re fearful of trying or overgeneralizing some other failure, remember that just because things did not work out before does not mean that has to be the outcome every time. Remember, every opportunity is a new beginning, a place to start again.
7. Put a timer to work.
Give yourself a boundary. Set a timer for five minutes and give yourself that time to think, worry, and analyze. Once the timer goes off, spend 10 minutes with a pen and paper, writing down all the things that are worrying you, stressing you, or giving you anxiety. Let it rip. When the 10 minutes is up, throw the paper out and move on–preferably to something fun.
8. Realize you can’t predict the future.
No one can predict the future; all we have is now. If you spend the present moment worrying about the future, you are robbing yourself of your time now. Spending time on the future is simply not productive. Spend that time instead on things that give you joy.
9. Accept your best.
The fear that grounds overthinking is often based in feeling that you aren’t good enough–not smart enough or hardworking enough or dedicated enough. Once you’ve given an effort your best, accept it as such and know that, while success may depend in part on some things you can’t control, you’ve done what you could do.
10. Be grateful.
You can’t have a regretful thought and a grateful thought at the same time, so why not spend the time positively? Every morning and every evening, make a list of what you are grateful for. Get a gratitude buddy and exchange lists so you have a witness to the good things that are around you.
Overthinking is something that can happen to anyone. But if you have a great system for dealing with it you can at least ward off some of the negative, anxious, stressful thinking and turn it into something useful, productive, and effective.
11. Remember that over-thinking does not lead to insight.
You want an understanding of which decision will be best. For this, you need a level of insight into what each decision will lead to. Thinking this through, however, is futile.
Why? Because you never, ever know what something will be like until you experience it.
School, college, moving home, getting married, ending a relationship, changing career paths. However much you imagine what these change will be like, you will be surprised by what you discover when you actually engage in these activities.
Knowing this, you can move forward with a true understanding of what would be best. Acting, therefore, leads to clarity. Thought doesn’t.
12. Know that your decision will never be final.
Over-thinking often comes from the notion that you will make a grand finale decision that will never change and must be correct.
It won’t happen. And that’s a good thing. If you could predict with complete accuracy the entirety of your future, would you want to experience it?
To me, that removes all the spice of life. You must be aware that however much critical thinking you apply to a decision, you may be wrong.
Being comfortable with being wrong, and knowing that your opinions and knowledge of a situation will change with time, brings a sense of true inner freedom and peace.
13. Learn the reasons why over-thinking is harmful, and let it motivate you.
Studies have shown rumination to be strongly linked to depression, anxiety, binge eating, binge drinking, and self-harm.
In one study, 32,827 people from 172 countries showed that life events were the largest predictors of stress, followed by family history, income and education, relationship status, and social inclusion.
However, the study also showed that stress only occurred if the individual engaged in negative over-thinking about the events, and it showed that people who did not do this did not become as stressed or depressed, “even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives.”
So, worry about your problems if you wish. But don’t say no one warned you!
14. Keep active throughout the day, and tire the body out.
Do you want to know one of the main reasons you over-think?
It’s because you have the time to.
Not one day can be fruitful if more time than necessary is allowed for aimless thinking. A mind rests well at night knowing its day has been directed toward worthy goals.
So consider daily exercise—any physical activity that raises heart rate and improves health.
Walking is exercise. Sports, Pilates, and playing with the dog are too. It doesn’t have to be training for the next Olympics. Just get moving, and get tired.
15. Become the ultimate skeptic.
If you think about what causes thinking to be so stressful and tiring, it’s often our personal convictions that our thoughts are actually true.
Let’s look at an example.
If someone you know does something you consider hurtful, but you don’t discuss the issue with the person, negativity can arise with certain thoughts about why the person acted that way.
But once you can pinpoint which thoughts are causing the upset, one golden question will release all negativity:
“Can I be 100 percent sure this is true?”
By seeing the inherent lack of truth in your beliefs, you will naturally find yourself much more relaxed in all situations, and you won’t over-think things that are based on predictions and assumptions.
16. Seek social support, but don’t vent.
Better than confining your decisions to your own biases, perspectives, and mental filters, commit to seeking support from loved ones.
Research has long shown the powerful impact of social support in the reduction of stress.
But even better than that is getting a fresh, new angle on the topic.
For me, this has always—on every occasion—led me to learn something I had never considered before. This is how you grow, emotionally and spiritually.
17. Develop the skill of forgiveness.
It’s no surprise that having the misfortune of being treated undesirably leads people to suppress and repress anger toward other people.
Forgiveness is of the highest of human virtues. Not because it is morally correct, spiritually mature, or deemed a commendable personality trait.
It’s special because it, single-handedly, can induce the ultimate peace in people.
Forgiveness has also been shown on many occasions to help develop positive self-esteem, improve mood, and dramatically improve health. It’s a predictor of relationship well-being and marital length, and it has even been shown to increase longevity.
18. Plan for conscious distraction.
When do you ruminate the most? Have you ever thought about it? For me, I ruminated at night.
When you know the time of day rumination will begin, you can plan to remove that spare time with an activity that engages your full faculties.
It could be Sudoku, a board game with family, a meal out, yoga, or writing letters of gratitude to long-unseen friends.
A note of warning: there is some research to suggest that doing this with negatively reinforcing behaviors, such as toxic eating patterns, can lead to harmful long-term results.
Therefore, be picky about what you distract yourself with, and make sure it fosters positive emotion and psychological wellbeing.
19. Solve another person’s problem first, and get perspective.
“Serve first, seek second” should be the motto for anyone currently distressed by their perceived problems.
Your issue at hand can become so consuming that others may look at you like you’re living in your own mental world. And it takes something to break you out of it.
Helping others puts your issues in order by reminding you that we all go through tough times, some much more than you ever will.
That’s not to discount the struggles you’re going through, but helping others will restore balance and harmony in your life.