If you want to live life to the fullest, you have to learn how to stop overthinking everything.
Listening to the same old broken records playing over and over in your head, day in, day out— and having no idea how to pull the plug— can really grind you down. It can suck the joy right out of you.
I know. For years, I had a neurotic chatterbox living in my head who never shut up and wouldn’t leave me in peace for a moment— until I learned a few secrets to keep him quiet.
Overthinking can take many shapes and forms— overcomplicating simple decisions, blowing minor issues out of all proportion, beating yourself up for things that happened weeks or months ago, making catastrophic future predictions (also known as worrying) or endlessly rehashing and chewing over your problems and shortcomings.
Everybody overthinks at times. It is a question of degree.
If you are lucky, your mind’s constant activity may be, at worst, irritating—like a swarm of pesky flies that buzz around your head and won’t go away.
For some, however, not knowing how to stop thinking creates serious problems.
Overthinking disorder is a debilitating condition that can seriously impact your quality of life and make it difficult to function normally.
It is often linked to other conditions such as anxiety, depression and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).
1. Casual or Situation Specific
At times, events in your life can hijack your attention.
I am a big football (soccer) fan. Just last night, my team made a dramatic last- minute comeback and qualified, against all odds, for the Champions League Final. Talk about high drama. I bit my fingernails almost up to the elbows!
Do you think I could get that winning goal out of my head the next day? I must have mentally replayed it a thousand times.
But it wasn’t a problem. I could quite easily put it out of my mind (well, for a few seconds anyway!) and get back to writing.
If you have recently experienced a bereavement, lost your job or are facing a difficult health challenge, it is natural that it will be on your mind a lot.
As life moves on and life’s waves become less choppy again, the thoughts that fill your mind will settle down as well.
2. Analyser or Ruminator?
Was Sherlock Holmes an analyser or an overthinker?
He seemed to be thinking all the time. You never see him chilling out or taking a day off!
There are two clues. Firstly, Sherlock used the mind as a tool. He was in charge. And secondly, his thinking was productive. It helped him reach concrete conclusions.
Overthinking is usually unproductive. It serves no practical purpose. You can ruminate on the same old thoughts for days or months on end without ever reaching a conclusion. Overthinking is unfocused. Your thoughts spin round in circles, like a frenetic hamster on a wheel, going nowhere. All you do is tire yourself out.
You could also call it unconscious thinking. You are not using the mind. The mind has taken over and is using you. You are not thinking. You are being thunk!
3. Chronic Overthinker
Regular, run-of-the-mill overthinking may be annoying. It may be tedious at times. But episodes of overthinking come and go. It doesn’t affect your ability to get on with your life.
Overthinking disorder, on the other hand, is a debilitating condition that can produce a host of problems including social anxiety, sleeplessness, chronic exhaustion and diminished performance at work.
Patterns such as ruminating or worrying are all-consuming. You can’t stop overthinking even for a moment. You may not worry about the same thing all the time but you are always worried about something.
Note: Take a deep breath. I’ve got some great tips for you coming up.
1. You Lie Awake At Night
Bedtime can be a difficult time when you don’t know how to stop overthinking. When you are lying in bed, you are pretty much alone with your mind. There are no distractions.
2. You Can’t Stay Away From The Fridge… Or the Bottle
Stress and anxiety caused by overthinking can often lead to binge eating, drinking, smoking or other addictive ways to numb or comfort yourself.
3. You Are A Control Freak
Do you have a compulsion to micro-manage every detail of your life? This is sure to produce an overactive mind… and a ton of frustration. None of us are in control. It is not how life works.
4. You Are Always Worried About Something
Catastrophising, another word for worrying, is the tendency to blow things out of proportion and always fear the worst. You expect that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
5. You Are A Perfectionist
Are you your own harshest critic? Do you set standards that are impossibly high and then beat yourself up for failing to achieve them? Are you afraid of what others think of you?
6. You Are Always Exhausted
Being unable to stop overthinking is really hard work. It takes a lot out of you—physically, mentally and emotionally. And not sleeping well at night doesn’t help.
7. You’re Always Seeking Validation from Others
You don’t trust your own judgement and doubt your conclusions. You seek approval from others and rely on them to validate your ideas.
Let’s move on now to the good stuff. What to do about it.
1. Become Consciously Aware
The first step to stop overthinking (and a precursor to all the others) is to bring more awareness to your thinking patterns… to make them more conscious.
A lot of our overthinking is unconscious and happens on autopilot.
Start noticing your patterns with an attitude of curiosity—how you want to control your world, how everything you do has to be perfect, your tendencies to beat yourself up or dwell on the past.
Acknowledge, matter-of-factly and without judgement (if possible), that these thoughts are unproductive.
Bringing your overthinking habit out of the darkness and into the light of awareness opens up many positive ways you can work with it.
Stepping back and watching your thoughts objectively is a powerful first step.
2. Don’t Believe A Word The Mind Tells You
99% of what comes out of your head is unreliable—a lot of it, downright lies. I would sooner trust a politician (well, some of them!) more than my mind’s take on reality.
Worrying about the future, imagining what other people are thinking and making unfounded assumptions about all manner of things only serves to rob you of your peace… and your life.
So, before you assume that the twinge in your chest is an impending medical emergency or imagine you are going to get fired, lose your house and end up sleeping in the gutter, consider this:
You have no idea what may or may not happen in future.
Be innocent. Whatever the mind tells you, a great question to start asking yourself is:
“Do I know with 100% certainty that this is true?”
You will find that the answer will almost always be no. And you won’t overthink what you know to be untrue.
3. Put The Mind Back In Its Place
“Mind; a beautiful servant, a dangerous master” — Osho
When you are feeling overrun by a gazillion thoughts, it is tempting to see yourself as a helpless victim — to see the mind as some all-powerful slave master — to see thinking as something that is being imposed upon you, against your will.
This is back to front. In truth, you are the boss and the mind is a tool for you to use as YOU choose. There is no force in the Universe that can make you keep thinking about something if you decide not to.
The next time you are lost in season 6 of the mind-movie, “100 Horrible Tortures I’d Like To Inflict On My Ex,” re-mind your mind who is in charge:
“Enough! We are going to drop this horror story right now and focus instead on appreciating that beautiful tree over there.”
And the next time you are imagining some apocalyptic future outcome, tell your mind: “ We are not going to think about that right now—and anyway, who knows what may or may not happen in the future?”
The mind has no power to determine what you think about.
4. Know The difference Between Thoughts Arising And Thinking
There’s an exercise I often use in my mindfulness classes where I ask people to, “close your eyes and watch closely to see what your next thought is going to be.”
People generally agree on two things: 1. they had no idea what thought would appear and 2. the thought seemed to appear by itself, from nowhere.
The point? We have no control over the thoughts that appear in our head. But thinking is another matter. Overthinking is a choice.
Lets say the thought, “She hasn’t phoned all day,” makes an appearance.
Thinking is triggered. “There is something wrong. She must be having second thoughts about the relationship. Maybe she has met someone else.” Before you know it, you are spinning out, overthinking everything, making all kinds of wild, negative assumptions.
Whether you continue with the story or not is your own free choice.
Maybe, at first, you will catch yourself on Chapter 3, then Chapter 1, then paragraph 3, then paragraph 1.
With awareness, willingness and practice you can learn to cut it off almost before it begins. You don’t have to finish another storyline ever again, if you choose not to.
5. Schedule Some ‘Worry Time’ Into Your Day
When you catch yourself looping on some unproductive pattern, inform your mind: “ We are going to stop thinking about this right now. We’ll schedule some time tomorrow/later in the week to think about it.”
Or you could set aside 20 minutes ‘worry time’ each day, during which you give your mind full licence to run riot. You may want to schedule this for a time of day when your mind is particularly active anyway?
During the prescribed time, worry as much as you want, overthink to your heart’s content, let your doomsday imaginings go wild. No holds barred. It may help to write your thoughts down to get them out of your head?
Use a timer and, when the time is up, STOP. Move onto something more productive. Stay alert and, whenever you catch yourself overthinking outside the prescribed time period, remind yourself that you will think about it later.
6. Make Time-Limited Decisions
Being a Gemini, the most indecisive sign in the Zodiac, decision making has always been an area where I can easily descend into overthinking hell.
When you take too long to make a decision, you can easily tie yourself up in knots—examining every angle, considering every outcome, revisiting your decision over and over. You can end up in analysis paralysis.
To avoid this, I came up with some simple rules that work for me. For small decisions, such as whether to do the dishes or go for a walk, I give myself 30 seconds or less.
For bigger decisions, I give myself an hour, maximum. And when the time is up, that’s it—no more revisiting the decision.
I also like to use a method I learned years ago which by-passes the mind altogether.
If you need to decide between options A and B, sit still, take a couple of deep breaths and imagine scenario A in your mind’s eye. See yourself already in this situation and notice how it makes you feel.
Expansive or contracted? Light or heavy?
Now do the same with option B and notice how that feels. Go with what feels uplifting.
Your heart is more reliable than your head for making wise decisions.
When you can’t stop overthinking, it is a bit like being trapped in a room with a loud TV blasting out your most popular shows: “The Fear Show, The Worry Show, The Wanting To Control Everything Show.”
Sometimes, when a pattern is particularly strong or persistent, it is not enough to simply tell the mind to stop. The mind TV will keep broadcasting anyway.
In this case, flipping the channel may be a better option.
When your mind TV is stuck on the “All The Things That Could Possibly Go Wrong” channel, switch channels. Make a mental list of all the things that could go right.
When you are in a tailspin, contemplating how much your life sucks, flip over to the gratitude channel. Count your blessings. Think of all the things that have gone well today/this week/this month.
Overthinking often involves blowing relatively minor issues out of all proportion. If you said something you regret, or feel embarrassed about something you did in the past, it may not be such a big deal. It is certainly not the end of the world.
The end of the world is the end of the world. You know. Stuff like wars, famine, climate change, alien invasions, Brexit.
What is the worst that can happen? Somebody might think you are an inconsiderate jerk. So what? Who hasn’t screwed up at times? I know I have, many times.
And, you are probably the only one who is still thinking about it. People don’t think about you and what you do as much as you may think.
Another way to keep things in perspective is to ask yourself, “Will this matter 5 years from now? Or even a month from now?” Probably not.
Another way to stop overthinking is to consciously distract yourself by doing something you enjoy.
Physical activity is always a great option. As well as diverting your attention away from the mind, it also helps release any pent-up emotion created by overthinking.
Go for a run, dance round the house, do some yoga, walk in nature, climb a mountain, row across the Atlantic.
Lose yourself in a project. Cook up a new recipe. Phone someone you haven’t talked to for a while. Learn a language or a new instrument.
Or learn to meditate. In my humble opinion (as a totally unbiased mindfulness teacher), developing a regular meditation practice is, hands-down, the best way to kick your overthinking habit. More about this later.
Another great way to stop overthinking is to give more attention to the present moment as you go through your day.
Most of our thinking is based in past and future. Consciously narrowing your attention to what is happening right here, right now, stops thinking in its tracks. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time.
As well as helping you stop overthinking, being more mindful also opens you up to the miracle of life around you. It makes the experience of being alive richer, more vibrant and more meaningful.
Stop what you are doing right now. Notice your breath flowing in and out. Give it your full attention for a few moments.
Thoughts will continue to arise. And that’s fine. Gently bring your attention back to the breath.
Notice the cool air against your skin. Pay attention to the sounds around you—the clock ticking, the traffic in the distance.
And notice, when you are present in the moment, what happens to your thinking mind. Do feel a little calmer, a little more at peace?
Get into the habit of noticing when you are lost in unproductive thinking and bring your attention back to the moment. Keep hitting the reset button. You lose awareness of now. You come back. Over and over.
Your lifestyle choices and daily habits influence the quality of your thoughts. Do what you can to minimise stress and make your days calm and peaceful. Stop overthinking.
Start the day on a good footing. Get up a little earlier to avoid rush. Don’t reach for your mobile phone the moment you open your eyes. Do something positive and uplifting instead—meditate, do some yoga, work out.
You will arrive at work calmer and more centred.
Go through your day slowly and mindfully. Don’t stress yourself out by taking on too much. Eat healthy food (there is a strong link between what you eat and the quality of your thoughts). Exercise regularly.
Reduce overwhelming input. Set limits on your screen time. Restrict the time you spend on social media or checking emails.
Take regular breaks throughout the day to engage in calming activities—go for a stroll in the park, read something uplifting, meditate during your lunch break.
The better you feel about yourself and your life, the quieter and more peaceful your mind will be.
When I offer meditation taster sessions to the public, it never ceases to amaze me how people who have never meditated before often experience profound peace the first time they try it. Even people with very busy minds.
Why is this? It is because peace is always there, inside you. This deep peace at the core of your being remains untouched by what goes on in the mind— no matter how crazy or chaotic the mind is.
Most of the time we simply don’t notice the peace that is always there, because all our attention is on our thoughts.
Meditation is a wonderful tool for changing your relationship with the mind. When you watch your thoughts objectively—without judgement, without resistance, without ownership, without preference even— they lose their power to affect your peace.
You see that you are the one in charge and that you are much bigger than the mind. It is not the thoughts themselves that cause all the trouble. It is your identification with them.
Learn to meditate. Even 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening will make a big difference to your life.
You may also like to check out my book “Kick The Thinking Habit” which goes into the topic in detail.
An overactive mind can really make life miserable… if you don’t have the right tools and knowledge to deal with it.
I hope this comprehensive guide will give you lots to think about.
Only kidding! I hope it will do the opposite—help you to think less and enjoy life more.
Learning how to stop overthinking is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Although the mind may appear to be an all-powerful entity that can suck the joy right out of your head and make your life hell, in truth, it only has as much power as you give it.
You hold all the cards. Overthinking is a habit that can be broken.
Use the 12 steps above to take back control and to create a new relationship with the mind… a relationship where you are in charge.
Always remember: the mind is the servant and you are master.
I will finish off with a quote from my book, “Kick the Thinking Habit.”
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