Ever replayed a conversation, decision or scenario in your head again and again like a broken record? "Maybe I should have said this?" you ask. Or, "What if I had done that?" And, when you try to shut off your brain, your thoughts just get louder and more intrusive?
Ugh. Overthinking doesn't really ever solve anything, so why do we do it?
“Sometimes we think there’s a right or wrong answer to a problem and that more thinking will help us make a better decision,” says Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do. “At other times, we are looking for ways to deal with or prevent discomfort. Someone who is in a new relationship, for example, might read into everything the other person says to protect themselves from being hurt.”
Most people overthink to feel safe, agrees Christine Hassler, master life coach and author of Expectation Hangover: Free Yourself from Your Past, Change Your Present and Get What You Really Want. “As humans, we don’t do well with uncertainty," she says. "We overthink decisions that may have a result that we can’t predict, we overthink what people think of us because we can’t read people’s minds and we overthink past decisions that we’ve made because we’re not sure if they’re the right ones.”
But spending time obsessively worrying is mentally exhausting and not the answer to a healthy, happy life. In fact, one study 2003 study published in Personality and Individual Differences linked dwelling on stress to negative mood and poor sleep quality, while another 2013 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology associated rumination with depression and anxiety.
So what are you supposed to do? If you’re prone to spending countless hours repeating scenes in your head, here are a few strategies to help you overcome your overthinking.
1. Pinpoint “Worry Words"
The tricky thing about worrying is that it often happens outside your awareness. That’s right, you can be overthinking and not even realize it! “Most worry is subliminal,” writes David Carbonell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It.
"It occurs when we're multi-tasking. We worry while driving, attending a lecture, showering, or doing some routine work that doesn't demand much attention. We rarely give worry our full attention. So, it's easy for it to continue endlessly.”
But how can you stop something when you don’t even know it’s happening? The first step to curbing overthinking is learning how to spot it. “The overwhelming majority of unhelpful worries all start with the words ‘what if?’ Becoming aware of these words in one's thoughts can be a help in catching yourself in the act of unhelpful worry,” says Carbonell. Once you pinpoint it, you can make an active, conscious choice not to take the bait and get reeled into ruminating.
2. Accept Your Worry
The second step in this strategy is to not attempt to stop, avoid or resist overthinking. Sound counterintuitive? Carbonell explains: “Trying to stop worry has elements of banning books — it just strengthens one's interest in the forbidden material.”
Think of it like this: When you try to fight your thoughts by demanding, “Stop thinking that!” a tug of war ensues — a battle between you and you. This hardly ever works. You’ll likely end up feeling frustrated and more worried about why you can’t control your restless brain.
“The most useful responses to chronic ‘what if?’ worry involve playing with the worry as a form of acceptance, rather than any form of opposing,” says Carbonell. So, instead of trying to ban overthinking, change the way you relate to it. Understand that, as a human, your mind is naturally unruly, and, at times, it’s going to run wild with anxious thoughts.
3. Observe But Don’t Engage
This might sound like the opposite of accepting worry, but it’s not. Unlike thought stopping — where you veto negative thoughts — choosing not to engage your anxiety doesn’t involve prohibiting anything. Rather, you notice your thoughts and let them drift across your mind like clouds. You don’t engage, but you don’t resist either.
If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, that’s because it is! “A meditation practice is incredibly important when dealing with overthinking because it teaches us how to have dominion over the monkey mind,” says Hassler. “Being in the present moment makes it impossible to ruminate on the past or worry about the future,” says Morin.
Often, what prevents people from trying meditation is intimidation or misunderstanding, says Hassler. “A lot of people think that you have to sit in total silence, hear the voice of god, and levitate off your pillow.”
But meditation has nothing to do with transcendent perfection. It simply involves sitting still, noticing your mind and being a better observer of your thoughts. In doing so, you’re likely to gain a little healthy distance and perspective.
4. Replace the Anxious Thought
Often, overthinking involves creating worst-case scenarios where you envision your own personal doomsday, generating endless creative possibilities about how things will go wrong.
“Worry is the imagination used poorly,” says Hassler. “Any time we’re worrying about something, we are literally visualizing a bad situation in our head.” The visualizing part is what makes the dread feel so real.
In fact, research has shown why visualization is so powerful. Neuroimaging studies have discovered that the same brain regions activate when people remember the past or imagine the future, according to a 2012 study published in Neuron_._ This means that your brain can’t tell the difference between an actual memory and one you envisioned. So, if you imagine something, over and over, your brain can record it as a real experience.
So flip the script. “If you’re thinking of all the bad things that could happen, remind yourself of all the good things that can happen too,” Morin says. In other words, replace the worst-case scenario with the best and focus your energy on all the great stuff that may be coming down the road.
5. Redirect Your Attention
If your brain is on overdrive, redirecting your energy to a focused, body-based activity might help you get out of your head, says Hassler. To be clear — this strategy isn’t about avoiding your problems by busying yourself.
“Deliberate distraction is when you know you’re overthinking and you can’t get clear, so you’re intentional with how you’re going to move your energy elsewhere,” says Hassler, who recommends doing something creative. Plus, engaging in creative activities like expressive writing, visual arts, music or dance can reduce anxiety and stress, according a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
6. Challenge Your Logic
Sometimes, you’re so obsessed with a negative thought, you don’t even take a moment to consider whether it’s even based in reality. That’s because a lot of overthinking involves panicked over-questioning, says Hassler.
Once you go down the “what if” rabbit hole, it’s easy to get lost envisioning all the terrible things that could happen. The problem with “what if” worry, according to Carbonell, is that there is no actual problem! It’s all hypothetical stuff that doesn’t exist in the present.
Rather than be consumed by endless theoretical worry, Morin suggests challenging your irrational thoughts to test their logic. When “what if” worry nags you, Carbonell recommends asking yourself the following questions: 1. Does the problem exist in the world around me now? 2. If it does, is there something I can do to change that now?
If you answer “yes” to both, you can work on taking concrete action to resolve your issue. If not, you aren’t worrying because you have a real problem — your real problem is worrying too much!
7. Schedule Time to Obsess
Setting aside time exclusively for overthinking may sound counterproductive (and even a little crazy), but it might be exactly what you need, according to Carbonell, who suggests scheduling two “worry appointments” a day.
Here’s how it works: “For 10 minutes, you engage in pure worry. This means you don't try to solve problems, reassure yourself, minimize the problem, relax or take any other positive steps with respect to the worry or the problems. You simply worry, which means reciting, repeatedly, lots of ‘what if?’ questions about unpleasant possibilities.”
The idea is to consciously contain your worry rather than let it run rampant throughout your unconscious mind during the day. By giving obsessing your full attention, you might find it creeps less and less into the background of your thoughts.
Similarly, Hassler recommends planning time to do “release writing” each day. “Take a piece of paper and just mind dump. Get everything that you’re worried about or overthinking onto the page and then rip that piece of paper up.” Once you empty out your worry coffers, you can let go of your ruminating, at least for the day.
8. Reframe the Problem
A little change in perception goes a long way. “Looking at a problem from another angle can give you the perspective you need to stop overthinking,” says Morin. Rather than asking, "Why is this happening to me?" consider the alternative, "How is this happening for me?" says Hassler. “The best emotion or feeling when we’re faced with a problem is one of curiosity.”
Seeing your worry through a new lens — one of interest and inquisitiveness — can illuminate opportunities for learning and personal growth. Being curious will open a world of possibilities that may otherwise remain hidden beneath your anxiety. And, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover new things about yourself, such as an inner strength you never knew you had.
9. Learn to Laugh at Yourself
If none of the other strategies are working for you, you might need to try a less conventional approach to coping with overthinking: laughter. “Helping people find the funny parts about anxiety and regaining their ability to laugh can be a big help,” says Carbonell, who encourages his patients to put their worries into funny haikus, limericks or songs.
In fact, if your over-worrying results in a panic attack, singing can be a particularly useful tactic, since it can help steady your breathing. Putting a silly spin on your overthinking helps you see the absurdity in it. Plus, how can you dwell on the negative when you’re busy having a good chuckle, right? After all, they say laughter is the best medicine.