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Image: A breakwater, the seas on one side rough, and the other calm, representing our different states of mind when overthinking.

How to Stop Overthinking: 6 Tips to Regain Control

This article by Dr. Caroline Leaf and Irina Yugay originally appeared on Mindvalley.

Be it overthinking a relationship or your next move in life, many of us have been stuck in a mental maze. And the amazing part is that the more we ruminate, the more we lose sight of the simplicity of thought, which is often dead ahead.

The truth is that once you understand your mind, you’ll know how to stop overthinking and manage your thoughts effectively. 

To untangle the web of your thoughts, here’s what you need to know:

  • What Is Overthinking?
  • Why Do People Always Think Too Much?
  • What Are the Consequences of Overthinking?
  • Is Overthinking Always Bad?
  • How to Identify if I Am Overthinking?
  • 6 Ways to Stop Overthinking

Breaking free from the chains of overthinking is a doable task. Most importantly, it can give you control over your mental well-being.

Image: A breakwater, the seas on one side rough, and the other calm, representing our different states of mind when overthinking.
Source: Unsplash

What Is Overthinking?

Overthinking is the act of excessively analyzing, contemplating, and ruminating on thoughts or decisions, either with something that’s happened or hasn’t yet happened. Often to the point of paralysis, these are common thought patterns and behaviors that plague the overthinker.

Imagine spending hours dissecting the meaning behind a single text message or playing out every possible scenario of a future event. Chances are, it’ll only leave you feeling drained and overwhelmed. 

According to Dr. Caroline Leaf, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression Quest, overthinking can trap you in a perpetual cycle of distress and self-doubt. It can impair your ability to make decisions and move forward in life. And at worst, it can lead to anxiety and depression. 

So, next time you find yourself spiraling into a mental black hole, remember that overthinking is not just a harmless quirk. It’s a habit that may warrant a closer look and thoughtful intervention.

Is overthinking a mental illness?

Is there such a thing as an overthinking disorder, or is it simply a pesky habit we all occasionally fall into? The answer is, it’s a bit of both. 

Dr. Leaf explains that overthinking can create a harmful mental atmosphere, feeding your worries, stress, and self-doubt. This is why overthinking and anxiety go hand in hand, leading to more serious mental health challenges if left unchecked. 

So, recognizing and addressing overthinking can be an essential step in maintaining your mental health. If you suspect you are an overthinker, seeking professional help can provide invaluable guidance and support in managing your thought patterns and developing healthier coping mechanisms.  

Why Do People Always Think Too Much?

Overthinking can be attributed to various psychological, emotional, and situational factors. And it makes us feel like we’re trapped in an endless loop of thoughts, unable to escape the mental merry-go-round.

According to Dr. Leaf, our brains are wired to analyze and solve problems, but sometimes this natural tendency spirals out of control. She adds that “an unmanaged thought will keep erupting like a volcano, creating damage to your life.”

We need mind management, not another diagnosis.— Dr. Caroline Leaf, trainer of Mindvalley’s Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression Quest 

Here are some of the common factors fueling the overthinking engine:

  1. Psychological factors. Anxiety or perfectionism often makes your mind race, searching for solutions to every potential problem, blowing them out of proportion. It’s like a detective movie where the protagonist is always one step behind, forever chasing clues that lead nowhere.
  2. Fear of failure or rejection. Emotionally, you may overthink because of a fear of failure or rejection. So your brain tends to ruminate on past experiences as if trying to rewrite the script with a happier ending.
  3. Situational factors. High-pressure environments, such as work or school, can push you to analyze every decision and its potential consequences. 

In short, overthinking can arise from a series of unfortunate factors. And if you don’t take the reins, it could lead you to a web of undesired thoughts.

What Are the Consequences of Overthinking?

The consequences of overthinking can wreak havoc on your mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. Let’s look at the main consequences, backed by science:

Being an overthinker can often feel like being stuck in mental quicksand—struggling only leads to sinking deeper. As Dr. Leaf puts it, you can gain control of your mental and overall health by managing your mind properly.

Is Overthinking Always Bad?

While overthinking often gets a bad rap, it’s not always detrimental. In fact, there are instances when it can be helpful or adaptive. 

In her Mindvalley Quest, Dr. Leaf explains that rumination can sometimes enable you to analyze complex situations, identify potential pitfalls, and make better-informed decisions. For example, decisions like choosing a career path or deciding whether to move to a new city require overthinking. 

It can act as a mental compass, guiding you through the labyrinth of pros and cons. It can also illuminate potential outcomes, and ultimately steer you toward choices that harmonize with your aspirations and core values.

Moreover, overthinking can lead to creative problem-solving. According to scientists, when you face an open-ended challenge, thinking excessively allows you to generate innovative solutions and exhibit creativity.

However, it’s essential to strike a balance between productive reflection and unproductive rumination. Overthinking becomes harmful when it leads to excessive worry, stress, or paralysis by analysis, preventing us from taking action.

How to Identify if I Am Overthinking?

How much thinking is too much? To answer this question, pay close attention to the following signs:

  • Endless rumination. If your thoughts feel like a broken record, playing the same worries, doubts, or scenarios on a loop, it’s likely you’re ruminating.
  • Decision paralysis. Struggling to make even the simplest decisions? Overthinking can make choosing between a latte and a cappuccino feel like the weight of the world rests on your shoulders.
  • Excessive what-if scenarios. If you find yourself constantly imagining worst-case scenarios or obsessing over every possible outcome, overthinking might be at play.

To further explore your thought patterns, consider using self-assessment tools like journaling or mindfulness exercises. These can help you gain clarity on your thoughts and identify if you’re indeed an overthinker.

man journaling to stop overthinking

6 Ways to Stop Overthinking

As you stand at the entrance of the mental labyrinth, how can you escape entering it? Here are six practices that will help you regain control:

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is like a mental superhero, swooping in to save you from the clutches of overthinking. By learning to focus on the present moment, you can train your brain to break free from the endless loop of thoughts. 

There are a number of practices you can try: 

  • Mindfulness meditation,
  • Deep breathing exercises, or 
  • Engaging in activities that require your full attention, like painting or playing an instrument.

Learn more: Everything You Want to Know About Mindfulness Meditation

2. Schedule worry time

Setting aside dedicated worry time can help you gain control over your overthinking. Allocate a specific time each day to address your concerns. 

Once that time is up, push your worries aside until the next scheduled session. 

This practice helps you create a mental boundary between productive thinking and uncontrolled rumination.

3. Embrace imperfection

Perfectionism and overthinking often go hand-in-hand, like a notorious duo of cognitive outlaws. Recognize that no one is perfect, and life is full of imperfections. 

As Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani, co-founder of Mindvalley and author of Becoming Flawesome: The Key to Living an Imperfectly Authentic Life, puts it, “The world doesn’t need your perfection; it needs your imperfection.” 

So embrace the beauty in these flaws and allow yourself to make mistakes without dwelling on them. Remember, even the most stunning tapestry has a few loose threads.

Learn more: How to Overcome Perfectionism: 5 Pro Tips by Mindvalley Trainers

4. Practice gratitude

Gratitude is like a warm, fuzzy blanket that shields you from the cold winds of overthinking because you can be either grateful or negative. 

By focusing on the positive aspects of your life, you can redirect your thoughts toward appreciation and contentment. 

Keep a gratitude journal or simply take a moment each day to reflect on the things you’re grateful for.

Learn more: Revolutionize Your Mindset: How to Create a Gratitude Journal Practice

5. Meditate

Meditation is a powerful ally in your quest to overcome overthinking and intrusive thoughts. Mantra meditation can be a particularly effective technique for those struggling with overthinking and intrusive thoughts. 

The repetition of a mantra can act as an anchor. It keeps your attention centered and prevents your thoughts from wandering into the realm of overthinking. 

As you consistently repeat the mantra, your mind becomes more attuned to the present moment. And the background noise of unproductive thoughts? They begin to fade.

Learn more: Mantra Meditation: The Beginner’s List of Mantras for Meditation

6. Deconstruct your thoughts

Overthinking is often filled with intrusive thoughts. But these aren’t only bad things; they’re also good things. 

Dr. Leaf explains that when you become aware of your intrusive thoughts, you can manage them. By simply recognizing your overthinking pattern, you can deconstruct and reconstruct it.

To deconstruct your thought, diagram it by writing down the following:

  • Give your intrusive thought a name, and describe it.
  • How is this playing out in your life now?
  • How did it affect you in the past?
  • How could it affect your future?
  • Where is this coming from?

These questions allow you to take control of your thinking and enhance the quality of your thoughts.

~ Mindvalley

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