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How to Stop Overthinking: 8 Tips From a Therapist

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD
August 29, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Maybe you’re overthinking this.

Does that sound familiar? All of us can overthink at times, and some of us (myself included) are more prone to it than others.

Overthinking can take many forms: endlessly deliberating when making a decision (and then questioning the decision), attempting to read minds, trying to predict the future, reading into the smallest of details—the list goes on. But all types of overthinking have one thing in common—there’s very little benefit from the time and effort spent thinking. In fact, there are major downsides to spending too much time with our thoughts, as you may know from personal experience.

Some common costs of overthinking:

  • Missing out on opportunities - It’s smart to do your research, but if you think for too long about a decision, you’re likely to see opportunities pass you by. For example, a friend of mine delayed buying a house for years as he did endless research, analyzing neighborhoods and market trends and looking for the perfect investment. He finally bought—at the peak of the housing bubble. If he’d bought sooner, he would have paid much less and would have a lot of equity in his home. Are there opportunities waiting for you that you don’t want to miss by overthinking your decision? Perhaps it’s a good time to make your move. 
  • Feeling like you’re spinning your wheels - You probably recognize that you’ve been down the same mental road many times, and yet you continue, like you’re stuck in a loop. It’s frustrating and draining. Overthinking can be a hard habit to break because it feels like doing something. But on some level you know it’s just wasting your time and effort.
  • Friction with those around you - Just as overthinking can exhaust you, it can exhaust those around you. Your confidantes might get tired of hearing you cover the same ground again and again, and your loved ones might get annoyed when you won’t make a decision. Your relationships can suffer as a result. 
  • Anxiety - Overthinking is the mental equivalent of pacing the floor, driven by the belief that you should be able to solve a problem by exerting enough mental energy. Not being able to makes you feel anxious and agitated, and fills you with self-doubt.

Antidotes to Overthinking

Thankfully there are plenty of ways to address overthinking. Many of these recommendations focus on action, which pulls you out of your head.

  • Look for opportunities to make mistakes - If you’re prone to overthinking because you don’t want to make the wrong decision, open to the possibility that you very well might. You’re human, and you operate with imperfect knowledge and (I’m fairly certain) a lack of clairvoyance. Maybe that thing you buy from Amazon will break. Perhaps the email you send will accidentally offend the recipient. Reframe mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than as something terrible to be avoided at all costs.
  • Connect with your body - A great way to get out of your head is to get into your body. When you find yourself stuck in thinking mode, get moving—do some exercise, stand up, do a few knee bends—anything to break up the chain of thought. Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you move. You can also follow a guided meditation that directs your attention to your body, like this one.
  • Identify when you’re overthinking - Sometimes it can be useful just to say it: That’s overthinking. Train your mind to release unnecessary thinking by calling it what it is. Then direct your attention to something tangible, such as the food you’re eating, the work you’re doing, or the person you’re talking to. 
  • Practice the 80/20 rule - The first twenty percent of our time and effort often produce eighty percent of the benefit from a given outcome; the remaining eighty percent of our effort only yields an additional twenty percent of the benefit (a concept I learned from Dr. Alice Boyes’s book, The Healthy Mind Tool Kit). For example, the first hour of research on a new coffeemaker provides the majority of what you need to know to make a sensible purchase; the next four hours are likely to add little value to your decision. Improve your efficiency by moving on after you’ve given a topic or a dilemma a reasonable amount of thought, before wading into continued thinking that brings little return.
  • Own your decisions - Overthinking decisions often comes from fear that you’ll do something “wrong,” like buying something you regret or booking a bad weekend to travel. Keep in mind that all you can do is make the best possible decision with the information you have. Stand up tall and keep your head up, no matter what the result is. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, you might have made an excellent decision at the time. Own it.

Watch out for the hindsight bias—also known as “Monday morning quarterbacking”—in which you judge your past decision based on information you didn’t have at the time. For example, don’t assume you “should have known” a month before that it would rain the whole weekend you were at the beach; meteorologists are less than perfect at predicting the weather even more than a day or two in advance.

  • Be accountable - Allow those close to you to help with your tendency to overthink. You might ask your partner, for example, to point out when you’re overthinking something. They’ll probably be happy to assist you in getting out of your head! Just remember to thank them for bringing it to your attention, and resist the urge to get mad at them for doing what you asked them to do.
  • Embrace uncertainty - Overthinking comes from a drive to know something that is probably unknowable—things like what the “best” product is or what someone really thinks of you. Research shows that the more we try to gain certainty about the unknowable, the less confident—and the more anxious—we feel. Instead of trying to gain elusive reassurance, learn to welcome uncertainty. It’s what makes life an adventure. That’s not to say that it’s a comfortable place to live, but it probably beats being stuck in a loop of fruitless mental effort.
  • Practice mindful awareness - Contrary to what the word might sound like, “mindfulness” isn’t about spending more time thinking. Instead, it’s about deliberately focusing on what is real, and opening to whatever your reality is. Rather than trying to solve problems by overthinking, you can develop a different relationship with your thoughts—becoming less identified with them and not taking them so seriously. A mindful response to overthinking might include recognizing it as such, opening to the relevant uncertainty, and then directing your attention toward what you can experience with your five senses. It’s coming home to your present.

This “Waves on a Beach” meditation exercise can help you train your mind to disengage from habitual patterns of thought: Set a timer for 3 minutes, and sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Picture yourself seated peacefully on a sandy beach. Feel the breath moving in and out of your body, like the ebb and flow of waves on the shore. Thoughts will come to mind of their own accord. Treat each thought that appears in your mind like a sea bird that pops into view; let the “birds” come and go as they like while you breathe with the waves. (Adapted from The CBT Deck.)

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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