As a psychologist, I often get asked for advice about how to stop overthinking things. Which makes perfect sense: Overthinking can cause tremendous distress and suffering in our lives.
But here’s the thing:
Fundamentally, overthinking is a habit. And like all habits, it can be undone.
In this guide, I’ll explain what overthinking actually is, what causes it, and then walk through 10 practical exercises you can use to stop overthinking so much.
What Is Overthinking?
Before we dive into strategies to stop overthinking, it’s useful to understand what overthinking actually is, where it comes from, and how best to think about it.
Because when you understand the psychology behind overthinking, it will be much easier to respond to it in a healthy way—and eventually, free yourself from it.
Overthinking: A Quick Definition
Here’s a simple definition for overthinking:
Overthinking is the habit of applying analytical thinking and problem-solving in a situation where it is unhelpful or unproductive.
Our ability to think critically and carefully about things—including ourselves—is one of our greatest tools. But like any tool, it can be used well or it can be used poorly.
Here’s an analogy I like: Overthinking is like using a chainsaw to cut out pictures for a scrapbook. Even though it’s an incredibly powerful tool, there are many times when it’s not useful and even makes things worse.
Unfortunately, because most of us have been trained and rewarded for using analytical thinking and problem solving for so long, it can be hard to put this tool down and take a different approach when necessary.
But that’s the key to ending the habit of overthinking: acknowledging that more thinking is not always the best tool for the job, becoming more aware of what situations only get worse when you overthink them, and learning alternative strategies that are more helpful.
A Few Examples of Overthinking
To illustrate what overthinking actually looks like in everyday life, let’s walk through a few examples of common types of overthinking:
- Worry. Worry is a form of overthinking where we imagine possible problems or dangers in the future. Of course, anticipating problems or threats in the future is often a good thing to do! But helpful planning is different from unhelpful worry in that worry doesn’t actually lead to new information or insights that can be helpful. For example, your spouse is on a plane flight and you start worrying about different ways the plane could crash and kill your spouse. This kind of thinking doesn’t actually keep your spouse safe, plus it adds a lot of stress and anxiety to you. Worry is one of the most common types of overthinking.
- Depressive Rumination. Rumination is a type of overthinking in which we replay events from the past in an unhelpful way. Depressive rumination is a specific form of brooding or dwelling on our own past mistakes or failures. As opposed to helpful reflection, depressive rumination is unproductive and doesn’t lead to anything but shame, guilt, and sadness at oneself. Depressive rumination is one of the key drivers of not only depression, but also self-criticalness and low self-esteem.
- Angry Rumination. Angry rumination is similar to depressive rumination except the object of the overthinking is usually other people and their mistakes rather than yourself. For example, after a fight with your spouse, you find yourself replaying arguments you’ve had with them in the past and going over evidence of why you were right and they were wrong. Although it often feels good in the moment, angry rumination tends to lead to aggression, resentment, and distorted beliefs about other people in our lives.
- Fix-It Mode. Fix-It Mode is a form of overthinking that happens when you’re listening to someone else describe a painful or difficult experience. Because you have a hard time tolerating the anxiety that comes from hearing about someone else’s difficulty, you begin thinking about (and often suggesting) ways to fix the problem or do things differently. Fix-It Mode is a form of overthinking because you’re applying problem-solving-style thinking when what would be more helpful is to simply listen empathetically and validate the person’s difficulty rather than trying to fix it (and make yourself feel better in the process).
Of course, there are many other forms of overthinking. But in my experience, these tend to be the most common and often produce the most suffering.
In fact, if you consistently struggle with some emotional difficulty—whether it’s anxiety, depression, anger issues, or relationship conflict—there’s a very good chance that some form of overthinking is a major contributor to that difficulty.
What Causes Overthinking?
While simply understanding the causes of your overthinking habit won’t be enough to get rid of it, it will help.
The most important thing to realize about what causes overthinking is that it comes from a good place.
Like we said earlier, the ability to think critically and analytically is a wonderful tool when applied to problems that can be solved with thinking.
Overthinking is just a misdirected application of a good thing!
In other words, the habit of overthinking comes from perfectly understandable and even helpful behaviors.
Also, keep in mind that the initial cause(s) of something can be very different than the maintaining cause(s). A coworker’s sarcastic comment may have been the initial cause or trigger for an episode of anxiety. But your own reaction of worry may be the maintaining cause of the anxiety.
Similarly, some early trauma or life experience may have initially caused your habit of overthinking, but there are likely maintaining causes in the present that keep it going.
Okay, that’s enough of a preamble. Here are a handful of the most common causes of overthinking:
- Early reinforcement. Most people with a severe habit of overthinking developed the habit early in life, often as a child. And they usually developed it because, at the time, it was the only way they had to deal with scary, difficult experiences. For example, as a child of an alcoholic parent, the habit of worrying obsessively about what would happen if dad came home drunk might have served a very useful function then of keeping you safe or out of harm’s way.
- Illusion of control. Perhaps the most dominant maintaining cause of overthinking is that it gives us the illusion of control. We don’t like to admit it, but many things in life are outside of our control. Understandably, this leads to a sense of helplessness and anxiety. The issue is, in the short term, overthinking can alleviate that anxiety and helplessness since thinking often feels productive even if it isn’t. This leads to a feeling of (false) control which temporarily alleviates our anxiety. And because anxiety relief is rewarding, it makes the habit of overthinking stronger.
- Secondary gain. Secondary gain is the idea that we persist in our overthinking because it has secondary or non-obvious benefits. For example, many people maintain their habit of overthinking because it leads to sympathy and pity from other people in their lives—and that feels good. Overthinking can also be an excuse for procrastinating or avoiding decisions: if you tell yourself you can’t make a decision because maybe you haven’t thought enough about it, then you can’t ever be blamed for making a bad decision.
- Overgeneralization. Overgeneralization means that because large amounts of thinking help in one area of life (school or work, for example), you assume that it will also work in other areas of life (conflict with your spouse or death of a loved one, for example). Many people are so good at thinking and so rewarded for it in certain aspects of life that they have a hard time putting that tool down in other areas of life. It’s like the old saying goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To the expert thinker, everything starts to look like a problem to be solved with lots of thinking.
Obviously there are many more causes—both initiating and maintaining—that lead to overthinking. But these are some of the most common. And they’re a good place to start if you want to stop overthinking.
10 Ways to Stop Overthinking Everything
Now that we’ve covered what overthinking is, what it looks like, and where it comes from, let’s dive into the main event: How to stop overthinking!
If you want to stop overthinking, the key thing to realize is that overthinking is a habit. This means that it will not happen overnight and will take a sustained effort. It also means that your progress will be messy—some form of two steps forward one step back.
Also, it means that there’s no one size fits all formula. You will need to experiment with a variety of approaches and strategies and figure out which works best for you given the unique characteristics of your history, personality, current environment, etc.
That said, let’s dive in!
1. Identify the Emotions ‘Behind’ Overthinking
Even though it’s internal, overthinking is a behavior. It’s something we do. And like all behaviors that stick around and become habits, it’s because they’re serving some function.
When you raise your hand during a talk, it serves the function of letting others know you want to speak. Similarly, when you overthink something, it can also serve a function.
But rather than a social function, overthinking often serves an emotional function. That is, it does something for your feelings—usually, it makes you feel better (though often just temporarily).
For example, when you start overthinking by worrying about your future at work, it might be the case that overthinking is functioning to relieve or alleviate some anxiety you have about your job.
Unfortunately, the overthinking is a quick fix: it may temporarily distract you from your anxiety and give you the illusion of control, but in the end, it doesn’t really address the thing you’re worried about and makes you more anxious and insecure in the long-run.
So, one of the best things you can do to eliminate the habit of overthinking is this:
Look for the emotions behind overthinking and ask yourself if there’s a better way to deal with them.
Almost always, taking the time to get curious about your emotions and validate them is going to be more productive in the long run than simply avoiding them with overthinking.
2. Schedule a Future Thinking Date
One of the tricks that overthinking plays on us is convincing us that we have to think more NOW.
But if you think about it, unless your house is literally on fire, you probably don’t have to think about that idea your mind is throwing at you right at this moment. Which means…
Why not schedule your overthinking for later?
This simple technique called Scheduling a future thinking date is effective because it helps remind you that just because your mind wants you to think about something now doesn’t mean you have to. By agreeing to think about something at a later date, you simultaneously validate your overthinking mind’s concern and avoid the downsides of getting lost in overthinking.
Then, when you do return to think about that thing, you’re doing it intentionally rather than reactively, which means you’re more likely to think about it in a helpful way rather than getting stuck in unhelpful forms of thinking like worry or rumination.
Finally, much of the time you’ll find that when your future thinking date actually shows up, you’re not even concerned about the thing anymore and can simply drop it.
The key to this whole exercise, though, is that you have to treat it like a real appointment. This means you should put it in your calendar and set a reminder. And if the time comes and you do feel the need to think about it more, do genuinely think about it.
If you get in the habit of setting future thinking dates, you’ll eventually train your mind to be less insistent with its desire to overthink, which means you’ll have an easier time resisting in the moment.
3. Only Overthink on Paper
One of the biggest downsides of overthinking is that it generates lots of difficult emotion, often unnecessarily so:
- Worrying leads to lots of unnecessary anxiety.
- Rumination leads to lots of excess shame and sadness.
- Angry rumination leads to longer-lasting and more intense anger.
The reason for this is simple: Thoughts generate emotion, which means the more emotion-generating thoughts you have in a given period of time, the more emotion you’re going to experience.
And while not overthinking is the ideal, sometimes just doing less overthinking can really take the edge off. And that’s where the idea of Only overthink on paper comes in.
Psychologically speaking, there are two big benefits to writing down your overthinking rather than doing it in your head:
- You can’t write nearly as fast as you can think. If you confine the speed of your overthinking to the speed of writing, you’re going to have far fewer thinking cycles which means far less painful emotion.
- Seeing your thoughts on paper literally gives you perspective on them. When thoughts are in our heads we tend to treat them as true automatically. But when we see our thoughts on paper and in front of us, it’s easier to spot errors in thinking, cognitive distortions, bad assumptions, etc. And when we see these thinking errors, it’s easier to pull back from negative thinking and all the excess painful emotion it produces.
If you are in the habit of overthinking frequently, give yourself the following rule:
I will try my best not to overthink. But if I must, I will only do it on paper.
4. Learn to Be More Assertive
One of the biggest reasons we tend to overthink things is that it gives us the illusion of control—a temporary feeling as though we’re doing something to address our problems.
Unfortunately, feeling like you’re solving problems doesn’t always mean you are solving problems.
And in fact, overthinking often serves as a form of procrastination from doing or saying the difficult things that we know deep down we should.
The solution to this dilemma is to learn to become more assertive.
Assertiveness is the ability to speak your mind honestly and directly in a way that’s respectful to yourself and others.
It’s the helpful middle ground between being overly passive and deferential to other people’s wants and needs and being overly aggressive and disrespectful of the rights of others. In other words, assertiveness is the best of both worlds: you’re able to express yourself honestly while still being respectful of others.
And when you learn how to communicate assertively—how to ask for what you want directly, and how to say no to what you don’t want with confidence—you’ll find yourself overthinking a lot less because you don’t need it as a procrastination mechanism.
Luckily, the capacity to be assertive is a skill anyone can learn and get better at regardless of your personality, temperament, or history.
You can learn more here: The Complete Guide to Assertiveness
5. Spotting Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that lead to excessive emotional reactions.
- I’ll never pass this stupid test. Obviously you can’t see the future no matter how much it feels like you’ll never pass the test.
- She probably thought I was a complete idiot. Reading people’s minds is equally unlikely as knowing the future.
- God, why am I such an idiot?! Labeling yourself as an idiot because you made a mistake is a BIT of an overgeneralization.
And while little bits of negative self-talk like this might seem inconsequential, they’re anything but. And the reason…
How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.
The basic problem is that overthinking is often a response to feeling bad emotionally. But when your thinking is riddled with these cognitive distortions, you end up feeling even worse. Which means you tend to overthink even more. See where this is going?
An effective way to break the cycle of overthinking is to get good at spotting cognitive distortions in your self-talk. Because when you can point out that your thinking is not entirely accurate, you’ll be more likely to generate a more balanced and emotionally neutral way of thinking.
You can learn more about identifying cognitive distortions here: 10 Types of Negative Self-Talk
6. Try Some Ordinary Mindfulness
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness meditation: sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath for 20 minutes.
The key idea behind mindfulness is that you can train yourself to be aware of things without thinking about them.
This distinction is key for overthinking because, by definition, overthinking is when you get caught thinking about something too much. Mindfulness trains you to be able to notice when this has happened and to shift your attention out of thinking mode and into awareness mode.
While I’m a big fan of formal mindfulness meditation, it’s not for everybody. And when it comes to overthinking, there’s a simpler version of mindfulness that can often be just as effective: I call it ordinary mindfulness.
Ordinary mindfulness means paying attention to the experience of an activity during daily life rather than thinking about it.
For example: While out for a walk in the evening, instead of listening to a podcast or thinking about that big fight you just had with your spouse, you could practice keeping your attention on how beautiful the trees in your neighborhood are. You’re not thinking about the trees or what they mean—you’re just noticing them and being aware of them.
We spend all day in thinking about mode, so it can be hard to transition out and into awareness mode. But this skill is essential if you want to be able to get yourself unstuck from patterns of overthinking.
You can learn more about ordinary mindfulness—including a handful of examples of how to practice it—in this article: Ordinary Mindfulness
7. Use the 5-5-5 Drill to Improve Your Emotion Tolerance
As we’ve mentioned several times now, the core driver of overthinking is emotion—specifically, overthinking sticks around as a habit because it’s really good at (temporarily) making us feel less anxious, sad, angry, etc.
So here’s the thing: If you want to eliminate overthinking, you need to eliminate the need it serves.
- If overthinking helps distract you from your fears, you need another way to deal with fear.
- If overthinking helps distract you from sadness, you need another way to deal with sadness.
- If overthinking helps distract you from shame, you need another way to deal with shame.
And while you could look for yet another temporary coping mechanism, here’s an alternative approach:
You could increase your ability to tolerate difficult emotions.
Instead of looking for ways to get rid of or alleviate painful feelings, what if you boosted your tolerance for them instead?
Well, for one thing, if your tolerance for living with difficult emotions increased, your need for overthinking as a coping mechanism would drop, perhaps drastically.
If you want to improve your emotional tolerance, there’s a great little exercise you can do called the 5-5-5 Drill.
When you feel a painful emotion, do the following:
- Get out a piece of paper and jot down the emotion and how intense it is on a scale of 1-10.
- Now, set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Refocus your attention on what you were doing or need to be doing. If you feel pulled to think about or do something about the emotion, remind yourself that after 5 minutes you’ll be able to return to it.
- After the five minutes is up, check in with the emotion and rate how strong it is.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 twice more.
- Notice what happens to the intensity of the emotion over time.
Chances are, you’ll see that the emotion—without any coping or intervention on your part—actually decreased in intensity over time on its own.
Do this exercise enough and your confidence in living with painful emotions will quickly rise. And when this happens, you’ll find that you’re able to tolerate emotions much better; and as a consequence, your need to use things like overthinking to distract yourself from them will decline sharply.
If you’re interested to learn more about the 5-5-5 Drill and improve your emotional tolerance, I go into a lot more depth about it in my course, Emotional Fitness Bootcamp.
8. Experiment with Micro-Decisiveness
A lot of people think of having a hard time making decisions and being decisive as a symptom of overthinking. And while this is true, it often obscures a more important idea about the relationship between overthinking and indecision…
Being more decisive will help you stop overthinking.
Just like overthinking and second-guessing yourself will make you increasingly indecisive and lacking in confidence, the arrow goes the other way as well: When you practice being more decisive, it becomes easier to stop overthinking.
The problem is: How do we become more decisive?
I think the biggest mistake people make in terms of being more decisive is starting with decisions that are too big.
If you had never lifted weights before, you wouldn’t walk into a gym and try to bench press 300 pounds! Instead, you’d start with a very small weight—maybe just the bar—and lift that until you got comfortable with your technique. Then, very gradually, you’d start adding on more and more weight, getting incrementally stronger each time. That’s how you get to the point of lifting 300 pounds!
Well, the same is true for becoming more decisive and dropping your habit of overthinking. You have to work up gradually. And this is where micro-decisiveness comes in…
Micro-decisiveness means practicing being decisive in very small, low-stakes decisions.
Once you can be decisive in these very small decisions, then slowly work your way up to slightly harder decisions, building confidence along the way.
Here’s how you do it:
- Brainstorm a list of as many possible decisions you might face on a regular basis as you can.
- Next, order those decisions from least consequential to most consequential.
- Now, break them into categories: Very Easy, Pretty Easy, Somewhat Difficult, Very Difficult.
- Commit to being decisive in one Very Easy decision each day. Once those decisions become comfortable, then move up to practicing the Pretty Easy ones.
- Rinse and Repeat…
A good way to drop your habit of overthinking is to practice being decisive. But when you practice decisiveness, remember to start very small and slowly work your way up, building confidence along the way.
9. Make Time to Worry on Purpose
Worry is one of the most common forms of overthinking. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest to shake…
A big reason why it can be so hard to stop worrying is because worry is one of our brain’s most effective ways to get you to remember things.
Imagine you’re driving in your car. You see an interesting billboard and you want to remember the phone number on it. But you can’t write the number down. How do you remember the number until you get home?
Yup… You just say it to yourself over and over again in your mind.
This type of auditory rehearsal is our mind’s last-ditch strategy for remembering things. Which means, if you’ve got things on your mind that you’re worried about and that your mind thinks are important, it’s going to throw them at you repeatedly so you don’t forget about them.
Unless, of course, you have a better strategy for remembering important/worrisome things…
You can stop your mind from throwing so many worries at you by convincing your mind that you remember the worries and have a place to put them. And the best way to do this is with a little exercise called Scheduled Worry.
Here’s how it goes:
- Find a time in the early evening when you can sit down with a pen and paper quietly.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes on your phone.
- For 10 minutes, write down every worry you can think of. Big, small, rational, irrational, whatever. Anything you’re worried about, just take it out of your brain and jot it down on paper.
- It’s okay to be brief and messy. You’re not writing an essay or a dissertation here. You’re literally just listing your worries.
- Also, keep in mind: you’re not solving your worries. You’re just listing them.
- Once your 10 minutes is up, stop, put the paper away until tomorrow, and get on with your evening.
- Do this daily for a couple weeks and you’ll find that your worries will settle down significantly because your mind trusts you to remember them.
You can’t simply make yourself stop worrying.
But you can train your mind to do it at the right time (and by extension, not at the wrong times).
10. Remind Yourself of Your Values
On a very basic level, overthinking is a form of avoidance. Whether it’s serving as a way to procrastinate on difficult decisions or temporarily distracting you from painful feelings, it all boils down to avoidance.
The problem with avoidance is, while it can lead to temporary relief, you never actually move forward on anything. Decisions don’t get made, difficult feelings don’t get properly dealt with or processes, uncomfortable relationship tension never gets genuinely addressed. All of which means, problems persist and fester and grow.
This means that on a fundamental level, the answer to overthinking (and any form of avoidance) is approach.
At some point, you have to be willing to stop running away from what you don’t want, take a stand, and start moving toward the things you do want.
Trouble is, it’s hard to start approaching the things we do want when we’re not clear exactly on what we want…
- Sure, you want the quality of your marriage to improve. But how exactly? What would you like specifically to be different? How would your marriage look if things were going really well? What are the details?
- Sure, you want to be more confident at work. But what does that look like exactly? With whom do you want to be more confident? And about which topics? What would confidence look like? What would you say differently? How would you say it differently?
Here’s the thing:
It’s hard to let go of overthinking if you’re not crystal clear on what you want to be doing instead.
And this is where values come in. Specifically, this is where the concept of values clarification comes in.
Our values—the things we really want and that matter most to us in life—have incredible motivating potential. Our values pull us toward our goals and aspirations so we don’t have to expend so much energy pushing ourselves toward them.
But here’s the catch:
Values are only motivating if they’re clear.
They only help us toward our goals if they are specific and detailed and well thought out.
So, ask yourself this question:
If I was free from overthinking, what would I really want to do most with that time and energy? What do I really want? What are my values?
Because when you get to know your values clearly, dropping bad habits like overthinking becomes much, much easier.
Summary and Conclusion
Overthinking is the habit of applying analytical thinking and problem-solving in a situation where it is unhelpful or unproductive. When overthinking becomes a consistent part of your life, it can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, relationship conflict, and many other problems.
If you want to stop overthinking so much, the key is to understand why you do it and then implement targeted strategies to eliminate it.
At the end of the day, overthinking is a habit. And all habits can be broken with the right approach and enough patience.