What’s Overthinking? How It Harms? How To Stop It?

how to stop overthinking

If you think too much, you can get yourself into depression or anxiety. It’s something you wouldn’t want to ignore, right? So, read on if you or someone you know are an overthinker. And learn how to stop the overthinking once and for all.

What Is Overthinking?

Overthinking is painfully pondering over the same thing, usually a negative event from your past life, in an endless loop. You keep running and analyzing that incident in your mind without reaching any solution. It’s not having many thoughts at the same time, but one thought going round and round like a film reel.

Overthinking is called rumination by mind scientists, and justifiably so. Rumination in animals is a way of digesting food found in most hoofed mammals, as cattle, camels, and giraffes. They bring up food from their stomachs (they have four of those) into mouth and chew on it for hours before swallowing it again.

The overthinkers do the same — pull up their disturbing thoughts and keep on chewing them with their mental teeth.

What is overthinking a sign of?

Overthinking can be an early symptom of as well as a risk factor for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or major depression. If it goes on for long to affect one’s normal daily functions, or change their behavior drastically, they should seek help of a mental health professional.

Overthinking is more common among women.

What Is Worrying?

Both overthinking and worrying involve too much thinking of negative thoughts. However, worrying is a little different from rumination or overthinking.

Overthinking is thinking excessive about a past event.

Whereas it’s worrying when you think overly about a present or a future concern. Worry typically involves anxiety over future negative outcomes. It’s mostly about these two “what if” questions:

  1. What if the wrong thing happens
  2. What if the right thing doesn’t happen

Some amount of worrying is normal in our everyday lives. But too much of worrying can lead to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Psychologists suggest worry often starts with, and is maintained by, having “thoughts about thoughts.”

Did Einstein Overthink?

What scientific thinkers as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Marie Curie did was deliberation. That is, thinking something deeply over long time to reach a careful, conscious decision. In doing so, they often collaborated with others to troubleshoot and expand their input-to-output journey.

The key word there is output. The thinkers from any field — science, philosophy, politics, business — always think to reach a decision or conclusion.

There's a difference between overthink and deep-think. The former doesn't let you reach any decision or take any action. Click To Tweet

In contrast, the overthinkers almost always do all the thinking on their own without reaching out for any collaboration. More importantly, as opposed to thinkers, they do not ever produce any output or action.

What Causes Overthinking?

Why do I overthink? Why do people overthink?

As researched by psychologists and shown strongly, two of the commonest origin causes of overthinking has been found to be:

  1. Passive behavior learned from over-controlling parents
  2. Stressful, traumatic, negative events from the past life

1. Passive Behavior Learned From Parents

Children who learn passive behavior from their parents, often go on to develop a habit of overthinking.

One study found children between 5 to 7 years of age who had mothers telling them what to do instead of pushing them to try their own methods to solve problems, were more helpless and passive when facing frustrating situations. This can then lead them into overthinking.

In another study, college students who reported their parents were over-controlling, showed higher levels of rumination.

2. Stressful, Traumatic Events From A Past Life

Stressful events can trigger or worsen overthinking. In one study, many of the people who went through stressful situations as divorce and serious illness, went on to develop overthinking. Moreover, one year later, they had higher tendency to get depression and anxiety.

More research (as this and this) confirm stressful life events can indeed trigger overthinking, and linked with higher depression levels in later life, as early as 6 months.

How Overthinking Harms You?

If you overthink habitually, it can wreck your body and mind in many ways. To start with, the overthinkers sleep badly, do not exercise regularly, eat erratically – and all of these have harmful effect on their brain.

Rumination can indeed do some serious damage to your brain and body; take a look at these 10 effects below:

  1. Anxiety: They are always anxious, because they are unable to reach any final point where their thoughts can stop and they can take action. More so because they can’t help themselves out of it.
  2. Depression: Rumination worsens depression, and promotes negative thinking. The overthinkers tend to focus more on the negative memories of their past. They explain their present situations in pessimistic tones. They also express hopelessness about their future. Women are more prone to rumination, hence more likely to go into depression.
  3. Fear: They may reach a point where they start to dread meeting anyone, for these people might say things that might overload them with more negative thoughts. This can grow into severe cases of social phobia and agoraphobia.
  4. Stress: Distress, or stress of the debilitating kind, are close companions of overthinkers. While rumination causes stress, the heightened stress causes further overthinking.
  5. Fatigue: Like any hamster running non-stop on its wheel, their racing minds stay drained of energy. Soon, this effect shows up in their bodies too. Their stressed bodies produce more of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can then lead to burnout.
  6. Indecision: The overthinkers find it hard to find great or even good solutions to their problems. Even when they conceive a potentially useful solution, they’re not confident it would actually work. Moreover, they hardly have any intention or motivation to act on that solution. Overthinking is often referred to by another illustrative phrase: analysis paralysis.
  7. Substance abuse: Alcohol is a favored substance of abuse among overthinkers, studies have found. Overthinkers often indulge in binge-drinking. They also tend to smoke more, and abuse prescription and non-prescription drugs.
  8. Loneliness: They are likely to stay in isolation and suffer loneliness, as they shun most social interactions. Also, they are quite good at repelling others with their irksome habit of harping about how bad they feel all the time.
  9. Sleeplessness: They find it extremely hard to shut out their thought loops and go to sleep. Overthinking keeps their mind and body in a state of arousal, not calmness, so they can’t sleep. They fall asleep only when their brains are too tired to take another minute of wakefulness.
  10. Suicide risk: They are harshly self-critical, and tend to have low willpower. These, together with their social phobia and social isolation, increase their risk to suicide attempts. More so, as they don’t seem to seek professional help, especially when abusing drugs. Rumination can also cause revenge-seeking, and suicide could be the result.

Thoughts in an overthinker’s mind are in themselves damaging as they can’t “avoid” thinking about them, and this makes them suffer helplessly. Once the intrusive thoughts start, there is seemingly no stopping them.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the late founding editor of Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, a pioneering researcher in the field of rumination, author of Women Who Think Too Much and Eating, Drinking, Overthinking, wrote this of ruminators:

People become tired, even annoyed, with overthinkers for continuing to talk about their loss. They may simply withdraw, or if they can’t withdraw, they may eventually blow up at the overthinker, expressing anger and frustration rather than sympathy and concern.

How To Stop Overthinking Things Scientifically ?

If you are fed up with your tiresome habit of overthinking everything and every time, we suggest these 4 scientifically proven, highly effective methods to help you stop it. With a little practice of these, you can easily limit and even end your overthinking cycle.

How do you train your brain to stop overthinking?

You can train your mind to stop overthinking by using these four highly effective methods based in science: 1. Distraction, 2. Mindfulness, 3. Problem Solving, 4. Thought Box

1. Distraction:

The first step here is awareness. Once you are aware you’re into the overthink mode, replaying a past event over and over without reaching a decision, you can start this action. Distract yourself.

Distraction means purposefully steering your attention to pleasant or neutral things, away from your negative thoughts. A study showed when depressed people were asked to focus their minds on “geographical locations and objects” for just 8 minutes, they became noticeably less depressed.

You can distract yourself by physically getting up from and leaving the place you’re in. You can distract yourself mentally by starting something that engages your mind — as listening to some soothing music or an upbeat song.

2. Mindfulness:

Mindfulness practice has been shown to stop overthinking. Mindfulness doesn’t attempt to suppress or cut down the disturbing thoughts. It rather trains the mind to accept the thoughts without judging them, and let them come and go.

The overthinker in mindful state does not try to control, change or reduce the thoughts. It is this letting go of the meddling thoughts that paradoxically reduce them in the end.

In a study of 11 studies, Clinical psychologist Lilisbeth Perestelo-Perez, PhD, MPsych, and others found Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can reduce overthinking significantly. The mindfulness methods were equally effective in controlling rumination as medication and CBT. They also found the positive effects of mindfulness were there even a month after the end of therapy.

3. Problem Solving:

Overthinking reduces motivation to solve problems, as research shows. On the other hand, studies on depressive people staying stable after engaging in problem-solving suggest the same can hold good for rumination.

So, challenge yourself to look away from your loop of thoughts, and put yourself up for finding solutions to the problems playing in your mind. Challenge yourself to find ways to solve the issue at hand.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested problem-solving may prove to be more effective after first lifting your mood with distraction. So, you could throw in a distracting challenge for yourself — funny videos, Sudoku, yoga, juggling, or anything else you love to be distracted with — first. Then, you can focus your attention directly on finding a clear solution to the present problem.

4. Thought Box:

Set up a time-period in a day, say 20 or 30 minutes, when you’ll allot yourself time to overthink. You will begin by setting an alarm, and telling yourself you’ve absolute freedom to ruminate till the bell rings. During this time, you’ll let your mind do the berserk kind of overthink. No limits, no control.

A small addition, however: You will sit with a writing pad and pen, and note down a few thoughts from those moving through your mind. Don’t stress it over that you have to put down each and every thought. Instead, be easy on yourself, and jot down just one or two thoughts and it will be fine.

Call this your Thought Box.

How does this help? First, whenever you feel you’re slipping into your habit of overthinking during the day, remind yourself you have fixed up a time for it in your Thought Box, and stop overthinking right there. Second, by writing down a few thoughts, you force your mind to recognize you have already given your attention to a certain thought, and it’s no good repeating it over in your mind since it’s already down on a paper.

What Others Suggest To Stop Overthinking

While the above four strategies were drawn direct from published research, we also waded through 100+ posts on how to stop overthinking to bring you the best four ideas each from some of the them.

Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, suggests:

  1. Notice when you’re stuck in your head
  2. Keep the focus on problem-solving
  3. Challenge your thoughts
  4. Change the channel

Dinsa Sachan suggests:

  1. Trick your brain with a replacement thought
  2. Schedule a time for obsessing later
  3. Pay attention to your anxiety and discomfort
  4. Talk yourself out of it

Henrik Edberg suggests:

  1. Put things into a wider perspective
  2. Set short time-limits for decisions
  3. Become a person of action
  4. Realize you cannot control everything

Ryan Howes suggests:

  1. Being aware is your first line of defense
  2. Journal to get the thoughts out of your head
  3. Remind your brain that you’re in charge
  4. Don’t put pressure on yourself to handle it alone

Jessica DuBois-Maahs suggests:

  1. Practice mindfulness and meditation
  2. Notice when rumination happens
  3. Keep your focus on problem-solving
  4. Journal your thoughts

Jim Kwik suggests:

  1. Catch yourself and stop yourself
  2. Find a way to let the thoughts out
  3. Set aside 10-15 minutes each day to reflect
  4. Get busy and divert your mind to another task

Final Words

Overthinking is one of the most vulnerable factors in your personality that puts you at a high risk of depression, often as soon as within a year of a negative life event. It has also been linked to the anxiety spectrum of disease.

So, stay watchful and take early note if you’ve begun to overthink. Use the four methods above to arrest the irksome habit before it lets in other disruptive mental disorders. However, if you find it difficult to get over it by yourself, please do seek expert psychological help.

And now, before you go, here’s a little surprise for you: 50 Greatest Overthinking Quotes!

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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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