Overthinking: How It Harms & How To Stop It, Actually?

How To Stop Overthinking

The first thing to note is that overthinking is not the same as worrying, as science tells us. Overthinking is analyzing the same thought over and over. And usually, that thought is about something that happened in your past, but you could do nothing to fix it.

It is a destructive habit because the overthinker’s brain can not channelize those thoughts into actions or results. When it goes on for long, it becomes a mental health risk because these unending circles of thoughts can make one stressed and anxious. And in time, the overthinking person can even go into depression.

So, it is something one should not ignore, right? But what is the solution if one is a habitual overthinker? Read on to find out how to get over this harmful habit of thinking too much of your past.

What Is Overthinking

Overthinking or ruminating is analyzing the same thought over and over, mostly about a negative event from the past. An overthinking person feels helpless in repressing or resolving the thoughts that go around in loops in their mind.

In simple words, overthinking means thinking too much, and running the same thoughts repeatedly, about past events.

Here’s another way to explain it: Overthinking is endlessly pondering over the negative events from the past life. The overthinker does not have many thoughts at the same time. Instead, they keep running and analyzing the same incident repeatedly without reaching a solution or end.

The habit of overthinking is quite a common problem. From spiritual preachers to scientist teachers, they have made the dangers of overthinking clear to us all.

The thoughts in an overthinking mind are in themselves damaging as the person suffering cannot “avoid” thinking them, and this makes them go through a lot of distress helplessly. Once the intrusive thoughts start, there is seemingly no stopping them.

Is Overthinking Different From Worrying Or Anxiety

An overthinking mind is a highly anxious mind.

Worrying is a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Overthinking and worrying often work together, and make each other worse. Both overthinking and worrying involve excessive thinking of negative thoughts.

Almost all overthinking is about something that hurt you, but you could not do something right about it then.

What makes overthinking different from worrying is this: the “worriers” make a fuss about the present or the future, while the “ruminators” go over stuff already in the past. An example each to differentiate between them:

  • OverthinkingWhy did I not walk out that day?
  • WorryingCan I even finish this by tomorrow?

Worry typically involves anxiety over negative outcomes in the future. It is mostly about the two following “what if” questions:

  • What if the wrong thing happens?
  • What if the right thing does not happen?

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

Much of the time when you overthink, you get stuck in a circular pattern of toxic thoughts. You lose hope and believe your present situation can only result in a destructive outcome.

And the anxiety that goes on for long can make one overthink. And then, the overthinking that keeps on rumbling can also bring on spells of anxiety. It’s a hard-to-cut loop.

An extensive study on 33,000 people found rumination and self-blame were responsible for high levels of anxiety and depression in those who already had a family history of mental health problems.

What Is Overthinking A Symptom Of

Overthinking can be an early symptom of and a risk factor for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or major depression.

As research by psychologists show, two of the most common causes of overthinking are:

  1. Passive behavior learned from over-controlling parents
  2. Stressful, traumatic, and 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. It can then lead them into overthinking.

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

2. Stressful & Traumatic Events From Past

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

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

If overthinking goes on for long to affect one’s normal daily functions or change their behavior drastically, they should seek the help of mental health professionals.

What Are The Harmful Effects of Overthinking

Rumination can seriously damage your brain and body health. If you overthink habitually, it can wreck your body and mind in many ways. The first thing to note is that overthinkers sleep badly, do not exercise regularly, eat erratically – and all of these harm their brain.

Here are the 10 deleterious effects of overthinking:

  1. Anxiety: They are always anxious because they are unable to reach any final point where their thoughts can stop, and then they can take action. More so, because they can not help themselves out of it.
  2. Depression: Rumination worsens depression and promotes negative thinking. 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. It can grow into severe cases of social phobia and agoraphobia.
  4. Stress: Distress, or the stress of the debilitating kind, is a close companion of overthinkers. While rumination causes stress, 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 cortisol, the stress hormone, which can then lead to burnout.
  6. Indecision: The overthinkers find it hard to find great or even good-enough solutions to their problems. Even when they conceive a potentially useful solution, they are 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 pesky 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 not 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 social phobia and social isolation, increase the risk of suicide attempts. More so, as they do not seem to seek professional help, even when they are abusing drugs. Rumination can also cause revenge-seeking, and suicide could be the result.

What Do Psychologists Say About Overthinking

The psychologists call overthinking rumination, and justifiably so. The process is like what animals do — chewing cud for hours.

Rumination in animals is a way of digesting food found in most hoofed mammals, as cattle, camels, and giraffes. These animals bring up the food into their mouths from one of their four stomachs and then chew on it for hours before swallowing it back again.

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

An overthinking mind dwells over an event that already happened and makes catastrophic predictions from it. Such a mind tends to view a mistake or a gaffe from a pessimistic and worst-possible perspective.

The late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a pioneering researcher on rumination, found 73% of people between 25 to 35 years of age identified themselves as overthinkers. Among these young and middle-aged adults, she found more were women (57%) than men (43%).

Professor Nolen-Hoeksema was the founding editor of the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, and author of Women Who Think Too Much and Eating, Drinking, Overthinking.

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.

— Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “Mother of Rumination”

A 2015 study says people who think too much are probably creative geniuses. The study authors write:

“Moreover, because SGT (self-generated thought) allows us to imagine realities different to way they are right now, we argue that it underpins our capacity to solve problems in creative and original ways, which is a particularly common gift among high scorers on neuroticism.

“Thus, our theory can explain why neurotic individuals tend to do well in creative professions but poorly in occupations that demand the individual’s attention is constrained to the moment (such as combat aviation).”

Overthinkers are creative geniuses
Pic Courtesy: Higher Perspective

How To Stop Overthinking The Past: 4 Most Helpful Strategies

Everyone overthinks some times. The problems arise for those who find it difficult to stop the thoughts. It is easy to slip into a circular pattern of thinking and go on to severe stress and anxiety from there. The root of the solution lies in disrupting the cycle at the earliest.

So, how to break the cycle and stop overthinking events from your past?

To help you with overthinking, we have lined up four of the most effective strategies. You could adopt one or all of these proven approaches to curb and even end your overthinking cycle.

Here is how to stop the habit of overthinking the past:

1. Exercising Distraction

The first step here is awareness. Once you’re aware you are into the overthink mode and are 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. In plain words, to distract yourself means forcing your mind to think of something else, especially something pleasant.

In a study, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and Jannay Morrow asked depressed students to focus their minds on geographical locations and objects, like “the size of the GoldenGate bridge” and “the shape of the continent of Africa,” for 8 minutes. After the exercise, the participants became noticeably less depressed as compared to another set of depressed students who were asked to focus on their emotions or symptoms.

The authors concluded, “naturally depressed subjects who engaged in a benign, distracting task showed significant relief from their depressed moods, to a level equal to that of the nondepressed subjects.”

A simple way you could distract yourself is by physically getting up from the place you’re in at that time and leaving. You could also distract yourself mentally by starting something that engages your mind — as listening to some soothing music or an upbeat song.

2. Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness practice is known to stop overthinking. Mindfulness does not attempt to suppress or cut down the disturbing thoughts. Instead, it trains the mind to accept the thoughts that arise without judging them or holding on to them and letting them go.

The overthinker in a mindful state does not try to control, change, or reduce the thoughts. It is this letting go of the meddlesome thoughts that paradoxically reduce their frequency in the long run.

In a study of 11 studies, Clinical psychologist Lilisbeth Perestelo-Perez, Ph.D., 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.

Mindfulness In 7 Steps

3. Engaging In Problem-Solving

Overthinking reduces the 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-cut solution to the present problem.

4. Employing The Thought-Box

The thought-box process is a highly helpful way to reduce overthinking.

Set up sometime in the day, say 20 or 30 minutes when you would allow yourself time to overthink. Set up an alarm on your phone for the end of this interval. During this time, begin by telling yourself you have absolute freedom to ruminate until the alarm-bell rings.

Then let your mind do all kinds of overthinking. There are no limits and no control over your thinking process.

Call this your Thought Box.

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 thought. Instead, be easy on yourself, and jot down just one or two streams of thoughts. It will be fine.

How does the Thought Box Strategy 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 that you have already given your attention to a particular worry, and now it is no good repeating it over in your mind since it’s already noted down on a paper.

Here’s entrepreneur and philosopher Albert Hobohm speaking to a TEDx audience on how to stop your thoughts from controlling your life:

How to stop your thoughts from controlling your life | Albert Hobohm | TEDxKTH

How To Stop Overthinking: 24 Tips

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 twenty-four ideas from the internet.

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:

5. Trick your brain with a replacement thought
6. Schedule a time for obsessing later
7. Pay attention to your anxiety and discomfort
8. Talk yourself out of it

Henrik Edberg suggests:

9. Put things into a wider perspective
10. Set short time-limits for decisions
11. Become a person of action
12. Realize you cannot control everything

Ryan Howes suggests:

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

Jessica DuBois-Maahs suggests:

17. Practice mindfulness and meditation
18. Notice when rumination happens
19. Keep your focus on problem-solving
20. Journal your thoughts

Jim Kwik suggests:

21. Catch yourself and stop yourself
22. Find a way to let the thoughts out
23. Set aside 10-15 minutes each day to reflect
24. Get busy and divert your mind to another task

Did Einstein Overthink

Short answer: Probably yes.

Long answer: What scientific thinkers as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Marie Curie did more of was deliberation.

Deliberation is thinking deeply about something over a long time to reach a careful, conscious decision. Deliberate thinkers often collaborate with others to troubleshoot and expand their input-to-output journey.

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

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.

Imagination is more important than knowledge - Einstein
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

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 occurrence of a negative life event. It has also been linked to anxiety.

So, stay watchful and take note early 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 hard to get over it by yourself, please do seek expert psychological help.

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

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

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