Hi, everyone. I’m Emma McAdam. I’m a licensed therapist. And in this post we’re going to be talking about how to stop overthinking everything.
Are you really good at overthinking?
Your boss emails you. He wants to meet with you in two days. He doesn’t say why. Your heart drops. You feel sick. “What did I do wrong?” you think. “He’s gonna fire me,” you think.
You spend the next two days obsessing over every little thing that you’ve done, every little thing he said. You’re looking for clues at night. You lay awake. Your brain won’t shut up. It just rehashes everything at work over and over and over.
And then during the day you have a hard time focusing. You struggle to complete tasks. You catch yourself zoning out and just worrying about what he’s going to say. You start asking your coworkers and managers for any clues. Your spouse is getting tired of hearing your endless worries. And finally the time comes for your meeting, and you walk into his office with your heart just sinking.
Your boss looks stressed. He looks tense. “Take a seat,” he says, and then he tells you that the manager above you is quitting and he was wondering if you’d like to take the role.
It comes with more responsibility but also better pay. He tells you that he’s heard a lot of good things that you’re doing and that he thinks you’re a perfect fit for the job. You’re thrilled. And while the new position will take some training, it’s a great move for you. You breathe a sigh of relief. All that worrying was for nothing. You say thank you, you smile, and you leave the office.
Then as you walk out, you immediately start obsessing about why you were such an idiot to worry so much. “What’s the matter with me?” you say, and then you start worrying about your new job. “Will I be good enough? Can I handle it?” And the cycle of overthinking starts all over again.
Does that sound familiar? If you’re an overthinker, you know this cycle well. And it’s easy to feel helpless to stop the constant cycle of overthinking and worrying.
Now, there’s at least four types of overthinking: rumination about the past, worry about the future, overanalyzing decisions, and social anxiety (as in, “Why did I say that?”) But you can learn the skills to stop overthinking. So in this post you’re going to learn eight ways to stop overthinking and get back to living your life.
1. Notice and Name your Overthinking Patterns
The very first skill to stop overthinking is noticing and naming.
Rumination or overthinking is a bad habit that we’re often not aware that we’re doing. So the very first thing is to get really good at identifying overthinking, and just say it out loud: “I’m overthinking.” You could also ask someone to point it out to you.
Another way to get good at noticing is to learn your triggers. What time of day are you most likely to ruminate? Where are you most likely to overthink? Is it at work? Is it when you’re alone? Is it when you’re at the bar? What kind of situations trigger it? Just try to predict it.
So if you’re most likely to overthink something right as you go to bed or right after a social situation, prepare yourself to notice it so that you shift your focus to something more helpful.
Once I was in a meeting and I said some stuff that was a little bit, I don’t know, emotionally reactive about a situation that we were working as a team to deal with, and afterwards I texted everyone in the meeting.
I was like, “Oh, guys, I’m sorry I said that,” and someone pointed out to me, “Emma, you’re overthinking it.” And I was like, “You know what, you’re right. I am,” and that helped me to separate myself from the distress around that situation.
If you’re struggling to catch yourself overthinking, you could also set an alarm on your phone to go off once an hour, and then when that phone goes off just check and see if you’re ruminating, how much you’ve been ruminating that hour. And you just track it for a week. In general, most people tend to ruminate when they have nothing to occupy their attention.
2. Set Limits on Overthinking
So now that you’ve gotten good at noticing when you’re overthinking, we’re going to take two approaches. The first approach is setting limits on overthinking, and the second approach is to learn a bunch of ways to redirect your thoughts to something more helpful. So let’s start with some limits.
So the second strategy with overthinking is to postpone or schedule your rumination. And I’m using the terms rumination and overthinking interchangeably here.
So if you’re gonna schedule or postpone your rumination, say, “I’ll deal with this later” or “I’ll worry about this at 2 pm.” You can put it on your calendar. This sends a message to your brain to stop nagging you because you’re going to address the issue. This is super powerful, and you’ll learn that you really have a lot more influence over your worry than you thought.
Now, if you’re just starting out with noticing your worries and starting to postpone them, a really great practice is to schedule worry time every day for one month just to show your brain that you’re serious about this, and then you just set a time limit on how long you’re gonna worry or problem solve.
So you’ll say, “Okay. Every day at 2 pm I will worry for 35 minutes, and then I’ll go back to doing what’s important to me.” And remember, never worry in your head. Do it on paper. Write it down.
There’s a lot of different ways to write it down. You can do a free-write, a locus-of-control activity, a pro- and-cons list, or a brain dump.
When you schedule that worry, it shows your brain that there’s a time and a place for worry and a time and a place for not worrying. Your brain likes boundaries, so schedule worry.
3. Shift Your Attention from Overthinking
Number three: Now that we’ve set some limits, it’s time to practice attention shifting.
Your brain is a thought machine. It’s going to constantly crank out hundreds of thoughts an hour. But you don’t have to believe everything you think. Just because the thought is loud or frequent or intense doesn’t mean it’s true or helpful. There’s a deeper you than your thoughts.
Now, you are the referee. So you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, and when you do that you get to choose which thoughts you’ll buy and which ones you won’t.
This is a skill that you can learn. You can practice it with mindfulness or cognitive defusion exercises. And I’ve made a bunch of these on my channel. So check those out if you’d like to learn them.
Now, as you get good at noticing your thoughts, it can also help to visualize shifting thoughts as changing the channel. Imagine that you’ve got a remote control for your thoughts, and you click the channel button to shift what you want to be focused on.
So you might shift from just compulsive worry to what are you grateful for? Or you might shift from thinking about all the things you can’t control to what you can control. Or you might shift from seeing everything as awful to what might be a more helpful way of thinking about this situation?
So usually when we’re talking about changing the channel, it means we’re switching to things that are really specific, that are in your locus of control, and that are action-oriented. These channels tend to be more helpful uses of your energy than just sitting there spinning your mental wheels.
4. Notice the Present Moment
Number four: Now that you’ve learned to catch yourself when you’re overthinking and to watch those thoughts instead of getting too sucked into them, you’re going to learn some really practical ways to shift your thinking to something more helpful.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so if you just try to stop overthinking or if you aren’t choosing where to put your focus, you may fall back into the habit of rumination.
Let’s start with an antidote that’s always available to us. It’s the present moment. So I’m going to ask you to turn your attention away from your inner world of negative thinking and turn your attention toward the outer world of your present moment. That includes the people you’re with or the activities you’re doing.
We can demonstrate this with a window with words on it. It’s easy to get really focused on these words, but if we shift our focus to what’s beyond them, we can see that even if this thought exists there’s a beautiful world right here, right now.
So in this moment I’m going to ask you to use your senses. What can you see in the here and now? Get out of your mind and into your body. What can you feel in your body right now? Can you notice yourself breathing?
We can shift to noticing the present moment, and that can move us away from these repetitive, ruminative thoughts.
Now, this is a skill, and I know it can be really hard. When I’m stressed about a big problem it’s hard not to dwell on it. But you can learn to shift your attention. And the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
5. Shift to Concrete Thinking
Number five is learn to shift from abstract thinking to concrete thinking. So abstract or vague thinking sounds like overgeneralizations. It sounds like, “Why can’t I ever get my needs met? Why can’t I be happy like my friends?” It leads to self-loathing and helplessness.
So instead of focusing on these big, vague problems, focus on one or two details, and look for small things that you can actually act on. And this involves asking the right kind of questions.
“Why” questions almost always lead to a cycle of rumination. For example: “Why am I such a failure?” “Why are people so hateful?” “Why am I so depressed?” “Why do I overthink so much?” “What’s the matter with me?” Not one of these questions leads to action.
I had a client who I told that “why” is now a swear word. Every time he brings it up, he has to put money in a swear jar. So his wife started calling him out on it, and he was able to catch himself using it all the time and then start to shift to something better.
So instead of saying, “Why me? Why do I have to deal with depression?” he started asking, “What is one small thing I can do today for my mental health?” And he usually ended up going for a walk outside or reading a book, and both of these were more helpful than pondering why he was depressed.
Let me give you another example. Instead of asking, “Why can’t I ever succeed at a relationship?” you could ask “whats.” Instead of asking, “Why can’t I ever succeed at relationships?” you could ask, “What is one relationship skill I can work on?” Now, if you don’t know where to start, I’ve got a whole course with 30 relationship skills.
It’s much more practical to pick one step to work on than it is to ask, “Why am I such a failure at relationships?”
5. Focus on Your Values
Number five: Shift from overthinking to your values.
Focusing a lot on overthinking is not going to stop it. Obsessing about overthinking is not going to stop it. Because when it comes to thoughts, trying to make them go away backfires. It’s like the proverbial pink elephant. If you try not to think about a pink elephant, then you do.
Now, before we can even start to change overthinking, we have to know what we do want more of in our life. So instead of just distracting yourself, let’s get good at shifting to what you really care about. You can retrain your brain to use its energy in a helpful way.
So this might include being more present with our kids, being able to relax, taking helpful action, or living a meaningful life. So if you want to shift from this chronic overthinking, you may want to ask yourself what is most important to you right now? Or what do you want your life to be about?
With overthinking, your tendency is to withdraw and isolate, so you need to reverse that, even if it’s just one step at a time. So explore your values. You could do the values exercise from video 26 in my How to Process Emotions course if you want to get clear on this. And that whole course is on YouTube. It’s on a playlist called How to Process Your Emotions.
6. Use Distraction Wisely
Number six: The last skill is distraction. Distraction is one of my least favorite tools because it can so quickly lead to avoidance, which actually makes problems worse because when we’re avoiding life, we’re also avoiding the things we care about.
So it’s obvious that you can temporarily stop overthinking by endlessly watching Netflix or scrolling through TikTok, but then your life starts to lose its meaning and its purpose and its joy.
But since we are trying to rewire a bad habit, you can use distraction as a short-term technique to basically try to break those ruts. Just don’t let distraction take over living the life that you value. You’ve got to face your problems directly, and then spend time doing something else that you actually care about, like gardening or exercising.
Now, if overthinking is interfering with your life, it’s awesome to get some help. Therapy is cool, and it can be really helpful. There’s a couple of approaches a professional can take to help you. There’s CBT for rumination, ACT is really good at teaching cognitive defusion, and also there’s metacognitive therapy. And I’ll link to an article below if you want to learn more about that.
Now, in upcoming posts we’re going into a lot more detail about very specific steps you can take to deal with depressive rumination, which is overthinking about the past and regrets and mistakes. And then in another post on social anxiety, you’ll learn skills to stop worrying about what you said and obsessing about what other people think about you. So I hope you stay tuned.
I hope you find this post helpful. Thank you so much for reading, and take care.