Overthinking: what can we do to spot it and stop it?

Last night I woke at one o’clock and I didn’t get back to sleep until five. As usual, I spent a lot of time planning a novel in my head, playing around with the story. That’s always time well spent. I never mind losing sleep when I’m with my characters. But then my mind moved to an unimportant event that happened years ago and I went over and over it, blowing it up into something meaningful. Why did I do that to myself? I can’t change anything and the ruminating wasn’t making me feel better about the past. I was just worrying it, like a dog with an old rag. It was overthinking.

The first problem with overthinking is identifying that we’re doing it. It may feel a bit like problem solving, but it isn’t. It may feel like self-reflection, but it’s very different. Overthinking is about dwelling on possibilities and pitfalls without any real way of resolving a problem. The problem may not even exist. It’s about obsessing over something that we either can’t change or have no way of improving. It’s not born from intuition, it’s born from fear.  It doesn’t move us forward. In fact, it causes anxiety and prevents us from making decisions, keeps us from living in the present moment. It drains our energy. Does this sound familiar?

Overthinking is something we might all do from time to time, but it’s a habit we need to be aware of. We need to turn it from something destructive into something positive.

An example of overthinking is when we obsess about day-to-day stuff that is, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant. Overthinking inflates the issue – it makes it feel so much more important than it really is. For example, recalling mistakes we’ve made, worrying about what someone thinks of us, over-reading a situation, second guessing and finding reasons why we might be right.

It causes us to fall into destructive thought patterns. We ruminate on issues that have passed or that might happen in the future that we can’t change or control. In short, it stays in our heads and it’s not doing us any favours by being there. Overthinking is a waste of time and promotes anxiety. So how can we stop doing it?

 First, we must identify that we’re overthinking, and in doing so be kind to ourselves and keep ourselves safe. It’s not a blame situation – we must avoid thinking of ourselves as at fault or victims. It’s just a natural anxiety that we can practise letting go.

Here are some ‘overthinking’ examples:

  • I shouldn’t have said what I said yesterday – people will think I’m stupid.
  • My parents made me underconfident – I’ll never reach my potential.
  • Tomorrow when I talk to the group, I’ll be embarrassing – I’ll just look stupid in front of everyone.
  • Everyone else is so much better than me because……..

So how do we cope with overthinking? Are there good ways to stop ourselves doing it and break the habit?

I’ve heard of people writing their worries down on paper, screwing them up tight and throwing them in the bin. That gets rid of them physically, and if the action promotes clearance, then that’s great. Identify the issue and throw it away. Leave it.

Or we can remind ourselves to live in the moment. Do something practical instead that takes our thoughts elsewhere. Visualize the unwanted thoughts blowing away in the wind or washing away in the sea. Think of something calming. Listen to music. Focus on a beautiful image that relaxes you. Go outside. Talk to someone. But let go of the thing you don’t want to cling to. Leave it alone – don’t scratch the itch..

I have a framed picture with an inspiring saying in it that I look at from time to time. I won’t quote it exactly because it has an expletive, but it tells me to try to care less about things that don’t matter. It really helps. If I’m worrying about something irrelevant, I stop it and break the habit. It’s a useful reminder.

Quickly and without blame, we need to work out the root cause of overthinking. Why do we fall into this emotional pattern? If things feel out of control, we can make a strong decision today to get back behind the wheel. Write a note or a reminder: ‘I am strong because…’ ‘I will stop worrying about..’ Ask someone you trust for support. But it’s a habit that needs breaking, and once identified, we are half way to stopping it.

We can change the way we ask ourselves questions. So instead of, ‘why does everyone hate me?’ or ‘why do my relationships go wrong?’ We might ask, ‘am I projecting energy that attracts negative partners?’ We need to focus on solutions, not aim blame at ourselves. If we’re unhappy at work, can we change something within the workplace? Can we ask for help? Can we see things differently – can a threat become a challenge; a weakness become a strength? Instead of saying, ‘what am I doing wrong?’ can we just say,’ what else can I do to put myself first or to help myself achieve happiness?’ The solution may be small or large, or there may be options. But put yourself in charge – you make the decisions. It’s about being active, not passive and powerless and a victim.

We’re not alone. Most people aren’t super confident all the time, even if they appear so. We can stop feeling bad about ourselves. It’s about changing the story. Not ‘I’ve always been this way,’ but ‘I’m in charge of how I feel from now on.’ Let go of the past and demand that the future is a safe pace for you to walk into. Those are the new rules.

 Anxiety affects us all. And if we talk about it and share feelings, we can help each other towards a solution. We’re all in the same boat. We need to throw away the water that leaks in and pulls us down, grab an oar and a rowing partner, look ahead and don’t look back.

A problem shared, as my mum used to say…


2 thoughts on “ Overthinking: what can we do to spot it and stop it?

    1. I hope not. We all do it. I wasted five hours yesterday chewing over rubbish. I can only wish that if we know we do it, we eventually learn a coping strategy. Sending you best wishes for a lovely weekend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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