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How to Stop Overthinking: 10 Tips

If you’ve ever been caught in a spin cycle of overthinking, you know how maddening it can be. The thinking can feel like everything all at once: your health, your money, your relationships, your future, your past, the world and even what you imagine Carla in the billing department might have thought about your new shirt, if she thought anything about it at all, which she must have because she squinted her eyes funny in your direction, and you knew this shirt didn’t look right, and . . .

Whoa!

Stop.

Take a deep breath. Exhale. Let your shoulders drop.

This is overthinking.

And we’ll discuss this more below, but overthinking never solves anything. It feels like it’s helping us get closer to a solution, but it’s a waste of our time. Let’s discuss what’s actually happening when your thoughts take off on you—plus 10 tips to help you learn how to stop overthinking.

What Is Overthinking?

Overthinking is a pattern of behavior where you think about a stressful situation (or an imagined stressful situation) over and over—more than what’s necessary to solve problems or live a whole life. In the nerd world, we call overthinking rumination. If you’re someone who overthinks, you’ll notice your thoughts racing uncontrollably—or you might find yourself fixating on a situation to the point that it affects your normal functioning in life. You might picture worst-case scenarios in low-risk situations or feel that you have limited or no control over the situation that’s worrying you. Or you might constantly be trying to solve problems you have no ability to solve. To curb this anxiety, you try to anticipate every possible outcome or cause by overthinking. But instead of solving problems, overthinking only provides a false sense of security.

For someone who overthinks, any situation is fair game for a doom spiral: Regretting the past. Predicting the future. Second-guessing decisions and opportunities in the moment. Worrying about safety . . . nonstop. Replaying social interactions on repeat. It just never stops. But overthinking or rumination isn’t the problem that needs solving, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

What Causes Overthinking?

If you search the Interwebs for causes of overthinking, you’re going to find a mess of reasons that may or may not apply to you. Depression, anxiety, too much caffeine, childhood trauma kicking up, the list goes on . . . But instead of figuring out why you’re overthinking, it’s more important to catch it happening in the moment. Overthinking is an alarm our body sounds when it determines that a situation is a threat or that you need the illusion of control. It’s our body’s way of rehashing or forecasting conversations and solving situations that haven’t happened yet. There may or may not be an actual threat that you’re reacting to—so it’s up to you to challenge the overthinking when it happens. Instead of playing out imaginary conversations with people as soon as we hop in the shower or rehearsing apocalyptic scenarios during our morning commute to work (quiet and undisturbed moments are prime time for anxious thoughts to strike), we have to start asking ourselves, What is my body trying to protect me from?

The thing about overthinking is that it feels productive. It feels like finding solutions and figuring things out. But the reality is this: Overthinking is slamming on the gas pedal while idling in park. Overthinking gets you nowhere—but it prolongs and maintains your stress response. Boldly stated: It’s a waste of your time.

Examples of Overthinking

There are probably unique circumstances in your life that you overthink. But like I mentioned before, overthinking generally happens around a few situations: ruminating on the past, worrying about the future, overanalyzing decisions, replaying social interactions, and feeling anxious about general safety. Let’s take a closer look at each of these signs of overthinking and dive into some specific examples—plus how to deal with them.

Ruminating About the Past

Example: My date didn’t call me back, and I wonder what I did wrong to make that person lose interest. Should I have worn a different outfit or been funnier? Will I die alone surrounded by cats? I don’t even like cats!

Forgive yourself for what you didn’t know way back when. The decision was made. The event happened. If you listen to me coach callers on The Dr. John Delony Show, you’ll sometimes hear me say, “There’s a period at the end of that sentence.” Whatever happened happened. And life moves on. Thinking endlessly about what could’ve been, what you should’ve been, or what can’t be changed is a waste of the life you’re living right now.

Worrying About the Future

Example: I can’t concentrate at work because I wonder if my parents’ retirement accounts are doing okay. They’re sure getting up there in age, and in this economy, and with Mom’s health, I worry I’ll need to upgrade the house to take care of them . . .

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I can say with confidence that obsessing about the future is not the way to prepare for it. It’s just not. It may seem that by overthinking and trying to predict what will happen, we can somehow hedge against calamity or impose our will on the universe. But that simply isn’t true.

In many cases, our worst fears don’t come true. Things turn out differently or better than we plan, despite our best attempts at control—or our worst mistakes. It sounds like a fortune cookie, I know, but we truly only have this present moment.

Overanalyzing Decisions

Example: I accepted a new job that I’m happy about, but I keep looking at other job postings and LinkedIn notifications just in case something better comes along. I’m not sure I made the right decision.

When it comes time to make a decision, wondering if you’re making the right choice is normal. But if you have all the information you need (or can get), and you continue thinking about all your options, and that thinking delays following through with the choice you’ve made . . . that’s overthinking.

Feeling Social Anxiety

Example: My coworker invited me to happy hour after work, but there are people going who I don’t know. What if I say something stupid and it puts my job at risk? What if I show up late because of traffic and can’t get a spot at the table and I have to stand alone at the bar?

Whether it’s anxiety around starting a new job or striking up a conversation with the barista you see every morning, social situations can be a breeding ground for overthinking. Usually, this is caused by focusing inward on what we think other people think of us, instead of paying attention to what’s actually going on outside of us.

Having Concerns About General Safety

Example: I can’t stop thinking about the economy collapsing and earth running out of water. I’m always planning for disaster to strike—especially during an election year!

We used to just know what was going on in our hometown. But now we have access to news about disasters happening across the whole world—right at our fingertips. It’s no wonder our bodies are primed and searching for signs of danger at the post office or the school carpool line. Anxiety is at an all-time high, with general safety in the environment being a major concern.

I want you to notice a theme throughout all these examples: When someone overthinks, there’s usually an illusion taking place in which the narrative in their head is all about them. They feel responsible for the workings of the universe—as if it’s all their fault, or they’re the only one who can save the day, either in their home or across the globe—to the point that overthinking destroys their normal, everyday functioning.

Signs You Are Overthinking

Here are some more signs of overthinking:

  • Isolating yourself or avoiding activities because of worry
  • Stuffing down your true, authentic emotions to protect yourself from disaster
  • Managing what you think other people want or expect
  • Having imaginary conversations where you come out on top
  • Asking other people for information that will reassure your worry or seeking validation from others about decisions
  • Catastrophizing—aka imagining the worst-case scenario in the future
  • Spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about a minor situation
  • Replaying an event from the past over and over in your head
  • Revisiting decisions you’ve already made
  • Feeling mentally exhausted

Whew. That list is tiring. But if you’re feeling these things, know there are steps you can take to start turning down the alarms and learn how to stop overthinking everything.

10 Tips to Stop Overthinking

You might recognize some of those signs of rumination in your own life. If you’re wondering, Cool, John. Now how do I stop overthinking negative thoughts? I’m going to lay it out for you. Remember: Overthinking isn’t the problem. If we assume your body is right—that it has noticed something unsafe in your environment—then that’s what we need to solve for. The goal is to take your foot off the gas and actually go somewhere. So, what does that look like? Here are 10 tips that can help you deal with underlying anxiety and learn how to stop overthinking.

1. Notice your behaviors.

If you want to stop overthinking, you first have to be aware that you’re doing it. Start noticing what happens to your body and behavior when your thoughts take off on you. Notice the behaviors that soothe the feelings in your body that take over when you overthink. Do you hide behind a Netflix binge or silence your mom’s call for the fourth time? Do you find yourself on Amazon buying more protein powder?

2. Write down your thoughts and challenge them.

There’s usually one anxious thought or belief that kicks off a cascade of overthinking. Whatever that core fear or worry is for you, when you start overthinking, I want you to begin writing down what you’re telling yourself. I’m about to get fired. I’m the worst dad in the world. I’m going to lose everything. They hate me. None of those things are probably true, but you can’t challenge those thoughts until you see them outside of your head, on paper. I like to carry around a small journal to write down my anxious thoughts—then, I can see very clearly that most of them aren’t true.

3. Learn what sets you off.

After you’ve spent time learning what overthinking looks like for you, you can work backward and pinpoint what kicks it off. Is there a work situation you feel anxious about? Sometimes it can be as straightforward as cutting back on caffeine or turning off the news. Is it election season and you’re spending too much time on social media, drowning in clickbait headlines and viral Instagram posts? Start to notice what events or environments kick off the overthinking.

4. Pause.

When you start overthinking, put some space between what just happened and how you’re about to respond to that thing. In the mental health world, we call this extending the gap between stimulus and response. The guy cut you off in traffic. Pause. Your teenager mouthed off. Pause. Take stock of what’s happening right in this moment. Notice where you are, what you see, what you hear, and so on. Then, instead of overthinking and reacting on impulse, you can approach your worries with a more centered mind.

5. Choose your stories carefully.

In every moment, you have a choice. How will you frame your experience? Peace of mind is a daily practice as much as a series of lifestyle changes that can help you deal with anxiety and overthinking. Right now, you can interrupt your overthinking by asking yourself, Is what I’m thinking true? Is thinking about this thing over and over going to change anything? Control what you can control and do what you can with the information you have. Peace is a choice. You get to choose the story you tell yourself. You can decide whether or not you’re going to spin up stories that aren’t true.

6. Choose forgiveness.

You’re not defined by the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. You’re not defined by the worst thing that ever happened. Sometimes forgiveness looks like forgiving yourself for letting someone or something from your past hurt you in the present. And if you feel like there’s some situation from the past that you need to apologize or make amends for, I encourage you to do that. Forgive yourself and let yourself off the hook. Say you’re sorry. Accept an apology. Choose forgiveness, open your hands, and let it go.

7. Connect with others.

Getting plugged into community and forming healthy relationships is essential for keeping anxiety at bay, and it can help with learning how to stop overthinking. Talking to a trusted therapist, mentor or friend can give you new perspectives and keep you grounded because you’ll have someone to share your thoughts with. Other people can help you make sense of what you’re thinking.

8. Take action.

One of the best ways to stop overthinking is to stop procrastinating and take action. Even the smallest step forward can be enough to relieve some of the anxiety behind overthinking. When you fixate on a problem, ask yourself: What can I do about it? Break the solution down to the smallest productive step to move forward. For example, if you’re overwhelmed thinking about cleaning your entire house, start small by putting the dishes in the sink instead of soothing yourself with distractions. One tiny step can help get the momentum going and quiet the overthinking.

9. Move your body.

Movement is one of the most healing things you can do when you’re feeling anxious or overthinking. Exercise helps reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Whether you stretch before bed, lift weights, walk around the office, or play outside with your kid, try to move your body every day. When you give your body something to do, your mind will follow. Stagnancy, or sitting still, is an open highway begging your thoughts to take off.

10. Shift your focus.

Making plans, considering how to improve your life, and being thoughtful about your health, relationships and money are all normal, healthy things to think about. But where overthinking gets dangerous is when it prevents you from normal, everyday functioning. If you find yourself ruminating, choose to believe that the power of the universe doesn’t rest on your shoulders. Remember that you’re not responsible for carrying the weight of the world—and that’s a good thing!

Take the Next Steps to Healing Anxiety

When it comes to learning how to stop overthinking everything, I want you to remember this: Overthinking isn’t the problem we’re trying to solve. Let’s assume that your body is right, and it’s noticed that something in your life or environment isn’t safe. Overthinking is something your body is doing to try to get your attention. And with the right tools, you can begin to quiet down your overthinking by building a life that’s free from anxiety. Check out my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life, to learn about the Six Daily Choices that will help you better respond to whatever life throws at you and live a more peaceful, joyful, non-anxious life.

Next Steps

  • Start noticing the things you overthink about and how your body responds in those moments.
  • Recognize that you’re not responsible for the whole universe, but do what you can to take action on things that worry you.
  • Check out my free Anxiety Test to learn more about which areas of life you might be overthinking—and what to do about it.
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Dr. John Delony

About the author

Dr. John Delony

Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with two PhDs from Texas Tech University—one in counselor education and supervision and the other in higher education administration. Before joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now at Ramsey Solutions, John writes, speaks and teaches on relationships, mental health, anxiety and wellness. He hosts The Dr. John Delony Show and also serves as co-host of The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk show in the nation. In 2022, John’s book Own Your Past, Change Your Future instantly became a #1 national bestseller. You can also find John featured on DailyMailTV, Fox Business and The Minimalists Podcast. Learn More.

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