Have you ever been in a situation where you would be enjoying a quiet moment, doing something productive, and you suddenly end up getting carried away by thoughts? And as you try to pull back from that situation, you cannot help but start overthinking. For example, after giving a presentation to your work colleagues, you find yourself repeatedly thinking about what your colleagues might have thought about your performance, whether you could have done a better job, been clearer and more engaging in your delivery, and the list goes on and on. 

Overthinking is something that we all do at some point; however, getting caught up and lost in our thoughts can affect anything and everything in our life, and take a toll on our emotional health. Most of the problems or situations we create in our mind are rooted in fear and do not help us, although we may believe that by overthinking, we are somehow solving our problems or protecting ourselves in some way. However, what we are actually doing is robbing ourselves of the gift of the present moment. 

Here are five strategies to help you stop overthinking:

1. Awareness

The first step is becoming more aware of your overthinking. You can do this by paying attention to your thoughts and making a note of every time you notice yourself overthinking. As you become more aware of your overthinking, you are in a much better position to do something about it.

2. Identify the underlying emotions

Overthinking often serves an emotional function, i.e., it does something for your feelings. For example, when you start overthinking by worrying about an upcoming work project, overthinking may be functioning to alleviate some anxiety you have about your project. However, while overthinking may distract you from your anxiety, it does not really address what you are worried about and makes you more anxious in the long run. Instead, taking the time to get curious about the emotions behind overthinking and validate them is likely to be more productive in the long run than simply avoiding them with overthinking.

3. Write down your thoughts

There are two main benefits to writing down your thoughts rather than doing it in your head. First, you cannot write as fast as you think, therefore you are going to have far fewer thinking cycles. Secondly, seeing your thoughts on paper helps you to spot unhelpful thoughts and assumptions, and gain perspective on them, which makes you better placed to face them; for example, are you blowing things out of context? Are you overreacting? Will it really matter next week, in six months, in one year, in five years?

4. Ring-fence a specific time for thinking

The more you try to control your overthinking, the more you are likely to keep overthinking. So, a good way to counter such a tendency is by accepting that it is happening and scheduling a time period (e.g., 20 minutes) into your daily schedule, during which you are actively reflecting, thinking, and mulling over whatever you want. When the ‘thinking time’ is over, move on to something else. And when you start overthinking things outside of your scheduled ‘thinking time’, gently remind yourself that you will need to wait until your ‘thinking time’ to address those issues in your mind. If you get in the habit of setting aside future ‘thinking times’, your mind may become less insistent with its desire to overthink, which means you will have less difficulty in resisting it in the moment.

5. Change your activity

If you cannot make yourself stop thinking about something, it may help to try to change what you are doing and divert your attention to another activity. When you notice yourself overthinking, try to purposefully focus on an activity that is unrelated to your thoughts. An example of this is engaging in a conversation on a completely different topic, exercising, or practicing any hobby you like can help you to switch the focus of your attention and stop overthinking.

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.