What sets us apart from all other species? You guessed it – our brains.
The human brain is magnificently complex. Thanks to the cerebral cortex, with its 100 billion neurons, we have the unique ability to think, and to think about our thoughts. Unlike the monkey, moose or mouse, humans can philosophize, analyze, imagine, fantasize and predict.
We humans also have the unique ability to drive ourselves crazy with distracting thoughts that keep us awake at 3 in the morning.
It’s called “overthinking” and it’s the flipside to having an amazing brain.
All you need to know
Overthinking is incredibly common. Most people have at some point spent too much precious time and energy overthinking. Your friend doesn’t respond to your text message – did you do something to upset her? Or you’ve been feeling unwell lately, and you start thinking about the diseases you might have. You had a minor argument with the neighbor, and now you’re lying awake in bed, wondering if you were too aggressive or over the top.
All these are examples of ways we overthink. When overthinking sets in, it can be very unpleasant. It can prevent you from being focused and productive, and make it hard to enjoy the moment. In extreme cases, overthinking can spiral into panic attacks or insomnia.
The best way to prevent overthinking is first understanding why we overthink, and how we fall into the pattern of overthinking in the first place.
Why does overthinking happen?
Thinking occurs in the front part of the brain where the high-functioning cerebral cortex is located. However when a person overthinks (particularly when thought patterns are negative or destructive), this triggers the amygdala at the back base of the brain, which controls the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response. Then, a whole lot of anxious symptoms set in, such as rapid breathing and increased heart rate, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and lack of concentration.
But why do we overthink in the first place? No one knows for sure. The human brain has evolved with the higher capacity to think things through, solve problems and become more productive and efficient. Perhaps when we overthink, it’s simply that our natural and healthy capability has gone into overdrive. That’s when thinking becomes overthinking, and it’s no longer productive, but destructive.
Destructive thought patterns
If you’ve ever spiraled in a destructive thought pattern, you know how uncomfortable and even frightening it can be. A small thought or worry – “Will I be able to pay my bills this month?”; “Is he ignoring me on purpose?” – can quickly cascade into destructive overthinking defined by excessive rumination, catastrophizing (imagining the worst), or incessant worrying over things that have happened, or may happen in the future.
Overthinking is irrational and unhelpful, but that’s not how it feels when it’s happening. During a destructive thought pattern, the thoughts often take on a complete life of their own – bigger and deeper fears and worries that lead to a real sense of anxiety and helplessness. That’s when you know overthinking has gone too far.
What to do?
The good news is, the same way your mind has created those thoughts and patterns, it has the power to change them. One of the most difficult aspects of controlling overthinking is that the thoughts feel so real – especially in the middle of the night when they stop you from relaxing and falling asleep! But they are not real; they are in fact fleeting fruits of an overactive mind and you can overcome them, once you learn how to stop overthinking.
Overcoming negative thoughts
When you get stuck in overthinking, you’d be surprised just how much brain power gets gobbled up – all of which could be used for much more productive, creative and positive purposes! Plus, overthinking is no fun at all. It can really squeeze the joy and lightness out of life, so getting it under control is really important.
How to stop overthinking – 7 strategies
Overcoming negative thoughts takes practice and commitment. Overthinking won’t stop on its own. There are steps and behaviors you can do to let go of negative thought patterns and recover a calm, productive mind. Let’s explore some tips about how to stop overthinking and negative thoughts, so you can improve your mental health no matter what’s on your mind.
1. Focus on problem-solving
A good technique for how to stop overthinking is by bringing your mind back to the problem at hand, and taking practical steps to solve it. For example, if you are worried about a physical symptom, book an appointment with the doctor instead of googling for answers. If you’re ruminating that you might have offended someone, send them a quick message of apology, or discuss your feelings with a friend and choose to let it go. Make a conscious decision to change what you can, and let go of what you can’t control. Keep it real, and don’t give way to destructive thought patterns rooted in unreality.
2. Schedule time for reflection
Your brain is dealing with around 70,000 thoughts a day. No wonder you get overwhelmed and start overthinking! A smart way around this is to schedule time to reflect on your thoughts and what is going on in your life.
For example, you get an email inviting you to a party on the weekend, but you really don’t want to go. So the thoughts begin: How will I get out of it? Maybe I should go? Why don’t I want to go? Am I too self-conscious and introverted? All these and more start to flood your mind. Instead of letting overthinking distract you and disrupt your workday, make a mental note to reflect on the party invitation for 10 minutes at 7pm. By carving out dedicated time and space to reflect, you can place boundaries around unruly thoughts, solve problems more effectively, and put things in their proper perspective.
3. Do something nice for someone else
A surefire way to get out of your own head and stop overthinking is by focusing on someone else. In a 2019 study, researchers found that when people focused on doing moral good (such as helping others or devoting time to charity), their sense of purpose and well-being increased.
Action is an antidote to thinking. Taking action and doing something nice for another is a fast and concrete way to refocus your attention and learn how to stop overthinking everything in its tracks.
4. Play tricks on your brain
The question of how to stop overthinking at night is a tough one. When it’s dark and quiet, and everyone is asleep, it’s much harder to control incessant thinking and stop negative thoughts from crowding in. It’s called ‘bed brain’, when all the events of the day come flooding through our minds, leading to trouble falling asleep and even full-blown insomnia, which only leaves us more exhausted and susceptible to overthinking.
One way to overcome this is by playing tricks on your brain. First, understand this: you can’t just tell yourself to stop thinking about something; it won’t work. The moment you say to yourself, “stop thinking about how you reacted to your boss today and go to sleep!”, your brain will naturally think about how you reacted to your boss. By trying not to think about it, you inevitably think about it! Instead, make a conscious decision to think about something else, something pleasant. Think about your favorite movie, recite your favorite poem in your head, or count sheep. This will put a stop to overthinking in the dead of night.
5. Find a distraction
It is very difficult to think about two things at once, so when you find yourself starting to overthink, nip it in the bud by distracting your mind with something else. Play the piano, talk to a friend, watch a compelling documentary, bake a complicated cake! Just scrolling on social media won’t be enough to distract you if you are spiraling into overthinking. Choose an activity that really occupies your mind and engages your senses. You’ll find there is no room for idle overthinking and negative thought patterns.
6. Positive reframing
Overthinking is bad because it involves thought patterns that are stuck on negativity. On the other hand, daydreaming about happy things is a wonderful part of life and is highly recommended to boost your sense of contentment and wellbeing. One way to stop overthinking and relax is by turning negative thoughts into positive ones. For example, if you are overthinking how you talked back to your brother, consider that it means you are being assertive and standing up for yourself. Or if you are over-stressing about how tired you are, reframe the thought into appreciating how your life is full of work, productivity and people you love. Don’t underestimate the power of positive reframing: nearly 90% of people who think positively live healthier lifestyles.
7. Meditate and relax
Meditation has lots of benefits, but one of the most important is that it trains you to observe thoughts as they occur, without judgment, and let them go. This is a key skill in learning how to stop overthinking and relax.
Mindfulness meditation is a particularly good technique for combatting overthinking. Yet, for some people, meditating with mindfulness is challenging because it feels kind of ‘abstract’. Thoughts are not tangible – you can’t hold them or feel them – so controlling them doesn’t come easily. This is where a biofeedback meditation device can really help.
With biofeedback, you can see and understand the physiological effects of thoughts as they occur in your body. For example, when you think of something stressful, your breathing becomes faster and your heart rate increases. During meditation, you take deep breaths and let negative thoughts go, so your body relaxes and your heart rate slows. With a biofeedback meditation device such as Reflect, you can note when and how your body relaxes, and practice getting into that state more often. In this way, you can break the habit of overthinking and use the calming effects of meditation to stop negative thought patterns and their consequences.
Last word – Are you stressed about what others think of you?
We all have deep fears about what others think of us, but guess what? A Wharton research study showed that people usually judge themselves more harshly than others do. That means you can give yourself permission to let go of overthinking about one of the most common stressors.
This is easier said than done, of course. Fear of rejection and abandonment are hard-wired into humans, as part of our natural makeup. But the knowledge that we are overthinking how others perceive us can go a long way to ‘curing’ negative thought patterns and the stress that comes with overthinking. So relax, breathe, be yourself, and follow the tips above to stop overthinking. Your life will reach new levels of joy and peace.
Learn a little more about the benefits of biofeedback.