How can I stop ‘overthinking’? This is a solution from a clinical psychologist


As a clinical psychologist, I often encounter clients who say that they are troubled by thoughts that “repeat endlessly” in their heads, which they find difficult to overcome.

Rumination (ruminating) and overthinking (thinking too much) are often considered the same. The two are related but slightly different. Rumination is thinking about things over and over in our minds. This can lead to overthinking – analyzing those thoughts without finding a solution or solving the problem.

It’s like a vinyl record that plays the same part of the song over and over again because of scratches. While the reasons we think too much are a little more complicated.

Be alert to threats

Our brains are programmed to guard against threats, make plans to deal with those threats and keep us safe. These threat perceptions may be based on past experiences, or “possibilities” that we imagine could happen in the future.

These possibilities are usually negative outcomes of the “What if?” mindset. These are what we call “ hot thoughts ”–they bring up a lot of emotions (especially sadness, worry or anger), which means we can easily get caught up in these thoughts and keep dwelling on them.

Because it is about things that have happened or may happen in the future (but are not happening now), we cannot solve the problem and it keeps us thinking about the same thing.

Who thinks too much?

Most people at some time find themselves in a situation of overthinking.

Some people may ruminate more often . People who have faced challenges or experienced trauma may be more alert and on guard against threats than people who have never experienced adversity.

Deep thinkers, people who are prone to anxiety or bad moods, and those who are sensitive or feel emotions deeply are also more likely to ruminate and overthink.

Additionally, when we are stressed, our emotions tend to become stronger and last longer. Our thoughts become less accurate, which means we can get caught up in thoughts more than usual.

Being lethargic or physically unwell can also make our thoughts more difficult to cope with and manage.

Acknowledge your feelings

When thoughts keep repeating themselves, it helps to use strategies that focus on emotions and problems.

Focusing on emotions means finding out how we feel about something and working through those feelings. For example, we may feel regret, anger or sadness about something that has happened. Or, we could be worried about something that might happen.

Acknowledging these emotions, using self-care techniques, and accessing social support to talk about and manage your feelings will be helpful.

The second part is focusing on the problem–what you would do differently (if the thought was about something from your past) and making a plan to deal with future possibilities that arise from your thinking.

However, it is difficult to plan for all contingencies, so this strategy has limited utility.

What’s more helpful is to plan for one or two more likely possibilities and accept that there may be things you didn’t think of.

Think about the reasons

Our feelings and experiences are information–it’s important to ask what this information is telling you and why this thought is occurring now.

For example, the university has just restarted. Parents of high school graduates may lie awake at night (a time when rumination and overthinking are common) worrying about their child.

Knowing how we will respond to several possibilities that may occur, such as our child may need money, is lonely or homesick, can help.

However, overthinking is also a sign of a new stage in your life, and you need to reduce control over your child’s choices and life, while wanting the best for him. Being aware of this means you can also talk about these feelings with other people.

Let those thoughts go

A useful way to manage overthinking is “ change it, accept it and let it go ”.

Challenge and change aspects of your thinking as much as possible. For example, the likelihood that your child will run out of money, have no food, and go hungry (overthinking tends to make your brain come up with very bad consequences!) is unlikely.

You can plan to ask your child regularly about how he is coping with financial problems and encourage him to access budgeting support from university services.

Your thoughts are just ideas. These things are not necessarily true or accurate, but if we think about them too much and repeat them over and over again, they will start to feel right because they are familiar. Coming up with more realistic thoughts can help stop unnecessary thought loops.

Accepting emotions and finding ways to manage them such as good self-care, social support, or communication with those closest to you, will also help. Likewise, accepting that life is definitely uncontrollable – what we can control are our reactions and behavior.

Remember that you have a 100% success rate in passing the challenges to date. You may want to do something differently (and plan to do it) but you’ve already succeeded.

So, the final part is letting go of the need to know exactly how things will turn out, and trusting in your (and sometimes others’) ability to handle it.

What else can you do?

A stressed and tired brain is more likely to overthink, causing more stress and creating a cycle that can affect your happiness or well-being .

So, it’s important to manage your stress levels by eating and sleeping well, moving your body, doing things you enjoy, meeting people you love, and doing things that energize your soul and spirit.

Distraction – by doing fun activities and meeting people who make you happy – can also keep your thoughts from repeating themselves.

If you feel like overthinking is affecting your life, and your anxiety levels are increasing or your mood is decreasing–sleep, appetite, and enjoyment of life and people are being negatively impacted–it may be time to talk to someone and find out strategies for managing it.

When things become too difficult to manage on your own (or with the help of those close to you), a therapist can provide tools that have proven helpful. Some useful tools for managing your worries and thoughts can also be found here .

When you find yourself overthinking , think about why you’re having “hot thoughts,” acknowledge your feelings, and engage in future-focused problem solving. But also accept that life is unpredictable and focus on your confidence and ability to cope.

Author Bio: Kirsty Ross is Associate Professor and Senior Clinical Psychologist at Massey University