Learn all about overthinking, why it is unhelpful, and how to stop.
Has anyone ever told you, “you’re overthinking it”? Then you’re not alone. Many of us are familiar with the experience of overthinking. Generally, “overthinking” refers to the process of repetitive, unproductive thought. Since thoughts can be focused on many different things, research has generally differentiated between “rumination” about the past and “worry” about the future. Regardless of which word we use, we are talking about two versions of overthinking loops that don’t seem to have a resolution.
“Over”-thinking involves thinking that is not getting us anywhere and is not helpful to us. So, if you notice that you are stuck thinking about the same issue over and over again but are not coming to any sort of “solution,” you may be overthinking.
So, what sorts of things do we tend to overthink about?
As mentioned earlier, “rumination” is the word often used in research to refer to a repetitive and unproductive way of thinking about the past (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Regrets and resentments might fall into this category. For example, have you found yourself sad that you didn't take a different path in life or angry that another person treated you poorly? Or, perhaps you keep thinking about the embarrassing thing you said on a Zoom call last week. Regardless of what it is, you may be overthinking the past in ways that are not helping you in the present or future.
It is also possible to overthink aspects of the present, such as your circumstances, relationships, personality, or identity. Do you wonder day in and day out whether you are in the right relationship, job, or city? Your relationship with yourself can be shaped largely by the thoughts you have about yourself in the present. Do you tend to think of yourself positively or do you tend to overthink about your perceived character flaws and mistakes?
Overthinking about the future often falls into the category of “worry.” You might be worried about something in the short term like an upcoming presentation for school or work. Or you might be preoccupied with more long-term existential concerns, like “will I ever feel fulfilled in life?” or “what if I never find a partner?”
Why is Overthinking Unhelpful?
When you are overthinking, you are likely trying to solve a problem in your life. Am I pursuing the right career? Is this relationship right for me? How can I get a better handle on my finances? The catch-22 here is that overthinking actually harms our ability to make decisions. van Randenborgh and colleagues found that rumination negatively affected individuals’ decision-making processes, with ruminating participants finding decisions more difficult and being less confident in their decisions (2010).
Research has also found a strong association between overthinking and mood (Segerstrom et al., 2000). In particular, future-focused worry has been associated with anxiety (McLaughlin et al., 2007). And, research suggests that changing worried thoughts can reduce anxiety (Gana et al., 2001).
How to Stop Overthinking
Not only can overthinking rev us up and make us feel anxious, but it can work the other way too - feeling anxious can lead to more worry, creating a vicious cycle. You can stop this cycle in its tracks by using relaxation techniques. What sorts of activities help you relax? Perhaps it’s going for a walk, taking some deep breaths, doing yoga, or watching a feel-good movie. If you notice that you are on edge, take a step back and ask yourself what you can do for yourself to relax.
2. Get some perspective
Mindfulness and similar contemplative practices allow us to step back from our train of thought to better recognize where it is going. This ability to take a more objective look at our thoughts is key to stopping overthinking. When we are overthinking, we can feel consumed by whatever issue we are focusing on and be unable to find perspective. When you find yourself in this place, it might be helpful to ask yourself, “Will this issue still matter to me in a year, five years, etc.?”
3. Try problem-focused thinking
It might be informative to ask yourself, “Are these thoughts helpful to me?” Once you have an awareness of when you are overthinking, you can take a step back and decide how you want to move forward. Here are some options:
You realize that the issue you are overthinking is not worth focusing on, and you turn your attention and energy elsewhere.
You recognize the problem at the root of your overthinking and make a game plan to proactively solve this problem.
4. Talk it out
A common maxim in cognitive-behavioral therapy is, “thoughts are not facts.” It is so important to remember this because thoughts that we have about ourselves, our past, and our future can feel like facts: “I am not a likable person because I don’t think I’m fun to be around.” As you start to recognize when your thinking may not be helpful or reflect reality, it can be helpful to talk to people you trust. Sometimes just getting an outside opinion can help reframe how you think about a situation.
5. Learn from your pets
In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky highlights the differences in how we experience stress compared to other species (2004). The title of the book alludes to the idea that while other species such as zebras might experience momentary stressors like running from a predator, they generally do not experience chronic stress like us. This is related to their propensity to live in the present moment. Your dog is not ruminating about when she fell yesterday in front of all the dogs at the dog park or worrying about whether she is doing enough with her life.
Overthinking is not just unhelpful, it can actively harm our well-being. Understanding what overthinking is, why we do it, and learning how to stop it using some of the tips above could help you break free from patterns that are holding you back.
Gana, K., Martin, B., & Canouet, M. D. (2001). Worry and anxiety: is there a causal relationship?. Psychopathology, 34(5), 221-229.
McLaughlin, K. A., Borkovec, T. D., & Sibrava, N. J. (2007). The effect of worry and rumination on affect states and cognitive activity. Behavior Therapy, 38, 23–38.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 569.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Holt paperbacks.
Segerstrom, S. C., Tsao, J. C., Alden, L. E., & Craske, M. G. (2000). Worry and rumination: Repetitive thought as a concomitant and predictor of negative mood. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24(6), 671-688.
van Randenborgh, A., de Jong‐Meyer, R., & Hüffmeier, J. (2010). Rumination fosters indecision in dysphoria. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 66(3), 229-248.