How to stop overthinking (and get on with your day)

We tend to think about thinking as something positive. But overthinking is far from it.

Not only can overthinking keep you from getting things done, it can also wreak serious havoc on your mental wellbeing and cause elevated stress levels. And if overthinking goes unchecked for too long, you may even end up depressed (The Science Times).

What's overthinking?

Overthinking is going over (and over) what happened last week or last month, and second-guessing everything you said and did, not to mention imagining the worst possible outcomes on repeat.

It's also known as ruminating, dwelling and worrying. Psychology Today even coined a term for this concept of thoughts on an endless loop with diminishing returns, calling it 'redundant deliberation'. And you may not think of it as such but…

Overthinking is a habit

Yep, you heard us right. For most of us (there are always exceptions), overthinking is quite simply, a habit we acquire.

And a study led by University of Michigan psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that 73% of 25-35 year-olds and 52% of 45-55 year-olds overthink. The study also found that overthinking was a factor in depression and anxiety, particularly in women, and interfered with 'good-problem-solving'.

The good news is that just as with many behaviours that harm mental wellbeing, overthinking is something that can be changed.

It takes some effort, but keeping your overthinking to a minimum is 100% feasible and 1000% worth the work.

Keep reading for six techniques from science to help you stop overthinking and get back to what you'd rather be doing.

1. Pay attention to your thoughts.

Sometimes it's hard to see your overthinking because it's such a habit you don't even notice what you're doing. The Harvard Business Review recommends observing your thoughts AND identifying any recurring triggers.

One way to keep track of what you're thinking about is by jotting things down somewhere. You could go old-school with a journal, or write your entry on-the-go using your phone and the thought record feature in Foundations.

Whether you're replaying past mistakes or worrying about events outside your control, acknowledge how you feel. It’s also a good idea to start learning how to recognise repetitive thoughts that aren’t helpful or useful in any way.

@hannaholinger via Unplash

2. Focus on what you can control.

Remember, letting yourself get absorbed in your problems isn't going to resolve anything. If you have some control over any part of what's happening, try to move your focus to what you can do to prevent or resolve the issue.

If you don't have control over what's going on, consider coping strategies.

If you’re feeling really stressed and just need to calm down in a hurry, take a short walk or use a few minutes to meditate or pare your focus down to what’s in front of you. When you’re feeling calmer, think about how your attitude and effort can make a difference now and in the future.

3. Question your thoughts.

Don't let yourself get carried away by negative thoughts. Recognise that your mind may be making mountains out of molehills as your emotions interfere with your ability to look at situations objectively.

Take a minute and think about the evidence. Is there evidence that your thought is true?

Even if it's true, will it matter in a month, a year, or ten years?

Another good tactic called the ‘five whys’ can be borrowed from productivity science. If you're feeling or thinking a certain way, ask yourself why. Answer once. Then ask yourself again, and keep going until you reach a fifth, and hopefully more complete explanation. For more on the five whys, head to Lifehack's 5 Whys How-to-Guide.

4. Take time to reflect.

Dwelling on your problems for too long is never a good idea, but reflection can be useful. Give yourself time to think your thoughts, and mull over why you're mulling them over.

Reflecting on how they make you feel can help you to identify your pain points, leading to less overthinking in the future.

In Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine, Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, recommends using the following three questions from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to get some perspective:

1. What's the worst-case scenario?

2. What's the best-case scenario?

3. What's most realistic or likely?

5. Write it down.

We can’t stress this one enough. If your thoughts won't budge, just ordering them to bug off won't do much to keep them from popping back up.

Give yourself some mental space by moving your thoughts from your brain onto a page, digital or otherwise.

According to the American Psychological Association, not only does journalling strengthen the mind, it can also strengthen the immune system.

6. Try mindfulness.

Learning to live in the present moment is one of our favourite ways to limit overthinking. We’re such big fans of mindfulness we built it into Foundations.

You can't be stuck in thoughts about tomorrow and yesterday when you're living in the here and now.

Recommended by Johns Hopkins Medicine and Harvard Health for stress-relief, mindfulness takes time and effort, but with regular practice, it can decrease overthinking. One way to be more present in your body in the here and now is with deep belly breathing—it’s been proven to lower your blood pressure and heart rate, too.

What are some things you do to stop overthinking? Share your experience with us at foundations@koahealth.com​.