5 Science-Backed Ways to Stop Overthinking

By Kate Harveston
February 26, 2021

Do you question every decision long after you've made it? Have you obsessed for hours after a meeting wondering if your colleagues—and your boss—thought your comments were dumb? We all have moments where self-doubt creeps in and makes us unsure of ourselves. But when your insecurities and second-guessing start to weigh on your mind to the point that you find it difficult to move forward, you are likely overthinking—and that can negatively impact your life.

Overthinking occurs when decisions big and small kick off endless rounds of “What if?” questions. For example, “What if I had stayed in that other job instead of taking this new one? What if I'd followed my brother’s driving directions instead of following those from the gas station attendant?” Overthinking prevents your brain from shutting off. It keeps you stuck ruminating over the past and makes you lose touch with what's happening in the present. Fortunately, you can adopt the proven strategies below to help you break this habit.

Master Your Thoughts with Meditation

If someone tells you not to think about a pink elephant, guess what your mind turns to? Merely willing yourself to stop overthinking won’t work. Instead, you need to redirect your thoughts. Meditation gives our brains space to think freely about any number of things. During this practice, thoughts may bubble up to the surface of our consciousness; but, we just acknowledge their presence and let them drift away without allowing any one thought to overshadow the others.

Studies show that mindful meditation can ease psychological stresses, such as anxiety and depression. On this inward journey, focus on what you feel and sense at a particular moment. Realize that whatever you fear most is not happening at present. Allow your thoughts to emerge free from judgment. Let them flow like a river while you sit quietly. Taking the time to observe your mental patterns allows you to recognize which ones are counterproductive. You can also practice loving-kindness meditation. With this method, you start to channel a feeling of universal peace and acceptance toward yourself and others. Studies show that this practice can be particularly useful in dealing with social anxiety and may help you slow those wheels that are constantly spinning in your head.

Get the Write Stuff

Getting your thoughts out of your head and down on paper by jotting them in a journal can also help you conquer overthinking. Start with a stream-of-consciousness practice. Allow each idea to emerge naturally and, as it forms, write it down without judging. For example, “I'm worried I shouldn't have turned down that job offer. True, I would not enjoy the work, but I might never get another opportunity to earn that high of a salary. What if my current employer lets me go? Have I shut a door that I should have left open?” As you write, you'll likely notice counter thoughts arising. “Right now, I enjoy my Sunday evenings. I like what I do and I look forward to waking up each day. If I had taken the other position, I'd waste at least one perfectly good evening every week dreading the day ahead.” Jot these down, too.

At first, journaling may feel awkward, especially if you feel embarrassed about your overthinking. But give it time. After a few days, the practice will become more natural, and you’ll likely notice a few positive changes in your mindset.

When journaling becomes a daily habit, studies show stress levels decrease over time as effectively as other stress management techniques. Stress is often a contributor to overthinking, sparking anxiety that leads to worried thoughts.

As your stress decreases, you’ll get a clear mind with which to weigh your thoughts and see which are worth your time and which aren’t. Even scientific evidence backs this technique—researchers have found journaling can help reduce intrusive thoughts, organize scattered memories and improve your overall mental and physical health. Journaling also helps people hone their focus so that they think about only one thing at a time. When you write your thoughts by hand, you can only write one word at a time. Your thoughts slow down to match your writing speed and you’ll find that it’s easier to slip out of your overthinking mindset.

Talk to a Supportive Friend

Your friends can also help you stop overthinking—if they're aware you're struggling. Invite someone you trust for coffee or tea. Confess that you're second-guessing every decision and enlist their help in gaining better control over your thoughts by pointing out when they notice you ruminating over done deals. Ask them to listen for questions such as, “What would you have done?” This indicates you're mulling over a decision you’ve already made. Make a mental note to ask this instead before making a choice: “What do you recommend I do and why?”

Keep in mind, though, that while asking one or two friends for help may help calm your overthinking, the more opinions you solicit, the more your thoughts will swirl. Too many viewpoints create a roadblock to making a decision. The best strategy is to keep your oversight circle small—so limit it to just a close friend or family member. Their outsider’s perspective is key to catching that moment when you overthink your overthinking.

Cognitively Reframe Your Thoughts

Use a tip from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to reframe your thoughts. Start by writing your thoughts down. For example, you might record thoughts that annoy you, negative beliefs, or any ideas you just want out of your head. These might be a mix of emotional thoughts, depending on the mindset that led to the overthinking. Then, locate the negative thoughts and those that are far-removed from reality, and write down a more positive counter thought to combat each. For instance, if you first wrote about how you’ll never finish a project, you might follow that with, "Yes, this is a lengthy project, but the payoff in residual income makes the effort worthwhile," or even, "Shakespeare didn't complete his great works overnight!"

Writing negative thoughts down and following them with positive, or at least more realistic, ones to combat them takes the power out of your overthinking. Instead of leaving your thoughts to race around your mind, you lay them out in front of you and dissect them until your head is only filled with facts.

Symbolically Let It Go

Finally, once you've made a final decision, create a ritual to help you accept it and move on. You might write down the choice you made on a slip of paper and toss it into the fireplace or tear it up and scatter it in the wind. Take a bath, and when you drain the water, imagine all your past choices swirling away. Even Cher couldn’t turn back time. All you can do is move forward with your clean, refreshed self.

It takes time and dedication, but you can stop overthinking and free your mind to enjoy more of the positive things in life. The key is to not give up. Practice different techniques, and give them time to work. As you navigate these new strategies, you have the potential to break your overthinking habit and take back power over your own thoughts.

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