A long time back, I had the bad habit of thinking on and on for no reason. Over the years, I have learned how to stop overthinking and have started maintaining a serene mindset.
In this article, I will share:
- the reasons why you overthink
- examples of the behavior
- how to overcome overthinking and relax
Back in the days, I believed thinking as one of the most powerful human abilities. I still do, but I had the wrong approach in the past. I used thinking to create negative emotions and fuel my fears.
If I were making a decision, I would think, “What if things go wrong?” If a lousy event occurred, I would look for all the possible causes to explain the occurrence.
Such thinking only led to further thoughts and a deeper spiral. In most cases, no good came out of it. I ended up mentally exhausted with low motivation.
To beat overthinking, you must identify the reasons behind such behavior first. So let’s dive right into that.
- What causes overthinking?
- Common examples of overthinking
- How to stop overthinking and relax
- 1. Use philosophical razors
- 2. Operate within your locus of control
- 3. Change your stories
- 4. Find something else to do
- 5. Focus on the solution
- 6. Ask yourself if overthinking makes the situation better
- 7. Try to tweak your emotion from a negative to a positive state
What causes overthinking?
Here is how your brain thinks:
When you encounter a problem, you find a reason to explain the cause. Often, you do not have enough evidence to support the thoughts your brain comes up with. So you either think deeper to hunt for proof or find a different reason.
For example, let us consider the case where you sent a text message to a person, but you did not receive a response. You start with a simple reason that she did not view the message.
Now, if the read receipts are off, you have no evidence to prove that. You try to find a different reason – “it looks like she is busy”. As time passes, doubt creeps in – “she is ignoring me on purpose.” Until you have concrete proof to explain the event, you go on speculating different causes.
Your brain goes through a similar thought process while making a decision too. You presume a possible outcome of your decision. Since you cannot guarantee the result, you think of an alternative. This loop can go on and on until you want to.
For example, let us assume you want to quit your job and start your venture. You start with the assumption that your venture will turn successful within a year.
When you think a little more, you realize you do not have any evidence to prove that statement. So you start with a minor negative thought – “What if it takes longer to succeed?”
In no time, this snowballs into a chain of evil thoughts. “What if I never succeed? What if I lose everything I have.” Fear grapples you, and you end up paralyzed to decide at all.
The main factor which leads to overthinking is – uncertainty.
The tricky part here is, things will always be unclear. You cannot predict the future for every decision you are making. You also cannot collect absolute proof for each event that occured.
Finally, it is your reaction to uncertainty that leads to the overthinking disorder.
Once you get into overthinking mode, your brain forms patterns that don’t exist. Such a tendency is called the clustering illusion.
It is a flaw of the human mind where we find patterns in random information when none exist. Your brain, by default, tries to identify trends to make better decisions.
But guess what you do if you can’t find it? Your brain simply creates one.
We see patterns that do not exist. We see a streak when there are none. We see shapes and symbols in a pile of irregular and random data.
For the same reason, two people can look at the same cloud and observe a different shape.
Our brain has a hard time accepting that the information was random or an event occurred due to coincidence. The behavior gains more prominence when we have a small amount of data. The lack of data prompts us to think we have the ability of a clairvoyant wizard who can predict the future.
Don’t let overthinking create problems that don’t existZig Ziglar
The other factors which lead to overthinking
How busy you are
The more time you have at your disposal, the more the opportunity to overthink.
The impact of the event
If the consequences of the event are minor, you feel comfortable brushing it off. When the stakes are high, you start thinking longer.
The people involved
Folks involved with the event makes a difference in how badly it bothers you. If people associated are among your trusted folks, you find it easier to let go. If anyone suspicious has a connection to the event, your skeptical mind turns on.
Whether you look at the positive or negative side of life determines how you think. The reality remains as is.
What you choose to believe is what shapes your thoughts. One person looks at a mishap and thinks someone did it intentionally. Another person looks at the same setback and finds areas to improve.
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.Wayne Dyer
Common examples of overthinking
Though overthinking differs from person to person, it occurs in 3 broad categories. Consider them as symptoms for overthinking if you like to. They can apply to overthinking about work, relationships or calamities.
1. Worrying about the past
When a rare event occurs, you start fearing the same could happen to you. After a shark attacked Bethany Hamilton, people stayed away from the waters for a couple of years. Some fear a shark attack even today.
While such risks are real, they are far rarer than they appear.
The dramatic factor and the rarity of the event lead to a more significant fear. You worry more about a terrorist attack than a heart attack even though the latter has a much higher chance.
The fear induced by the scary events forces your mind to worry. You grow anxious about such tragedies happening to yourself, which in reality never occur. To make that worse, stress affects your health too.
2. Fear of the future
The uncertainty of events leads to worry about the future.
- Planning to start your venture? You fear about your business failing in the future
- Looking to invest in stocks? You worry about the market coming crashing down
- Looking to write a book? You brood over not selling any copies
The future will remain uncertain whether you overthink or not. The best you can do is make decisions based on research and facts. Some of the choices you make will have to be a leap of faith.
3. Assuming bad intentions
When you face a situation where things went wrong or against your liking, you can categorize the reasons as follows:
- Simple errors
- Dramatic events
- Bad Intentions
The reasons such as negligence, error, or stupidity, do not occur to you first. Even if they do, you dismiss them as too obvious or boring.
If a colleague does not reply to your email, you assume he is doing it on purpose. Your mind starts looking for proof that justifies your assumption. “Does he want to hinder my growth? Is he seeking revenge? He dislikes me for no reason.”
The thoughts escalate from one bad intention to another.
How to stop overthinking and relax
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one fit for all technique to stop overthinking and worrying. Various factors trigger such worry and not one method can solve them all. Try applying these techniques and see what suits you and the occasion the best.
1. Use philosophical razors
In philosophy, razors are principles that help you “shave off” bad thoughts and actions. Two major razors provide wisdom to avoid overthinking.
The principle states that, if there are 2 explanations for the event, the simpler one is the likely cause. In other words, it says, the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely the reason is.
The Occam’s razor helps you overcome the category of overthinking caused by the fear of the past.
The principle derives its roots from the Occams razor itself. The law suggests avoiding assuming wrong intentions when stupidity, negligence, incompetence, or errors could explain the cause. The chances of the event occurring due to wrong intentions are far lesser than you assume.
The Hanlon’s razor helps you avoid the category of overthinking caused by assuming bad intentions.
2. Operate within your locus of control
Thinking does not help you change things, acting does. Unless your thoughts help you modify the consequences of the event or reduce its occurrence in the future, you are only disturbing your peace of mind by overthinking.
You have a locus of control depicted in the orange circle below. You can only influence those areas by putting in the effort to change the outcome. No matter what you do, you cannot change anything outside your locus of control depicted in the blue circle.
You can break your head all night, but if the area lies outside your locus of control, you can do nothing about it.
3. Change your stories
This is a method suggested by Tony Robbins.
Your mind is full of stories you choose to tell yourself.
If your crush hasn’t shown up on your first date yet, you can tell any of the two stories:
- She won’t show up
- She got delayed due to …
You can change the story to see things in a positive light to avoid overthinking. Sooner or later, you will know the truth. Until then, do not have to give yourself an anxiety attack.
4. Find something else to do
An idle mind is a devil’s workshop. If you have nothing to do, your brain starts thinking. But if you engage yourself in other tasks, you reduce the chances of overthinking.
- Worried about a hurricane? Pick up the guitar and start strumming.
- Thinking why did your manager not promote you? Go meet a friend and enjoy a drink.
- Anxious if your friend broke your trust? Starting cleaning the cupboard.
Your mind has a hard time focusing on two tasks that require conscious attention. So switch to a job that requires you to apply your brainpower. The more focus a task needs to execute, the more likely you are to stop overthinking.
Be wary about ignoring problems by finding a replacement activity. Sometimes you might find a temporary workaround to a real problem.
For example, if you are overthinking about your job, drinking alcohol isn’t the right way to get it off your mind. Make sure the technique does not lead you to overlook the evident issues you have.
5. Focus on the solution
Most of the things you worry about have either already occurred or are yet to occur. What will overthinking do to either of them? Nothing.
You are better off trying to find a fix than lamenting over the past or worrying about the future. Also, the process of finding a solution keeps your brain cells engaged and busy.
When you find yourself overthinking, ask yourself, “How can I solve the problem I’m worried about?”
If you can think of a way, start working on it. If you have no idea how, you are helpless anyway. You might as well not think about it as much.
6. Ask yourself if overthinking makes the situation better
Thinking too hard helps if you’re using the right approach. If not, it makes no difference. It can even make things worse. If you assume bad intentions and follow up with overthinking, you only make things worse for you.
Whenever you find yourself overthinking, ask yourself if that is of any use. Though you are asking an obvious question to yourself, your brain realizes it’s folly the moment you start probing.
7. Try to tweak your emotion from a negative to a positive state
You can change your emotions by changing your actions. Multiple methods can help you based on the reason that led you to overthink.
If you’re overthinking and angry, you can change your body posture to break out of the anger. Have you seen an angry cat? Along with the elongated body posture, the cat also meows in a different tone.
In the flight or fight mode, most mammals change their body posture in response to a threat. Human beings are no exception. When you are angry, your chest and head tilt forward. At the same time, your shoulders rise like a bodybuilder posing for Mr. Olympia.
You can break your body out of the flight or fight mode by dropping your shoulders. To make it easier, you can intentionally raise your shoulders further and then drop them.
Do a positive activity:
If you’re feeling sad due to overthinking, do anything which lightens up your mood. You can do an activity which makes you happy like listening to your favorite song or eating the dish you love.
Do not provide fodder for your negative emotion by doing the opposite. For example, stop listening to emotional songs when you’re feeling low.
Performing an act of kindness can elevate your mood too by releasing oxytocin. Science has shown that witnessing or performing a noble deed can help you get out of the rut.
Practice rhythmic breathing:
Another method of changing your emotional state is by rhythmic breathing. Long rhythmic breaths help in maintaining a calm mindset.
Here are the TED talks by Dr. Alan Watkins which explain the technique. The videos are in two parts. The first one explains the science and second illustrates the technique. Though the videos are long, they are worth watching.
Related article: How to believe in yourself -10 tips
Overthinking starts and ends within you. You can look up as many tips as you like from articles, books, and podcasts. But in the end, only you have the ability to change your thought process. If you don’t, none of the tips will work. If you have to learn how to stop overthinking and relax, you have to start acting.
Overthinking happens to every single one of us. For some, it occasionally occurs while for some others, it is a daily chore.
Even if you solve your problem of overthinking for now, you might slip back into the habit again and again. Make the practices of avoiding overthinking a part of your lifestyle.
Overthinking isn’t your problem unless you make it one. If you have already done that, it is time you start worrying and start living.
“Overthinking is parasitic. It’s viral. It’s deadly, even. Letting yourself fall victim to overthinking doesn’t just kill your happiness, it destroys who you are. The mind is a beautiful and complex thing, and the only person who can hurt it is yourself.”Genereux Philip
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.