Why do we overthink and how can we stop? - The Mind Map
By Tess Leigh-Phillips

Why do we overthink and how can we stop?

In this weeks column, our Psychotherapist Tess explores the issue of over-thinking, and offers some insights into how we can all learn to quiet our busy minds.

Published 08/11/2021
Photography By Jon Turton
“I’m a bit of an over-thinker!” is a piece of self reflection I often hear as a psychotherapist.

And something I’ll help my counselling clients with through a mixture of interventions.

In my column this week, I’ll be exploring what it means to overthink, where it comes from and how to stop it.

You might think overthinking is universally seen by people as a negative.

However, that’s not always the case. I’ve noticed some will confuse overthinking with being busy or strategic.

When in reality, overthinking isn’t helpful or conducive to good mental health.

Everyone from ancient Buddhists, to recent spiritual teachers including Eckhart Tolle agree that a clear mind is a happy mind.

But, if you’re an over-thinker, how do you change?

Surely you can’t think your way out of overthinking. Can you?

Let’s start with the basics, as there are many different degrees to overthinking.

Are you mildly inclined to ponder life in all its intricacies for longer than necessary?

Or is your mind an express train of thoughts, putting you on a journey of distress?

Some over-thinkers may be experiencing GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) – manifesting as a constant sense of worry.

It can also be a symptom of other mental health problems, like OCD or depression – and vice versa – overthinking can actually cause some mental health problems.

But let’s not overthink this!

Before we continue, here are ten handy tips to help you stop overthinking:

– Write everything down
– Talk to someone you trust, a great way to get perspective and reassurance
– Try a guided meditation
– Prioritise
– Simplify your life, remove toxic people, set boundaries, develop clear routines
– Practice Radical Acceptance – you can’t control anything outside of  yourself
– Exercise – helps you get out of your mind and into your body
– Worst Case Scenario exercise – face your biggest fears and make a plan for if they happen. Then focus on the present
– Get lost in something you love to do, where you are lost in the moment, and if you don’t have a passion like that, then I recommend you find one!
– Ask for support. We can’t do everything alone, and neither are we meant to. If overthinking is causing you distress, reach out for help.

Wherever you fall on the scale, help is at hand.

If for example, you’re the ‘ponderer,’ the daydreamer, the person who lives in your head most of the time, you might also find you procrastinate, that you avoid social situations or that you don’t cope well with change.

If this is you, it’s very important you get out of your head and into your body, with exercise, breath-work (in very simple terms – focusing on your breathing) and meditation.

Try a five minute guided meditation to start.

Talking to other people will provide you with distance and perspective, so push past your resistance and connect with those around you.

If you find that very difficult there are people trained to listen to you, the Samaritans, and text services (SHOUT) where you can let out your concerns to trained volunteers.

Connection is key though, and it is a big part of what we value and promote here at The Mind Map.

If you reach out to others around you, it’s very likely that the benefits will outweigh the initial nerves, and you will get a big boost from realising, both that other people struggle too, and that other people really do care!

Isolation often goes hand in hand with overthinking so I can’t recommend connection enough, as a remedy.

Procrastination is also associated with over-thinkers, and when my clients call themselves lazy, or express frustration at their lack of achievements, I always dig deeper.

Very rarely is it down to laziness, it’s down to anxiety, fear, lack of self-belief.

Overthinking is also a classic symptom of perfectionism, which in its extreme form, causes people to freeze, locked in a fear of failure or rejection – prevented from fulfilling their potential by their very own mind!

Yet, it’s important to know that your mind is trying to protect you.

Your comfort zone isn’t always the place you feel most comfortable, believe it or not, it’s simply what you have become accustomed to.

Some people sadly, are accustomed to living in chaos and pain, with a racing brain.

And when they try to change they quickly return to their old ways.

If this sounds like you, it’ll take consistent practice. You must choose over and over to step out of your ‘comfortable’ place until it becomes the norm for you.

Silence, stillness, and calm can be frightening. Sitting with yourself can be frightening.

Yet you can’t overthink your way out of your problems. (Here’s your answer!)

You can, however, choose to focus on thoughts that produce good feelings, and in turn, feelings that produce helpful thoughts.

When your mind is racing, I recommend writing it all out, doing a brain dump onto a piece of paper, prioritising what needs doing and what is truly in need of attention, right now.

Do one thing that you’ve been avoiding, then praise yourself for doing it!

Don’t just move onto the next thing to worry about!

Instead, you must very consciously choose to reward yourself for taking action, if you are ever going to step out of the behaviour patterns that are keeping you stuck.

The way to get momentum is one small step at a time. You won’t get anything done if you overload yourself.

You will revert to ‘freeze’ position, locked in overwhelm.

An affirmation can be helpful. One I like my clients to use is

“My anxiety is not an accurate representation of the danger I’m in.”

Repeat this to yourself when you feel your fears creeping up on you.

Another exercise I do with my counselling clients is based around identifying the worst-case scenario, facing it, and realising you can handle it.

Then, letting it go and moving on with the knowledge that you are going to be okay no matter what.

In its extreme form, catastrophising can actually be a sign of past trauma, whether emotional or physical.

It can be a method of protection, a shield from disappointment. Again, it keeps you stuck, prevents you from moving forward.

Over-thinkers also, very often, have a strong desire to control what is happening.

Because, ultimately the over-thinker doesn’t quite feel safe enough to let go and let life happen as it will.

Yet, all our thinking never changes much does it?

That’s why having that strong core of self-esteem and resilience is vital, and is something you can build, both in and out of therapy.

However, if your self-esteem issues run deep and you really struggle to trust in yourself, and trust in life, then a psychotherapist can really help you get to the root of these issues and help you to create a stable foundation for yourself.

The solution to most of our problems lies in the stillness, the calm, the clarity that comes from quieting the mind.

Overthinking distracts us from what is really going on – and from what really matters.

Remember, you can be in control of your mind, not the other way around. That’s how it is meant to be!

Your mind is there to serve you, but so many of us have become slaves to our thoughts.

Two things I tell my clients regularly:

1) You are not your thoughts

2) Your feelings won’t kill you.

Many issues come from our attachment to whatever thought flows through our mind.

Yet, our thoughts do not have to define us! Let them all come and go, without agitation.

Don’t float off into the ether with a destructive idea, don’t hang desperately onto the scenarios in your head.

Similarly, when feelings arise, don’t distract yourself, don’t push them down with food, alcohol, sex, or mindless scrolling on your phone.

Feelings are actually brilliant guides, and each time you let them flow through you and pass, then continue with your day, you have taken a massive step forward.

You don’t need to wake up hungover, gobble a chocolate cake, or text your ex – just because an emotion has dared to pass through your body.

Once again – they won’t kill you! And, they can tell you more about yourself than all your overthinking ever will.

Make friends with your feelings!

Finally, professional support is so important if overthinking is affecting your daily life and you feel unable to stop it.

Sometimes we just can’t put a halt to obsessive or catastrophic thinking all by ourselves.

If this resonates, visit your GP, and consider starting therapy with a qualified psychotherapist who can help you untangle and explore what’s going on for you, in a completely safe and supportive space.