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How to Stop Overthinking

Running through too many potential scenarios in your head is a sign you may be placing too many expectations on yourself. Here’s how to curb it.


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It starts with one moment. Maybe a friend said something to you that didn’t sit right, or you revealed something embarrassing in your fifth Zoom meeting of the day. Moments or hours later, you think to yourself: What did they actually mean by that? Why did they say that to me? Or why did I say that? Are they right? Do they hate me? What should I do?!

Sometimes, you come to a conclusion in an instant and move on with your day. Other times, you get stuck in the messy mud pit of overthinking.

Overthinking, which the late University of Michigan psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema described in her book Women Who Think Too Much as “getting caught in torrents of negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and well-being,” is a pattern in which your thoughts are stuck on repeat.

When questions lead to more questions, Nolen-Hoeksema calls it “the yeast effect.” As she wrote in her book, “Just as yeasty bread dough will double in size after it’s been kneaded, our negative thoughts expand, grow, and begin to take up all the space around them in our minds. At first the thoughts may be about a specific event, but then they spread to other events or situations in your life and to big questions you have about yourself. And they get more and more negative with time.”

Faith G. Harper, a therapist and the author of Unfuck Your Brain: Getting Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers With Science, says, “Overthinking is what happens when our natural storytelling brain starts running amok with stories that are sticky and overwhelming.”

Our brains are designed to tell stories to make sense of the world. In fact, this mechanism helps us retain information and safely make judgment calls. But when we run too far with a story — and without facts — we’ve gone into overthinking mode.

“It can feel paralyzing. Life feels daunting. It’s very stressful,” says Laura St. John, the mindset coach who appeared on Netflix’s Selling Sunset. This applies to one-off encounters with your friend or Zoom meetings, as well as our entire lives.

At its core, overthinking is perfectionism. It’s the fear of failing, or the idea that everything is wrong if it doesn’t — or didn’t — perfectly work out.”

Overthinking is our brain’s way of proactively or retroactively toying with a problem it wants to solve. “It’s the part of you that wants to analyze, measure, take control, and know how it will all unfold,” St. John says.

After coaching thousands of people, St. John found that people who overthink are usually very intelligent and possess incredible analytical skills. “They typically are thinking 100 steps ahead,” she says, “instead of one to three steps ahead.”

At its core, overthinking is perfectionism. It’s the fear of failing, or the idea that everything is wrong if it doesn’t — or didn’t — perfectly work out. And overthinking is a sign that you may be putting too much pressure on yourself to get something right in the future or for not getting it right in the past.

“People overthink because they’ve sometimes put very high expectations on themselves,” St. John explains. “Then, when you’re not feeling the level of identity that you have set for yourself … suddenly you believe it must be wrong. And then the overthinking process kicks in because it’s not working out how you expected it to work out.”

While thinking through something prepares you for what’s next, overthinking often leads to inaction and trouble making decisions. “It can keep you in an up-and-down pattern of fighting your old self instead of creating your next chapter,” St. John says. “It can impact self-worth and self-esteem.”

Can you be taught courage, confidence, and self-esteem? Yes and no. All those attributes are already inside of you; overthinking is blocking you from accessing them. Here’s what you can do when you find yourself repeatedly worrying about the same thought.

Recognize it

“The first step is always awareness,” St. John says. “Some people don’t even realize they are overthinking. They just know they don’t feel good about themselves or a situation.”

St. John emphasizes that overthinking is a reaction from the brain, not the heart. It often feels like a flurry of thoughts rather than clarity. That “ding-ding-ding moment of awareness,” as St. John calls it, can save you a world of trouble before your thoughts spiral further.


If you start overthinking, understand your unique warning signs. (Getty Images)

She suggests understanding your own unique warning signs. St. John says, “Do you sigh? Put your hands up in the air like, ‘Here I go again’? Do you want to run and hide? Emotionally eat? The physical habits are preceded by emotional and mental habits. It’s important to recognize your feelings and actions that go along with your overthinking ways so you can replace them with healthier thoughts and actions.”

Accept it

In many cases, thinking through a situation is healthy. But rather than cyclical rumination, consider playing a scenario out, accepting each outcome, then putting your thoughts to rest. Rather than fighting the story line that is playing, Harper recommends letting it run for a bit like a tape or record. “Once we see that muscle flexing,” she says, “we recognize our own ability to turn down the volume on one story in order to focus on another.”


It’s beneficial not to suppress or avoid your thoughts. (Getty Images)

Harper regularly tells her clients that trying to suppress or avoid thoughts is the same as holding a beach ball underwater; it takes unnecessary energy and effort and will eventually rise to the surface and knock you in the face. You can acknowledge your thoughts without giving energy or latching on to them.

She has found solace herself in “recognizing [such notions] for what they were: thoughts, possibilities, not truth.” Similar to the advice she doles out, Harper realized that she “didn’t have to get so attached to everything stupid thing my brain decided to tell me. This is the same brain that will sing the theme songs from ’70s sitcoms, so honestly, it’s not to be trusted, right?”

Zip it

Harper explains that a rise in cognitive behavioral therapy has tripped up many people because it requires unpacking feelings. “But if you tend to be the anxious, stressed, worried overthinker,” she says, “and you are a pretty smart cookie? It isn’t hard to justify the accuracy of the stories you are stuck in.” Even when they’re not true.


Seeing beyond your struggles will help you move forward. (Getty Images)

“Nip it and zip it” is a visual approach to overthinking that St. John developed. “Take out a piece of paper, write it down, nip it, zip it. Don’t let it ooze. Put it down.” She encourages seeing beyond current struggles, explaining that “your intuitive guidance is loud, crisp, and clear. Everything else is rooted in fear and self-doubt.”

Flip it

The next strategy is to swap out the adverse result you are stuck on with a more positive or ideal one. “You’re already using your imagination — likely to worry about a negative outcome,” St. John says. “Why not steer that entire process into creating what you want instead? … Why not overthink and spend the same time mulling over all the possible ways things can work out for you?”

St. John continues, “People would be surprised how often top athletes, CEOs, and even celebrities get stuck in overthinking.” The mindset coach gives the example of elite gymnasts she has worked with who are scared they’ll fall during big competitions. “I remind them that whatever they are overthinking is because it must be meaningful,” she says, and teaches them to visualize their desired outcome — and if it goes in a different direction, to see past it.


Making a "flip it list" can help you overcome overthinking. (Gett Images)

St. John recommends making a “flip it list,” which helps you challenge your thoughts, move past overthinking, and decipher what you want so that you can hop into action or acceptance. In the first column, write down what you don’t want. In the second column, write down what you desire.

Whether you’re contemplating a big life decision or simply deciding which sofa to buy, you are thinking it through because it’s important to you. If you are thinking deeply or cyclically about a scenario, it might be teaching you what you did or didn’t like about that moment or revealing what you want in the future. Think of it as a lesson on what’s meaningful to you.

Release it

Because overthinking is a byproduct of perfectionism, one of the greatest steps in overcoming it is to learn to let go and live with how things shake out. To not overthink, you must relinquish the need to get everything right — or rectify past problems.


Once you learn to navigate overthinking, you can learn from the process. (Getty Images)

St. John suggests trusting that even when things don’t go your way, each curveball is still meant for you. “You wouldn’t be handed whatever you’re trying to solve if you didn’t have the strength and confidence to overcome it all,” she says.

Ultimately, those who tend to overthink are very smart. They need to learn to opt out of their heads and into their hearts. “With more trust [in the process], you will loosen the grip on over-controlling how things have to unfold,” St. John says. “You will be less derailed and more excited by how things unfold.”

Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter @hotmessmia.

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This post originally appeared on Shondaland and was published February 18, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.