How to Stop Overthinking

Sometimes you can’t stop thinking about that stupid thing you said last week. Or worrying about the state of your bank account, how your child is doing in school, or your parent’s health. You know you’re overthinking things. It’s frustrating and exhausting, and sometimes keeps you awake at night – but you can’t seem to stop!

Overthinking is something we all do from time to time, but it can become a habit that has negative impacts on our life, such as affecting our mood and preventing us from taking useful action. Even more annoying, often what we do to try and stop overthinking, just makes it worse! Don’t despair: below we’ll share proven strategies for how to stop overthinking and get back into enjoying life. Let’s get started! 


What is overthinking?

Overthinking is when we find ourselves stuck in our head, endlessly going over and over the same topic or situation in a way that’s not useful. It can often feel like it’s helpful, like we’re problem-solving, but usually we aren’t. When we problem-solve our thinking is flexible, open and creative, whereas overthinking is often rigid, closed and comes from a place of fear. It tends to be distorted and negative, and we can end up catastrophising or ‘mind-reading’.

Overthinking leads to negative thoughts

For instance, we waste time reliving conversations from the past, imagining what we could have or should have said, or berating ourselves for what we did say. We convince ourselves that we know what others are thinking. We spend hours second guessing our decisions, wondering if we made the right choices in life. Or we run through ‘what if…’ scenarios where we expect disaster and imagine the worst possible outcomes.

Overthinking can impact our daily life. It can feel consuming, making it hard to focus on other things and other people around us. It may affect our mood, making us feel more stressed and low than we need to. And importantly, it often prevents us from taking useful action. 

Over time, overthinking can become our habit. The more we worry about something, the more we train our brain to worry about something! It’s a cruel cycle!

Why do we overthink?

Everyone overthinks sometimes. It’s part of having an amazing human brain! Our brain is a relationship-making, problem-solving tool, with the ability to find solutions to complex things. In a normal problem-solving situation when we identify an issue or something we don’t like, we figure out a way to fix it, and then do that thing. For example, we have a headache, we take a paracetamol. We find a hole in the sole of our shoe, so we mend them or buy a new pair. 

But what if the problem we’re trying to solve is uncertain or out of our control? This is when our problem-solving brain can turn on us!

For example, “I haven’t heard from Lisa in a while. I wonder why? Last time I saw her she seemed a bit quiet, did I say something to annoy her? Maybe she doesn’t enjoy spending time with me? Is there something wrong with me?” 


“I shouldn’t have said what I said in that meeting last week, everyone must think I’m an idiot…. I’m so stupid! Why do I always say dumb stuff? And what about that rumour Steve heard about a restructure…. If they make people redundant, I’ll definitely be at the top of the list now…. If I lose my job, how will we pay the mortgage? It will be so stressful…. My wife will think I’m useless, she’ll probably consider leaving me. We haven’t been getting on so well lately…. Perhaps she is already thinking about it.”

We often mistake overthinking for problem-solving. It can look like we’re working something through when we overthink, but we aren’t really solving anything – just going round and round in a loop of unproductive ruminating. As a result, we often feel worse, more stressed, become more self-critical, and try even harder to ‘solve’ the problem.

Maybe worst of all, overanalysing and obsessing becomes a barrier to making a decision and acting in the world. We become frozen, falling prey to the old ‘analysis paralysis’. We stay stuck in our head instead of taking any small meaningful action, which further compounds our sense of helplessness and misery. 

Analysis Paralysis

Why our attempts to stop overthinking often don’t work

When we become aware that we’re overthinking, often our first impulses make matters worse. We often blame ourselves, get frustrated or even angry at ourselves. Then we try very hard to force the thoughts from our head through any means necessary! This never works, at least not in the long-term (but you’ve probably already discovered that which is why you’re reading this!).

A strategy that tries to ban or get rid of any specific thought won’t work! Why?

A) we don’t choose every thought that pops into our head.

and worse,

B) anytime you try and avoid/ban/exclude a thought you make it more likely you’ll think that thought! 

For example, if I tell you not to think about a giant kiwi on pink roller-skates, that whatever you do, you MUST NOT think about a giant kiwi on pink roller-skates… no really, DON’T THINK about that kiwi! What’s the first thought that pops into your mind? Aha, thought so! We can’t ‘unthink something’ once it’s there. There is no delete button in the brain! And the sad truth is the longer you try not to think about it, the more times you’ll actually think about it!

Distraction and struggle are not the answer! Instead try the below science-backed approaches.

The best strategies for how to stop overthinking

The best strategy for dealing with overthinking is to notice when you’re caught up in your thoughts, be kind to yourself about it (yes really!), widen your focus to the present moment and then take some small action. Let’s look at these options more closely:

1. Practice mindful awareness of thoughts

Mindful awareness of thoughts means watching the process of thinking taking place, with curiosity, and a sense of distance. It’s possible to notice your thoughts in real time, and not get caught up in the content of your thoughts, i.e. not believing them or buying into them. As you do this, over time your thoughts will feel less like ‘you’ and more like something you can observe without getting so worked up or bothered by. It’s a skill that you can learn, and like most things, the more you do it, the better you get at it!  

There are lots of ways to practice mindfully noticing your thoughts and below are some suggestions for you to experiment with. It may seem strange at first, but I encourage you to give it a go! 

  • Label thoughts
    See if you can label your thoughts as they happen in the moment. 
    For example, “I’m having a thought that I’m not good enough”. 
    Or you might describe the type of thought: “Ahh, that’s a judgement”, “that’s a worry”.
  • Watch thoughts
    See if you can watch your thoughts come and go like you’re watching clouds floating in the sky, cars on the motorway, or leaves on a stream. 
  • Practice Mindfulness Meditation daily
    Set aside some quiet time each day to practice mindfulness meditation. Over time you will find it easier and easier to recognise when you are caught up in overthinking, let the thoughts go and come back to the present moment.
  • Write down your thoughts
    Sometimes spending 10mins to sit down and free write everything that is going on in your head can be really helpful. A purge! Getting it out of your head and onto the page can help you see quite a different perspective. You can look at your thoughts, and the thinking process, and see they are not facts, that they often involve a lot of rantings, are changeable and often completely contradictory! 
  • Use humour to change the context of your thoughts
    Another unusual way to free up your thinking is to use humour to change the way you view your thoughts:
    • You could give your mind a name, and then watch it chattering away with a sense of distance. “What’s that you say Veronica?”  You don’t have to argue with it or change it, you can just say “Thank you Veronica.”
    • You could sing the thought. E.g. “Thiiiiis is a disassstssserrrr” (to any tune you like!). Important note – these aren’t about making fun of your mind! By taking language out of its normal context, we get some separation, and start to see thoughts as just thoughts. 

2. Practice self-compassion

Sometimes we go over and over things because we’re overly critical of ourselves. Or we worry we aren’t enough. Or we can’t forgive ourselves for mistakes we made in the past. There’s a real security that comes from accepting and caring for ourself. Though it’s not always easy! Most of us have spent a lifetime demanding we are perfect and offering very little kindness and understanding. Let today be the day you tell yourself that You’re okay, that You’ve been doing the best you can and that You’ll always be there for yourself

One of the easiest ways to start this process of being kinder to yourself is to imagine yourself as a child (or perhaps find an old childhood photo) and offer that child some reassurance and care (however that looks for you). This too is a practice that gets easier over time.

Offering self-compassion is also an important step to do when you catch yourself overthinking. Cutting yourself some slack lowers your reactivity and allows your mind to open. Whereas, telling yourself off does the opposite. It activates your stress response which makes you feel more tense, leading to feeling like something is wrong and needs to be fixed which leads to… you guessed it – more overthinking!

3. Get out of your head and into your body

On a mindfulness course like MBSR, we spend a lot of time training up our ability to be present in our body and to notice all our senses. This isn’t a distraction tactic! It’s widening our awareness to include all the other parts of our experience. There’s so much more to life that just what’s going on in our head!

So find ways to engage your senses and feel your body. For instance: move your body. Get outside, take a walk, go for a run. Dance. Stretch. Have a hot shower. Feel the floor under your feet. Smell something strong. Notice the cars going past outside, put on some music and listen to it. When thoughts arise, let them be there, acknowledge them (like clouds in the sky, leaves on a stream etc see above!) and then come back to what else is going on…

  • TIP: When things get really intense use the 5 things practice: Right now, what are 5 things I can see, 5 things I can hear – notice and name them to yourself. This is a great way to ground yourself in the present moment via your senses.
Take Action

4. Take action

One of the biggest problems with being constantly stuck in our thoughts is that it often prevents us from taking action. Paralysis via analysis! It’s important to realise that there’s no perfect/right time or perfect/right action in life. It’s impossible to predict the future, and we’ll never know the consequences of what another choice would’ve been. We can’t control many things in life, but our actions are one thing that we do have control over! 

So do something! Do anything! Decide on one small, positive action you can take and do it. Make it easy, make it satisfying. Don’t wait until you ‘feel like it’ – just start, often we feel better afterwards. Taking action is the opposite of overthinking. It creates momentum and moving forward in life.


Sometimes our amazing brains are our own worst enemy! Overthinking can feel like problem-solving, but often it’s just time wasted, going round and round in our heads making ourselves feel worse and preventing us from acting in life. Just trying to force your thoughts to stop doesn’t work, but using the techniques of mindful awareness does! Over time, you can accept your thoughts as just thoughts and begin not to take them so personally. The best part is, the more you use these techniques the easier they become. How wonderful to know that you can train your brain to develop more helpful habits so you can get out of your mind, take action and enjoy being alive!  

Like all good things in life, it can take some effort to get going. If you’d like some support on this then be sure to check out our evidence-based MBSR courses (we also do courses specifically for the workplace).