How to Stop Overthinking When You're About to Spiral

Find out what triggers overthinking and the tools you can use to shift your mind away from rumination.

How to Stop Overthinking
Getty Images.

Anyone who identifies as an "overthinker" will tell you that the most inconsequential-seeming topics can weigh on them. They may lie awake at night second-guessing a comment they made weeks ago or playing out how an upcoming presentation at work will go.

While everyone thinks about their life and the world around them, overthinkers repeatedly dwell on thoughts or situations (usually relating to the past or future) to the point that it impedes their everyday lives in the present, according to Carolyn Rubenstein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Boca Raton, Florida.

"Someone who constantly overthinks is different from someone who occasionally worries about a particular situation," says Rubenstein. "Overthinking is more intense and a common occurrence." You may lose the ability to think about anything else or relax, or you may have negative thoughts, mental exhaustion, and constant worry or anxiety, she says.

If you're prone to overthinking, the cliché "don't overthink it!" isn't necessarily the unlock you need. Rather, you may find more success from applying several strategies that overthinkers can use to challenge or divert themselves away from their inner dialogue. Below, find out why you're prone to excessive rumination, then pick up tips for how to stop overthinking from mental health professionals.

Why You Overthink So Much

"Overthinking is a negative habit that anyone can fall into, but some people are more prone to becoming overthinkers than others," says Carrie Howard, L.C.S.W., C.C.A.T.P, anxiety coach and founder of Thrive Anxiety Solutions. If any of the following apply to you, you're more likely to be an overthinker, according to Howard:

  • You struggle with anxiety. When you're in an anxious state, you're more likely to start overthinking, which can further fuel your anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.
  • You struggle with a need for control. "People who feel a need for a sense of control over situations and don’t like to feel caught off guard tend to be more likely to overthink, dwell on every scenario, and over-plan for all possible contingencies," says Howard.
  • You're a perfectionist. When you're holding yourself to unrealistic standards, you're more likely to ruminate and replay scenarios of when you think you came up short.
  • You struggle with negative thinking and beliefs. "When you live in a 'glass-half-empty' state of mind, your negative thoughts and beliefs will often quickly turn to obsessing, worrying, or ruminating," says Howard.

Beyond just sparking frustration, overthinking can have health implications. "Overthinking can be destructive to [your] mental health, as it's linked to depression and anxiety," says Rubenstein. "Also, overthinking can affect the body's chemical balance." When you're overthinking, your brain may release cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which can impact your levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness, she says.

"Constantly worrying about hypothetical negative events affects the brain's ability to differentiate between theoretical stress and real stress that needs to be acted on," says Rubenstein. The imbalance can affect your brain's ability to regulate emotions, feelings, and memory, and overthinking may also mess with your appetite (either making you feel like you should eat more or less), she says.

How to Not Overthink Everything

When you're on the verge of overthinking, you can use these methods to change course.

Practice Mindfulness.

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, may help you overcome a bout of overthinking. "Regular meditation is an evidence-based [method] to help clear the mind, eliminating negative thoughts by directing inward attention," says Rubenstein. In one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, meditators showed less activity in the default mode network (DMN) region of their brains compared to a control group. The DMN plays a part in processing information related to yourself and includes regions associated with rumination. A type of meditation called concentration meditation, in which you concentrate on a singular focus, can be used to help meditators retrain their brains from habitually thinking about the past and future, and to focus more on the present, according to the study.

If you're trying to figure out how to stop overthinking, Howard suggests using a mindfulness technique known as 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding, which engages your five senses in order to pull you out of negative thoughts. To try it, you should identify five things in your immediate environment that you can see, she says. Then, find four things and focus on how they feel, e.g., touch a soft pillow or notice the pressure of your body against the chair you're sitting in, says Howard. Finally, focus on three things you can hear, two things you can smell (for instance, apply hand lotion), and one thing you can taste (e.g., take a sip of a drink), she says.

Distract yourself.

It may seem overly simple, but diverting your attention to something else can take your mind away from overthinking. "Go on a walk around the neighborhood and focus on the houses, birds, trees, flowers, and landscapes," recommends Rubenstein. "Other suggestions are reading a book, calling a friend, exercising, gaming, doing word games, or anything you enjoy that will take your mind off worrying."

Sometimes your thoughts may seem urgent, to the point where you feel like you can't do anything else to distract yourself until you've considered every possible scenario, says Howard. Since that's the case, "one strategy to interrupt your overthinking is to schedule in a 'worry time' each day and choose to do your overthinking only during that time," she says. "Trying to never engage in overthinking can feel like an impossible task for your brain, but deciding to limit overthinking to a specific and limited time can feel more doable."

To try it, schedule a 15-minute block of time each day when you allow yourself to overthink, says Howard. After the 15 minutes is up, utilize a distraction to help your mind shift gears, she says. If you find yourself starting to overthink outside the bounds of your "worry time," write down a keyword that will jog your memory during your next worry time block.

Challenge your negative thoughts.

Negative thoughts can trigger overthinking, so it can be helpful to question those thoughts as soon as they enter your brain, says Howard. "Instead of automatically latching onto that negative thought and letting it lead you into an overthinking spiral, identify the negative thought as soon as it comes and challenge it to see if it’s even true or not," she says. "By intervening early in your thought process and challenging these thoughts and replacing them with something more accurate and helpful, you can stop overthinking before it even begins."

When a negative thought arises, Howard suggests asking yourself the following:

  • "What evidence is there for and against this being true?"
  • "Am I basing this thought on actual fact or assumption?"
  • "Are there any alternative perspectives to consider?"
  • "What would I tell a friend in this situation?"
  • "Is this thought helping or hurting me?"

Then, come up with a thought that is more accurate and helpful, says Howard.

Let go of the past.

Embracing the fact that your past is just that — in the past — may allow you stop overthinking. "Overthinkers tend to focus on the past, contemplating what could have been done differently," says Rubenstein. "Don't let your past mistakes dictate or cause you to inflict self-punishment or dictate your future. Instead, you must let go of the past and realize it can't be changed, that you can only give meaning to it." When you're focusing on a past situation that's causing you stress, it may be helpful to practice mindfulness, remember that you're not alone and that others have had similar experiences, and ask yourself what you need (physically or emotionally) in the current moment, as Shape previously reported. 

Keep in mind that everyone can fall into overthinking, and you may not completely eliminate the habit for good. (In fact, you may even decide to schedule it into your day.) That said, practicing mindfulness, distracting yourself, and challenging your thoughts can be helpful in the moment.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles