Have you ever lost sleep because you thought your work presentation was a flop? Or perhaps you’ve spent hours worrying about whether you unintentionally offended a co-worker? Then you, like all of us, know what overthinking feels like.
We are all susceptible to thinking about a challenge too much or for too long. Overthinking promotes negative self-talk, clouded judgment, and weak decision-making—and can even harm our overall health and well-being.
The good news is that there are strategies we can employ to keep overthinking at bay and help us make more confident decisions, both personally and professionally.
The consequences of overthinking
Overthinking can prevent us from taking action by playing on our fears to keep us trapped in circular thoughts or analysis paralysis. When you overthink, you may be unable to separate facts or what you know for sure from the fear-based stories you are telling yourself. These stories can make you harshly judge your own thoughts and feelings, and doubt your own abilities. This is not only a huge energy drain, but can ultimately impede your ability to problem-solve at all.
8 ways to overcome the overthinking trap
If you’re trapped in the overthinking cycle, there are some actions you can take to regain perspective:
- Ask yourself, “Is this helping me to solve my problem or to come up with an action plan?” Overthinking does not help you find solutions, so if you are able to remind yourself that the cycle you are in is not helping you, you may then ask yourself "What will help?"
- Acknowledge your feelings. Instead of fighting the difficult feelings that overthinking can bring up, it is helpful to acknowledge how you feel without judgment. When you stop resisting, you may find your feelings subside faster than expected and that you are able to take steps toward a helpful solution.
- Schedule time to brainstorm. Putting boundaries around your thinking time can discourage overthinking. By setting a regular appointment with yourself to brainstorm, you can be more focused on problem-solving and shaping actionable plans rather than letting your imagination get carried away.
- Write it out. A big reason why overthinking is so powerful is because we are stuck in our own heads. It can be helpful to write down what you know about the challenge you are facing, and how it makes you feel. Writing can help you get out of your head, excise some insecurities and fears, and promote a more positive, proactive mindset.
- Talk to someone. Like writing, talking about your problem can also help you get out of your own head. The added benefit of talking is that you can get another perspective that may put your mind at ease—and ultimately encourage you. Whether you talk to a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or a therapist, do not be afraid to ask for help.
- Take a break. If you are circling the proverbial drain over and over again without resolution, distract yourself with an activity that takes your mind off your challenge. Taking a walk, going for a workout, watching comedy, or preparing your favorite meal can help you get into a better, more focused mood.
- Calm yourself. Overthinking is usually frenzied, so calming the mind can make a difference. Meditation and deep breathing are powerful tools in taking a step back from your problem and re-grounding yourself so that you can look at your challenge with fresh eyes.
Pro Tip: For a quick fix to slow your breathing, inhale to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of four, exhale to the count of four, and pause for the count of four. Then repeat this cycle as many times as you need to feel calmer.
- Accept that you are imperfect. Much of overthinking is the consequence of holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard. It is worthwhile to ask yourself if you are too focused on your ideal approach to a problem rather than what you are actually able to do right now. It is important, and a sign of emotional intelligence, to accept that you are imperfect—but that does not mean you are incapable!
Stay self-aware for better decision-making
Self-awareness is the key to success with any of these practices. To stop the negative loop, you need to be able to recognize when you are overthinking. Self-awareness helps you stay mindful, work smarter, take positive action, and be more level-headed and present. These traits are the essential building blocks of making better decisions.
It is near impossible to make strong, confident decisions if you are coming from a place of fear, which is what overthinking promotes. You cannot promise yourself that you will never overthink—but you can promise yourself that you will pay attention to when the issue arises and make the effort to turn its negativity into something constructive.
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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.