The Psychology Behind Chronic Overthinking (and How to Stop It)

We've asked an expert.

Updated 10/10/19

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Overthinking: It's a pesky habit that's undoubtedly a waste of time, not to mention unhealthy. So why do we do it? And who's most likely to?

Dr. Jeffrey Huttman, a licensed psychologist and the executive director of The Palm Beach Institute in Florida, shared more about this tendency.

So first, what exactly is overthinking?

"[It's] the process of constantly analyzing and anguishing over one’s thoughts," Huttman told MyDomaine. "It may include rumination, in which an individual is stuck mentally rehashing their past or present decisions and/or actions."

Overthinking is very common and may be caused by self-doubt; self-esteem issues; concern about repeating past patterns in relation to prior bad experiences; traumatic experiences; or anxiety, according to Huttman. Overthinking makes it harder to enjoy life and can impact emotional regulation and sleep patterns, too.

"Overthinking is the process of constantly analyzing and anguishing over one’s thoughts. It may include rumination, in which an individual is stuck mentally rehashing their past or present decisions and/or actions."

"In a very general and non-scientific sense, people with a Type A personality are more likely to be more ambitious, competitive, and intense," Huttman says. "Those with a Type B personality are alleged to be more relaxed—less frantic and reactive. [Those with] Type A [personalities] would certainly be more likely to engage in overthinking."

If you have a Type A personality, we feel you, but you're by no means a lost cause. While overthinking may feel out of your control, there are actually some steps you can take to turn things around today.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Jeffrey Huttman is a licensed psychologist and the executive director of the Palm Beach Institute. He specializes in the treatment of substance use and co-occurring disorders as well as acute psychiatric conditions, trauma, and anxiety.

Practice Mindfulness

"Mindfulness generally refers to a cognitive state of awareness of the present and a mindset that allows you to process information and experiences in a non-judgmental manner," Huttman says. "Meditation practice is the main mechanism to develop mindfulness."

Huttman recommends Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Full Catastrophe Living.

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"He discusses the research of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) and guides the reader on how to meditate, control stress/worry thoughts, and become present in the moment," Huttman says.

The MBSR program was founded by Kabat-Zinn, and is based around mindfulness meditation. Several studies have found the practice to be helpful.

"Meditation practice is the main mechanism to develop mindfulness."

Dr. Norman Farb et al. at the University of Toronto studied a small group of participants in an MBSR program in 2010.

"Participants [taking part in the program] displayed less anxiety and overall symptoms of distress as compared to a control group," Huttman says.

Clinical psychologist Richard Chambers led a small study with 20 novice meditators on the effects of mindfulness and meditation over the course of a 10-day retreat in 2008.

"They found that meditation and mindfulness practice had a significantly positive effect on decreasing rumination and depressive symptoms and increased attention," Huttman says.

Test Out Relaxation Techniques

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There's a relationship between anxiety disorders and overthinking.

"There are aspects of overthinking that may be characteristic of features of anxiety," Huttman says. "These include excessive worry about a number of events, difficulty controlling worry, and keeping these thoughts from interfering with attention/concentration and everyday tasks and events. Anxiety can be consuming and cause rumination on thoughts about routine life circumstances ranging from serious to minor issues."

Add the practice of relaxation techniques to your schedule. These could include yoga, tai-chi, or breathing exercises.

Yoga has so many benefits that it'd be a shame not to try out. It can decrease the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol and it lowers symptoms of anxiety and PTSD, according to Healthline. It's also been shown to increase the secretion of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates sleep. And tai-chi combats stress-related anxiety and encourages more restful sleep just like yoga, according to Healthline.

Have you ever taken a couple of deep breaths and instantly felt calmer? That's because breathing exercises are scientifically proven to relax you. Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) is part of the meditation process and has proven to help with anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, according to Healthline.

Change Your Focus

If you've found yourself in a worry spiral, cut yourself off. Huttman recommends concentrating on other things like reading, work, or hobbies. If you've got too much free time on your hands, sit down and come up with ways to fill it.

Reading can help you relax and distract you. If racing thoughts at night are an issue, reading a book lulls you to sleep faster than staring at the bright lights of a phone or laptop. You can also challenge yourself to laser focus at work. How much can you accomplish in one day when you try your best to not let your thoughts wander? Stop indulging in zoning out. Finally, do you have old hobbies that you could revisit, or are there any new ones that you'd like to try out? This is your perfect time to do so.

Schedule a Time to Worry—Yes, Really

It may sound odd, but for some, scheduling a time to worry every day and then trying to not allow themselves to worry for the rest of the day works. You're getting it out of your system, you could say.

Inc. magazine cites a study by Dr. Sarah Kate McGowan and Dr. Evelyn Behar where 53 individuals with generalized anxiety disorder were instructed to either schedule their worrying for 30 minutes a day or to worry freely throughout the day. They found that the group that scheduled a time to worry experienced decreased anxiety and slept better than the group that didn't. It takes two weeks for most people to find relief using this method, according to Inc. magazine. Worries have no limit, but using this strategy, you're giving them a limit, in a sense. There's no harm in giving it a try—Huttman recommends it.

Try Writing Out Your Thoughts

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Writing down your worries and concerns can be therapeutic. Writing down your feelings reduces thoughts about negative events and improves your working memory, according to the American Psychological Association. This practice frees up space in your mind for more productive endeavors—and we all know that overthinking is not one of them.

So, once you close your journal, leave all of those negative thoughts tucked away and move on with your day.

Another option is to keep a gratitude journal—where you write down only things you're grateful for, of course. A 2003 study by psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael McCullough assigned a group of young adults to only journal about things they're grateful for and another to journal only about things that annoyed them. Those who journaled about positive things were found to have greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy, as reported by Psychology Today.

So, while journaling in general has been proven to help, you may be even better off keeping a gratitude journal.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Pathological worriers are highly aware of any source of threat or danger, and if there is question between whether a situation may be dangerous or not, their instinct is to assume that it's dangerous, according to a review in Biological Psychology by Dr. Graham C.L. Davey and Dr. Frances Meeten. Worriers tend to think their worry is actually a good thing even though it's so distressing, helping them to prepare for the worst and aiding them in problem solving, according to Research Digest's breakdown of the review. Separating from the belief that worrying is helpful or a good thing is the perfect place to start if you want to break a cycle of overthinking.

"Challenge your thought process and give it a name so you can catch yourself in the process of overthinking and increase your awareness of it," Huttman recommends.

This may be easier said than done, but why not try?

Practice Self-Reflection

Self-reflection means practicing "careful thought about your own behavior and beliefs," according to Merriam-Webster.

"Work to increase awareness of underlying emotional or physical reasons for overthinking," Huttman recommends.

Is your belief that everything must be overanalyzed a result of a traumatic event in your past that you still need to work through? Or of a toxic work environment? Or of having a partner who gives you mixed signals, thus causing you to question your view of reality? Step back and try to find the root cause of your distress. If overthinking hasn't been an issue for you in the past, maybe there's something in your life right now that's throwing you off. Just make sure to not overthink it, though (we kid, we kid).

Acknowledge the Relationship Between Feelings and Thoughts

Worriers tend to experience more negative moods, according to Research Digest. These low moods encourage a more analytical thinking style—not something you want if you are in fact trying to think less. Combatting these negative moods is a great step in the right direction when wanting to cut down on overthinking.

"Make a connection between feelings and thoughts and learn to understand that strong feelings shape thoughts," Huttman says. "Relaxing and lifting one’s feelings and emotional reactions can help control one’s thoughts."

There are so many activities that can help lift your mood. Try going out into the sunshine, exercising, make plans with friends, catching up with family members, or snuggling with a pet. Maybe you'll find that the positive feelings that these activities create may make your thoughts more positive, too.

While chronic overthinking unfortunately can't be fixed in the blink of an eye, it's by no means the end of the world. Find out what works to make you feel better and stick with it in order to see long-term results.

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