Is your overthinking keeping you stuck? Try these five strategies to reduce overthinking and start living your life with more confidence.
Lindsay left a work meeting over an hour ago, and she’s still replaying a comment she made. How are people taking it? Could it have been misunderstood? Was it too uncreative, or did it miss the mark entirely? She wishes that she had added more context. Then, she gets an idea: she can write an email to her team, and explain herself. She starts composing a message, and then she stops. Maybe I am making too big of a deal about this, she thinks. But then again, maybe people are thinking that I’m not fit for this job. The email sits as a draft in her inbox, along with a stack of other incomplete drafts, and Lindsay continues along her day, distracted by The Meeting. When she gets home, she runs the incident past her partner, who eventually tires of reassuring her.
We’ve all been there — ruminating on past conversations, playing out future ones, or spiralling down a rabbit hole of “what-ifs.”
In our Vancouver counselling practice, where the majority of our clients come to us seeking relief for anxiety, we see overthinking all the time. In fact, many successful people report that they overthink and worry.
Why do we overthink?
One of the main drivers of overthinking and worrying is uncertainty. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “I can’t stand not knowing, I can’t stand not having control. Maybe if I think about it from every possible angle, then I can get in front of the situation, control the outcome.”
Because we lack the superpowers of mind reading, knowing the future, and time travel, we are in a constant state of uncertainty. People who have anxiety find this uncertainty more unbearable than others. Worrying, thinking, surveying others, over-preparing, over-researching are all ways in which we try to procure more certainty by trying to guess and anticipate every blind spot and fill in all of our missing information.
It seems like it could be a good solution, but because we will never actually have absolute certainty, it leaves us dissatisfied and still searching.
Can overthinking ever be helpful?
Let’s get one thing straight: we need to think, and we need to plan. Sometimes, it is helpful to reflect and make adjustments. But overthinking means that we lack trust in ourselves that we will be able to make ‘good enough’ decisions and cope accordingly. We also worry about external events over which we have very little control.
A reasonable amount of thinking and planning, and overthinking and excessive worrying often don’t yield different outcomes. In fact, ‘analysis paralysis’ can kill creativity and get in the way of taking action.
How do I stop overthinking?
There is something addictive about overthinking, and it can be very difficult to simply force stop. Here are a few strategies that can help you interrupt the worry cycle and increase your tolerance for ambiguity.
Assess how high the stakes are.
Ask yourself: is this a high stakes or low stakes issue?
Overthinkers tend to overthink many things – even issues that are seemingly inconsequential, like what to wear or how they came across at that brief convo at the grocery store.
If you determine that you are overthinking a low stakes issue, challenge yourself to take imperfect action.
In other words: aim for good enough.
Many overthinkers also suffer from perfectionism, and so they are consumed with the idea that they need to get things right. Perfectionism is a larger issue that can decrease your quality of life and get in the way of productivity, relationships, and life satisfaction, and is best addressed in counselling.
Focus on coping with less desirable outcomes, rather than avoiding an unwanted outcome.
Chronic worriers tend to overestimate the possibility that something will go badly (or did go badly) and underestimate their abilities to cope with the outcome.
This can lead to a focus on avoidance (if I can’t nail it, I don’t want to try at all), rather than tolerating uncertainty and coping with disappointment.
Think of the things you’re overthinking right now. Applying for a new job. Speaking up in a meeting. Switching your daughter’s preschool. Whether to end a relationship.
All of these things definitely require some careful consideration. It’s also true that no matter how much thinking you do, the outcome will be uncertain. You will just need to eventually trust yourself, and trust your abilities to adapt – even if the outcome is temporarily rocky.
In order to grow and enrich our lives, we need to take reasonable and healthy risks: asking someone out on a date, learning a new skill, making an important decision after a reasonable (but finite) amount of research and reflection.
When we avoid, we may put an end to our overthinking, because we no longer have to deal with the uncertainty of our risk, but we miss out on important opportunities. When we can cope with outcomes that aren’t easy, or aren’t what we wanted, we become more resilient and adaptive.
Our favourite mantra for this is “Uncertainty is hard, and I can do hard things.”
Replace overthinking with actual problem solving.
We often mistake worrying for problem solving.
Whereas overthinking is a passive activity; problem-solving is active. Worrying is based on the hypothetical – repetitively thinking about all the things that could go wrong. Problem-solving identifies what isn’t working and focuses on improving.
Dr. Michelle Newman, an expert on chronic worrying, compares overthinking to pressing really hard on the accelerator while the car is in neutral. ‘You might expend a ton of energy and feel mentally exhausted’, says Newman, ‘but you haven’t moved an inch’.
Write some of your stickiest worries down, in the form of “what if” statements. Follow this up with a question: is there anything meaningful or reasonable I can actually do about this?
Let’s say you worry about you or one of your loved ones getting into a car accident. Your son is turning 16 soon and can’t wait to get his license and start driving. Your thinking ramps up.
Replace overthinking with a “two things are true” statement.
Last week Iris was considering meeting up with a new mom and baby group, and she found herself stuck in the weeds of her thoughts. Iris isn’t breastfeeding her 6 month old, and she is dreading the judgement of being seen with a bottle. She mentally prepared a justification for why she doesn’t nurse her baby. She also thinks to herself that maybe she’ll arrive late for the gathering so that she can give her son a big bottle feed before leaving, thereby avoiding any uncomfortable questions.
Iris mentioned this to her counsellor, and together, they examined the roots of her overthinking and decided to do an experiment in which Iris committed to interrupt her mental rehearsing with “two things are true.”
In “two things are true” you hold two truths side by side. The first is about the uncertain threat you fear, and the second is about the healthy desire you have despite that.
“Two things are true,” Iris said to herself: “I fear people’s judgement about not breastfeeding, and I really want to make more mom friends.”
Yup, you read that right. Commit to doing things that make you feel a little awkward. So often our overthinking is related to fear of uncomfortable situations. It’s like our brain is telling us “you need to cover all the bases and anticipate every possible outcome, otherwise it’ll be so awful and awkward!” This conflates discomfort with danger, and results in us not actually exposing ourselves to new and unfamiliar situations. It feels really uncomfortable when we stop overthinking, over-preparing, and over-analysing and start actually doing things that are outside of our comfort zones (or awkward).
Next time you feel uncertain and uncomfortable, congratulate yourself. You’re putting yourself out there so that you can have more of what you value in your life. More satisfaction, more honest relationships, more friendships.
Counselling for overthinking, worrying and anxiety
If you’re wondering how to start, how to apply these strategies to your life, and how to overcome overthinking and worrying for good, meeting with one of our counsellors in our Vancouver clinic or online would be a great place to start! Get in touch with us so that we can start working on this issue and help you move forward in life with more confidence and ease.
About the Author
Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.