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How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living: 10 Helpful Tips

Man Thinking

“Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life….My precept is, do something, my sister, do good if you can; but at any rate, do something.” ~Elizabeth Gaskell

Problems. We all face them.

Some are frivolous; some are life changing. Some force us to draw from within us our greatest mental potential. Many cause nothing more than stress.

Whatever issues life presents us, whether small or big, we think about them.

We think about what to do, what not to do, and what would be “best” for us and for everyone around us.

But how often do we think about our thinking? When do we stop to question why we over-think, whether it’s productive, and how to overcome it?

The first time a true bout of over-thinking grappled me was when I graduated from college.

For many, this time comes as a quarter-life crisis, and the event often repeats itself later in life. It’s the time to decide what we will do with our lives, and what careers we will pursue.

We want to make a true difference, help society, and live well. Although acquiring a comfortable desk job may be easier, it doesn’t have such a gripping appeal.

And so begins a rare human trait that we would surely benefit from evolving out of: rumination.

Sleepless nights came more regularly than I ever could have predicted. Confusion was my norm. Indecisiveness became expected. Uncertainty was my only certainty.

Fortunately, however, I didn’t drive myself nuts (or so I believe). Underlying the distress was an organic curiosity, and this led me to question my approach. What I came to learn truly changed my life.

I managed to collate a number of strategies for effectively reducing over-thinking. Below are some of my favorite simple and easy-to-implement insights and strategies:

1. Remember that over-thinking does not lead to insight.

You want an understanding of which decision will be best. For this, you need a level of insight into what each decision will lead to. Thinking this through, however, is futile.

Why? Because you never, ever know what something will be like until you experience it.

School, college, moving home, getting married, ending a relationship, changing career paths. However much you imagine what these change will be like, you will be surprised by what you discover when you actually engage in these activities.

Knowing this, you can move forward with a true understanding of what would be best. Acting, therefore, leads to clarity. Thought doesn’t.

2. Know that your decision will never be final.

Over-thinking often comes from the notion that you will make a grand finale decision that will never change and must be correct.

It won’t happen. And that’s a good thing. If you could predict with complete accuracy the entirety of your future, would you want to experience it?

To me, that removes all the spice of life. You must be aware that however much critical thinking you apply to a decision, you may be wrong.

Being comfortable with being wrong, and knowing that your opinions and knowledge of a situation will change with time, brings a sense of true inner freedom and peace.

3. Learn the reasons why over-thinking is harmful, and let it motivate you.

Studies have shown rumination to be strongly linked to depression, anxiety, binge eating, binge drinking, and self-harm.

In one study, 32,827 people from 172 countries showed that life events were the largest predictors of stress, followed by family history, income and education, relationship status, and social inclusion.

However, the study also showed that stress only occurred if the individual engaged in negative over-thinking about the events, and it showed that people who did not do this did not become as stressed or depressed, “even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives.”

So, worry about your problems if you wish. But don’t say no one warned you!

4. Keep active throughout the day, and tire the body out.

Do you want to know one of the main reasons you over-think?

It’s because you have the time to.

Not one day can be fruitful if more time than necessary is allowed for aimless thinking. A mind rests well at night knowing its day has been directed toward worthy goals.

So consider daily exercise—any physical activity that raises heart rate and improves health.

Walking is exercise. Sports, Pilates, and playing with the dog are too. It doesn’t have to be training for the next Olympics. Just get moving, and get tired.

5. Become the ultimate skeptic.

If you think about what causes thinking to be so stressful and tiring, it’s often our personal convictions that our thoughts are actually true.

Let’s look at an example.

If someone you know does something you consider hurtful, but you don’t discuss the issue with the person, negativity can arise with certain thoughts about why the person acted that way.

But once you can pinpoint which thoughts are causing the upset, one golden question will release all negativity:

“Can I be 100 percent sure this is true?”

By seeing the inherent lack of truth in your beliefs, you will naturally find yourself much more relaxed in all situations, and you won’t over-think things that are based on predictions and assumptions.

6. Seek social support, but don’t vent.

Better than confining your decisions to your own biases, perspectives, and mental filters, commit to seeking support from loved ones.

Research has long shown the powerful impact of social support in the reduction of stress.

But even better than that is getting a fresh, new angle on the topic.

For me, this has always—on every occasion—led me to learn something I had never considered before. This is how you grow, emotionally and spiritually.

7. Develop the skill of forgiveness.

It’s no surprise that having the misfortune of being treated undesirably leads people to suppress and repress anger toward other people.

Forgiveness is of the highest of human virtues. Not because it is morally correct, spiritually mature, or deemed a commendable personality trait.

It’s special because it, single-handedly, can induce the ultimate peace in people.

Forgiveness has also been shown on many occasions to help develop positive self-esteem, improve mood, and dramatically improve health. It’s a predictor of relationship well-being and marital length, and it has even been shown to increase longevity.

8. Plan for conscious distraction.

When do you ruminate the most? Have you ever thought about it? For me, I ruminated at night.

When you know the time of day rumination will begin, you can plan to remove that spare time with an activity that engages your full faculties.

It could be Sudoku, a board game with family, a meal out, yoga, or writing letters of gratitude to long-unseen friends.

A note of warning: there is some research to suggest that doing this with negatively reinforcing behaviors, such as toxic eating patterns, can lead to harmful long-term results.

Therefore, be picky about what you distract yourself with, and make sure it fosters positive emotion and psychological wellbeing.

9. Solve another person’s problem first, and get perspective.

“Serve first, seek second” should be the motto for anyone currently distressed by their perceived problems.

Your issue at hand can become so consuming that others may look at you like you’re living in your own mental world. And it takes something to break you out of it.

Helping others puts your issues in order by reminding you that we all go through tough times, some much more than you ever will.

That’s not to discount the struggles you’re going through, but helping others will restore balance and harmony in your life.

10. Remember that a perfect decision is never a bold one, so get started.

When your final years are approaching, you will not worry about how well you thought through your decisions, or how thoroughly and accurately you approached life’s forks in the road.

You will rest happily knowing you lived true to yourself, acted with confidence, and stood up for what you believed in.

So don’t worry about the perfection of your decisions. Be swift to move forward, even if it is in the wrong direction. Boldness is respectable; carefulness has never changed the world.

Thinking man image via Shutterstock

About Kulraj Singh

Kulraj is a writer and speaker who teaches people how to apply simple principles of psychology to increase their happiness and meaning in life. Download his free report today: The 4 Scientifically-Proven Ways To Increase Your Long-Term Happiness by 25% in 7 days.

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  • Jackie

    Great article! I will be trying to put these into practice right away. Thanks.

  • Great to hear 🙂 application is always the key. Best wishes.

  • Tami

    This one really hit home. I have been an chronic overthinker since childhood and often find myself in a state of emotional paralysis because of it.Thank you!

  • helen

    11) get out of your head and into your heart and sit with the feeling instead. The best decisions are always made from our hearts.

  • Leah Silver Graves

    Perfect topic for today. It’s not easy to “vent” all the time with the snow we have in Boston (7 feet by Monday) an it’s not easy to get exercise (not safe to walk etc.) I tried mall walking two mornings in a row bright and early and I was surrounded by others getting their walk in. Warm, safe, and friendly (and all ages). It’s easy to get the winter blues if you let them seep in and it’s easy to mess up your sleep.

  • Jess

    Interesting article. I totally agree that constant negative and circular thinking can have detrimental effects and that learning forgiveness and compassion can help bring a sense of balance and purpose (whether you over think things or not!). Hard to know where the line is between thinking and over-thinking though.

    May I ask Kulraj, do you consider yourself an extrovert? I ask only because I recently read that introverts tend to be happier when left to think, plan, ruminate and consider before taking action whereas extroverts tend to be keener and happier when they just to do. As an introvert myself if I did not have time to stop and think through my decisions, indeed to spend some time each day just sitting by myself thinking, then I would become extremely anxious, exhausted and possible depressed if not totally burnt out. Just wondered if you thought personality played a part in this.

  • Jo R

    This one really resonated and was just right for me today. Many thanks, Kulraj

  • diane allen smith

    And that’s why the Bible tells us that Wisdom is a woman, Helen. This young man in his “first quarter” assumes of course there will be 3/4 more of life, and has already jumped to #2 and said “no decision is final”. So, if he is lucky enough to use his heart to find a “wife”, we must assume he would be willing to marry her before God and witnesses that he vows it will be til “death do us part”, or is that what he just wants her to think, for the kids 😉 And if he has kids, would he give same “wisdom” that no decision is final to his daughters knowing if they find husbands it won’t apply? Then why do people marry if it’s never a final decision, according to a man who has lived the long life of 25 years? lol

  • Great tips for getting past the “analysis paralysis” syndrome. Surprised to not see “analysis paralysis” in the DSM-V 🙂

  • Thanks, Jo. Glad it could help.

  • Thanks, Tami. Many of us have experienced chronic overthinking at one time or another in life, and it’s helpful to be reminded of some simple tools that can help. Glad to hear this had provided some insight for you 🙂

  • You raise a great point, Jess.

    Generally speaking, introverts may be more prone to overthinking because they naturally spend less time in situations where attention and energy can be directed outwardly, therefore forcing one to not have the time to overthink. An example of this may be a social gathering or networking event.

    By nature, I’m an introvert and therefore I spend time consciously doing things that suit my personality but don’t damage my integrity, which I think is the key. So, although I may not engage in as much conversation with others in a particular social situation, for example, I may read a book, or go for a long walk whilst listening to my favourite music.

    Doing this, I’m adding to my overall well-being whilst removing time for overthinking, all without having to force any changes to my personality.

    As a fellow introvert, I encourage you to consider not fighting your nature, and instead think about ways you can enjoyably spend your free time, therefore leaving only a specific amount of time per day for purposeful, focused decision making.

    Hope that provides some clarity, and feel free to ask any further questions 🙂

  • Well said, Leah.

    As with anything, self-improvement requires persistence and determination, which you’ve demonstrated here perfectly.

    Not all situations will allow you to apply every principle mentioned here, but thinking of small adaptations you can make to your personal context is the first step towards a better, simple life.

    And as you said, seeing others engage in the same activity can be very reassuring, and can provide great social support for continued efforts.

    Keep it up 🙂

  • Couldn’t agree more, Helen.

  • Don Karp

    “. . . be picky about what you distract yourself with, and make sure it fosters positive emotion and psychological wellbeing.”
    As a great procrastinator, I have some agreement with your approach, especially about consulting with others. But I also feel that planning (like writing things out) can result in better decisions. This is not the same as your ruminating, but it is a positive activity towards finding a solution instead of being impulsive. For me, sleep and special dreams often is a way to gain insight to solve a problem.

  • Don, that’s a great point.

    Again, as individuals we have preferences and personal experiences that guide our wisdom.

    You’ve noted upon a valuable addition to the above list.

    Well put 🙂

  • Hi Kulraj
    Great tips here. I really resonated with the second one about decisions not being final. No matter what we want, we are always after a feeling. If we can figure out in this moment what would help us produce the particular feeling we are after, like peace, fulfillment, or whatever else, we should just follow that lead and see where it takes us. We may stay on that path, or we may end up going in another direction, but as long as we follow our feelings, we will end up somewhere great. When we look at it like this, we realize we can’t make a ‘wrong’ decision..we will always be moving towards what we want.

  • Thinking to much can lead to trouble, indeed. I like what you said about moving toward worthy goals…”Not one day can be fruitful if more time than necessary is allowed for aimless thinking.”

  • I can totally relate to this! What a great read.

  • Thanks for the kind words, Alexa 🙂

  • Thanks, Nicole.

    I believe each day we’re given is a gift, therefore it’s important we make the most of them by doing what we love and making a difference in world 🙂

  • qeurich

    #1 is SO true – for me anyway.

    I really like all the points you raise. In fact, will be bringing some of them up for discussion at my sangha’s next practice.

    Many thanks!

    Quinn

  • Emma0023

    thank you so much for this article Kulraj. It was a refreshing AM read after a PM of unhelpful rumination! 🙂

  • Thanks for the positive feedback, Quinn!

    Nice to hear some of the points here have resonated with you.

    All the best.

  • Awesome 🙂 Happy to hear the article has helped, Emma. Stay well.

  • Smoothie Spoonie

    Thanks for these great tips, I need to take them on-board!

    Lennae xxx

  • One step at a time, Lennae 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.

  • FB

    While I can understand and accept the premise of your column I have a consistent problem with forgiveness. I have come to the conclusion that I must have a different internal definition of the term “Forgiveness”. Whenever I try to forgive someone for, what I perceive as a slight, I find myself feeling like I have, for lack of a better phrase, wimped out, let them walk all over me, been had or used, etc. I do like the idea of getting up and getting busy but I will need to change a lot of my life as my time for overthinking is about 3:30 am. I don’t think my wife would like me to get out of bed and start doing Ti Chi so I need to resolve things while awake, exhaust myself and sleep through the night. Thank you for taking the time to pass along your thoughts and advice.

  • Thank you for this article!!! It was wonderful, and much needed!

  • Doodle

    This has come at just the right time for me. I am about to turn 40, and am having a bit of a mid-life crisis!

    I am a stay at home mum, and my children are now both at school so I have started to think about what to do with the rest of my life. I am not able to do the job that I trained for and did before we had our children (we migrated, and as I have been at home with the children for so long, I would essentially have to re take my undergrad degree and professional exams as my qualifications aren’t recognised in this country), but I don’t know what else to do. I feel like I can’t make a decision in case it is the wrong one, and I just go round and round in circles thinking and over-thinking things, and not actually getting anywhere. I am absolutely stuck.

    Just before I read your article, I had actually started to write out everything that I have been thinking, in the hope that getting these thoughts out of my head and on to some paper may go some way in helping me to clarify things. Reading your article has further confirmed to me that I am effectively sabotaging my own efforts to make a decision on what to do, by over-thinking about what to do. I will use your tools to try and help my situation.

    Thank you 🙂

  • Shanker

    Very good Article! I appreciate your adding caution in many points so that people don’t distort them. I could agree more with every point!

    I’m 60 now, and have problem of racing mind whenever I wake up at Night and return to bed from rest room . Though I feel sleepy to continue my sleep, my mind destroys that sleepy mode. Every now and then I realise it, and try counting to distract it until I fall back to sleep. Yes, this is the result of my indulgence in overthinking for decades.

  • Shanker

    This is a very useful article. Your arguments are both valid and enjoyable! Thank You Kulraj!

  • This is wonderful to hear, Doodle.

    You’ll come to a much wiser decision through action than through thinking.

    That being said, your intuitive nudge to want to write down your thoughts can also be very helpful. By doing this you’ll be able to clear your mind, and you won’t have to remember any key bits of information mentally, as it’ll be all written down on paper.

    But, just like you said, once it’s written down, decide on a simple plan of action that feels most right for you at this stage in your life. Test the waters, and then adjust accordingly.

    You’ll get there eventually 🙂

  • Thank you Stan. Appreciate the kind words!

  • Thank you, Shanker. I’m happy to hear this has helped.

    For sleepless nights try to keep yourself active throughout the day so you are tired enough in the evening to the extent that even if you wanted to stay up it would be more difficult.

    In addition, I would recommend turning off all computers and screen technology for about 30 mins before going to sleep. If you’re not tired, try not to force yourself to sleep.

    You may want to consider reading a book, or engaging in some other activity that you enjoy but which doesn’t involve looking at technology, as computer screens emit blue light, which has been shown to prevent sleep.

    Hope this helps 🙂

  • Kelli, you’ve made a wonderful point.

    Naturally, we are all effective decision makers. It’s our habits of overthinking that can often get in our way of following our intuition, but like you said, if we ‘take stock’ of how our body responds physically and emotionally to a particular path, we are sure to make a fair decision.

    Great input!

  • Jeffrey Willius

    Kulraj — Thank you for some of the clearest, truest (at least my truth) counsel I’ve ever read on overthinking. I identified this as a problem for me many years ago, and have been able to avoid it most of the time, but as you know, the ways we were educated and aculturated are hard to shake.

  • Jeffrey, you’ve made a good point. It’s great to hear that you’ve taken steps forward to avoid overthinking much of the time, and as with any skill, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes and the faster it is implemented.

  • Shanker

    Hi Kulraj,

    Thanks for your comments. I go for walk at Night for about 11/2 kms, say 1 or 2 hrs before going to bed. I generally get sleep soon after I hit the bed (usually areound 11 pm). I don’t have any tension at Home or Office. Yet, I know I get tense even for small challenges. Meditation/Hypnosis did not help me either.

    However, the issue is that I’m not able to continue to sleep when I’m awakened for going to rest room around 2 or 3 p.m. and return. This is despite my good sleepy mode, which is destoyed by mind in minutes. I don’t drink much of water and go to rest room just before I go to bed. This is what I’ve stated in my reply.

  • ellie

    Wow, this just blew my mind! I can’t even comment on how closely this touched my life – with what I’m going through and how I’m reflecting on things.

    The one that caught my eye the most was the final one about someday not caring if the decisions I made were right, only if I stood up for what I believed in. This particularly rings true in my life right now, and living true to myself is what brings me back from the suffering that I’m finding in my life.

    I was just pondering the service aspect. I naturally tend to look for somewhere to serve or to spread love and wellbeing in the world when I’m feeling down and defeated. But then I start to OVERTHINK and tell myself that it too is just an escape from the suffering that I need to face.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing this. Changed my life for the better!

  • Ellie, thanks so much for the kinds words, I’m glad this helped.

    Like you said, living true to yourself is the key to a calm, balanced and happy mind.

    I can relate to your situation regarding overthinking when serving others. It helps to act before thought can get in the way. By doing this you’ll notice the positive benefits you’ve provided for others before your mind has an opportunity to get in your way. Which is always a plus 🙂

  • Kelli

    I definitely have this problem, I never knew thinking was a problem until recently. I think I use over thinking as a form of escapism or avoidance. It’s habitual and very damaging to my life and relationships. Its exciting though to realize a problem. I can see it now, I can see how I have always hid behind overthinking. Now that I know I do it, I can take steps to change it. For example now if I want to think something to death, I can see it, and I tell myself to just do something, anything towards my goal. It doesn’t have to be perfect just do something and that something usually leads to something else and I feel better, lighter. Thank you for the article.

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  • Francesca

    This article made me cry. I was literally in the middle of a nervous breakdown at work and searched on Tiny Buddha for something that I could relate to and this popped up. I have been in a really down time in my life because I try and control everything to make sure no one is disappointment. When things don’t go as planned if feels like my world is ending. I am trying to learn that I have to just let things be and stop over complicating things and this truly helped. Thank you so much.

  • Lee Moreau

    I think I need to print this out! I work from home and am a one man shop, so it’s insanely easy to spend half the day pacing back and forth, arguing with myself, (or repeating an argument with someone else from earlier), or even worse, having an argument in my head with someone that never even happened! More like a “what if”! Such a waste of time and puts me in the worst mood ever. I also am so bad for over thinking things, even health related. Have a pain in one area and I’ll spend half the day trying to convince myself it’s this or that, or not this or that. I like number 5 as well as I find it’s very easy to have a friend or colleague say or do something that is hurtful, and then you stop talking to them and get incredibly angry, arguing with them in your mind, when if you just stop and think about it, 9 times out of 10 the person really wasn’t being that bad. It’s especially true with things like if someone asks me to hang out with them on Friday night and I say sure. If Friday comes around and they haven’t messaged me, I get all pissed off thinking they bailed and are so rude, and I purposely will not reach out to them, just so that I have a reason to be mad at them, like “He’s such a jerk, invited me out and then never called me the day of.” Where as chances are they are thinking the same, that they don’t want to be pushy and are waiting for you to call them, etc. So really enjoyed this as a lot of it hit close to home.

  • Kelli, this is fantastic. You’ve taken the first, and most important, step to positive change – becoming aware of the issue and acting boldly. Very inspiring!

  • I’m glad this helped, Francesca.

    I know exactly the feeling your describing, and in life it’s important to realize there are times and situations we simply cannot control.

    Allowing yourself to accept this, act with confidence and be mindful, is a virtuous skill, and one I believe you will develop to excellence.

    Stay strong, and always have faith in yourself 🙂

  • Lee, you’ve made a number of points that so many of us can relate to.

    One of the most fascinating habits we have, as you mentioned, is our belief that we know what is going through someone else’s mind. The truth is, we can never truly know. It’s always, on some level, speculation and assumption.

    Being aware of this and then actively catching yourself when you’ve gone into ‘mind-reading’ mode brings such a peace to the mind, especially when done frequently enough, after which is just becomes second nature, and you simply know everyone’s actions are not ours to judge.

    Likewise, when we have a twinge of pain or sneeze unexpectedly we can be quick to assume we have a serious injury or a upcoming cold – but again, it’s speculation.

    This all goes to show the importance of self-awareness, critiquing one’s own thoughts, and maturing from what we learn of ourselves.

    Keep at it, Lee. All the best!

  • What a great post! I thought your suggestion to ask “Do you know if this is 100% true” is so helpful. I also think forgiveness is really important. I am better served when I “Let Go” and forgiveness does that. I like to forgive others and forgive myself.

  • Great to hear, Susan 🙂 I agree – forgiveness is so powerful, and brings such peace into our lives. Glad you found the article helpful.

  • Maryam Hosseinzade

    Thanks Kulraj!! it is a very useful text. but number 9 doesn’t work for people of my type well!! u know I always thought i should help others and it was like i was searching someone to help!!! one of the things that hurt me a lot in my life. but yes to know others have problems to encounter with is helpful too! thank you so much!! it is great!

  • Tamil

    Many Thanks…after reading the all tips I have got the solutions for all my problems..hereafter I am going to live my life………………………………

  • Adam

    Thank You, this really helped, I have a lot of Psychological problems that I hadn’t ever got taken care of, but again, Thank You (:

  • Lakshmi (Valardocs)

    A person I look up to, once advised me to focus on emotions and sensations rather than thoughts when the urge to overthink arises. Very difficult to practice, but it works…the moment you focus on the emotions/sensations that the thought cause, the thoughts cascade take a backseat.

  • pomy

    Recently, I rescued a street puppy , fostered her and then got the puppy adopted to a family, but ther is this constant fear inside me that the puppy might be abandon and dumped on to the street again, I discussed with closed ones and they said i am over thinking.. I am trying to overcome this phase.. i tried to convince myself.. may be the some sort of distraction i need, so i started feeding street dogs and i thought slowly and steadily i am overcoming it, but i still go back to my fear.. and sink into this some strange emotion.. i hit this post to give some peace and trying to find ways… this is put in lovely way, thanks for these words 🙂

  • Ioana Draghita

    Thank you for sharing this

  • mrbasnet

    I have a fear a doubt that whenver i am out i like to eat at places the junk ones but there is a feeling in my mind a doubt that says it may have been poisoned or else the defect of machines may be there. so i back off at tsuch situations. Many a times i have been hungry cause i dont like to eat outside . But when it comes to friends i can. I oveerthink too but i am getting over with it through time management to good things. idk why is this happening i am afraid to eat out. It’s derailing me. Also when i am going out i lock my door but i have a doubt that the door is still left open so i go back to check it again.
    hope to getting a positive response!

  • Chrissie Cowlett

    Hello I’ve only just read this article and comments. I needed these words today Kulraj and I was wondering if you know of any books which can help on this topic? My over thinking is really getting me down. MrBasnet I’m replying here as I suffered the same as you for nearly 2 years like this. I had food poisoning once for 2 weeks from a place and I couldn’t eat out after that for a long time. I developed a toxic attitude towards food and literally ate bread and pasta as I knew these to be low risk foods and barely left the house for ages after I’d eaten. This was while I was at university around 9 years ago. Seek help and people to talk to as it can become crippling. My anxiety has come back years later but not for the same reasons, it’s all connecting back up though. Good luck

  • Prasad Gurav

    overthinking has ruined my life, during my college lectures I’m not able to concentrate on lectures my mind keeps on thinkng about future and it makes me worry. I’m also suffering from irrelevant imagination due to which I’m not able to take good sleep. Would you please help me.