Overcoming Overthinking

March 04, 2022

Photo by Sensei Minimal on Unsplash

Lately I’ve noticed a worrying trend in myself—my tendency to overthink things has gone into overdrive. Around 2 a.m., my eyes pop open and my mind takes off. My thoughts run in circles, replay the time I was brusque with my mother-in-law, or dash ahead looking for things to fret about.

Query: why do I never wake up at 2 a.m. to replay something delightful that happened? Or to think about something I’m looking forward to?

Hello, my name is Kathy and I’m an overthinker

Before I continue, I want to clarify that there are several types of overthinking—some more serious than others. What I’m speaking about here is a generalized pattern of negative or repetitive thoughts as well as a tendency to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over making a decision. For me, it looks like falling into a spiral of replaying mistakes and of worry about the future, especially when I’m tired. Small decisions loom large and little challenges feel overwhelming. Sometimes I can’t go to sleep, or I wake in the middle of the night as described above.  From what I hear from my friends, I’m not alone.

It's certainly not bad to think. But as our world continues to offer us tragedy and suffering on an unimaginable scale, our (my) thinking can become overthinking. And overthinking isn’t good for us. Jenny Maenpaa wrote, “Overthinking is an anxious tendency that I encounter in my psychotherapy practice. There are many ways we tend to overthink, such as rehashing the past—replaying the same scenario over and over in our head. Worrying is another form, in which we obsess over what the future might bring…. Research has shown that overthinking can decrease energy, limit creativity and cause sleeping problems.”

(Click on the first link below for three excellent exercises she uses to reduce overthinking.)

Thinking too much can cause overwhelm, keep us from making decisions, and drain the joy from life.

 Practices for coping with overthinking

Here are four practices that have helped me. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

Letting go of perfectionism (or trying to). As Anne Bogel notes in Don’t Overthink It, right doesn’t equal perfect. When I start to get wound up about the possibility that I didn’t make the absolute perfect choice of new cookware to replace my decrepit pots and pans at the absolute best price, I remember that I did my research, thought about the purchase, and made a reasoned choice. That’s good enough. I don’t need to obsess about it.

Postponing the thoughts. I don’t know why my brain thinks 2 a.m. is the ideal time to trot out every concern, little or large, that has been on my mind—but it does. I’ve started simply saying, “I’ll think about this in the morning. Right now, I need to rest.”

Distracting myself. In the middle of the night, I make mental lists: alphabetical book or movie titles, foods, and so on. During the day, I play a game, read, watch a video or TV show, or play with Luna. Anything that will give my busy brain something else to ponder.

Repeating affirmations. Before bed lately I’ve been turning to Morgan Harper Nichols’ “Phrases to repeat to yourself late at night,” which I found on Instagram:

I am loosening my shoulders.
I am relaxing my jaw.
I am taking a moment to stretch.
I am taking deep breaths.
I am looking forward to rest.
I am releasing worry.
I am letting go.
I am trusting in the process.
I am ready to dream a beautiful dream.
I am practicing peace.

During daylight hours, if I need to reach for encouraging words, I read through a few of the 3 x 5 cards with inspirational quotes I’ve gathered over the years.

Overthinking divorces us from simple pleasures. It doesn’t help us make better decisions or be kinder to others. All it does is exhaust and overwhelm us. The world itself is exhausting enough without our own thoughts becoming a source of anxiety. I hope these practices will help you as they’ve been helping me. 

Do you have any practices you use to calm your thoughts? Please share in the comments!

For more information:

“A psychotherapist shares the 3 exercises she uses every day ‘to stop overthinking’”

Dropping the Rope: The Power of Letting Go

Life Lessons From the Barn—Relax Your Mind

Don’t Overthink It, Anne Bogel (Amazon, Bookshop)

Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, Martin N. Seif, Sally M. Winston (Amazon, Bookshop)

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  1. Kathy, this is so timely. I considered yesterday - my mind was worn out! - only doing my thinking in French. Because I know just a little bit here and there of that language, I figure that will really cut down on my obsessive or anxious thoughts and the conversations in my head! Last night (like you, wide awake at 2am) I started counting over and over to 10 in French...un, deux, trois.... It worked. I fell back to sleep. I plan to memorize a positive phrase or two to add to my repertoire. :)

    I continue to enjoy your thoughts and reading about your experiences here.

    1. Hi, Belle--so good to hear from you! And your ideas are awesome. Thinking in French would definitely be a way to cut down on spiraling thoughts. Maybe I should "dust off" my Duolingo app and collect a few French phrases to practice when I can't sleep.

      Hope you are well. I've been reading a lot lately--I should send you an update!

  2. It is nice to know that I am not the only one who awakes at 2:00 a.m. and then wrestles with overwhelming thoughts that will not let me return to a good night's sleep. Is it our age? (I am 65) Is it possible all the concerns of the past two years are catching up with us? (Yes there has been other bad times in history). Maybe we are waiting for the next boot to fall!! Whatever the reason it is nice to know we are not alone. Your honesty is always refreshing and makes me realize that the human experiences are often better when they are shared. Hope you are having a good week. Hugs!

    1. Debbie--I think there's a whole group of us all awake at 2 a.m.! Probably all the things you've listed here are playing into our sleepless nights. I hope that if we continue to be honest and share our struggles as well as our triumphs, that we'll grow closer and stronger so that we can get through the bad times. I appreciate your comments, and hope you're having a good week, too :)

  3. You've got my number...Though I am freer of my anxious, repetitive, obsessive thoughts these days. I've worked so hard to organize my life, to tame the A.D.D., to learn how to let go and allow serenity. Making and learning about art helps, like meditation. I'm currently taking 2 language classes, beginning Italian and advanced French. I'm finding that having my mind focus on studying is wonderfully therapeutic! Thank you, as always, for your brilliant writing, Rita

    1. Thank you, Rita. I think your practice of learning must help, and of course, meditation, too. Is knowing French helping at all with learning Italian?

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