Overthinking: When Our Thoughts Get the Best of Us
We’ve all been there – lying awake at night, replaying a conversation in our heads for the 100th time, thinking of all the things we should have said. Or worse, cringing at the things we said! What in the serious hell was I thinking?!!? Like, where did that come from??
Or maybe we just agonize over a decision, weighing every single pro and con until we feel paralyzed. Relate?
Overthinking is part of our messy human-ing, especially for those of us recovering perfectionists and people pleasers.
Our highly evolved brains allow us to think deeply and analytically, which we need, but sometimes our thoughts can spiral out of control, leading to constant worry, anxiety, and sleepless nights.
As we seek meaning and purpose in life, esp. as we are on our healing journey, overthinking can be especially detrimental. When we get caught up in our heads, we disconnect from the present moment and our inner wisdom. And we usually are in the past or the future, but not in the present.
And we are well aware that the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality which I know you just balked at like, ‘omg. I know. I hate it. I try to change it and nothing works.’ And you also know that overthinking feeds narratives of fear and doubt, instead of empowerment. Again, totally frustrating.
Let’s explore the pitfalls of chronic overthinking and ways to quiet your racing mind. With a few simple practices, you can declutter your thoughts and come back to the calm within. But I am not gonna lie. This takes practice. Take it from a decades-long, recovering overthinker.
It’s doable. 100%.
The Hidden Costs of Overthinking
Overthinking tends to show up most when we face uncertainty or big decisions. We think that if we just think hard enough, we can control outcomes and be prepared for any scenario.
And then there are those of us prone to chronic overthinking, our minds can get carried away even in the smallest, everyday decisions. Things like choosing what to wear, what to eat for lunch, or which project to tackle first can send us into a dizzying spiral of analysis paralysis.
Even when there are no big life questions to answer, we overthinkers still manage to ruminate and second-guess our choices. For chronic overthinkers, the habit has become an automatic response rather than an occasional reaction to major dilemmas. Our minds are in constant motion, reviewing scenarios and conversations long after they’ve passed. This non-stop mental spinning disconnects us from the clarity and wisdom that arise when we are fully present.
Of course, intellectually analyzing decisions is important and has its place. But overthinking can quickly go off the rails:
- It creates false narratives. When we fixate on a situation, we start storytelling – imagining worst-case scenarios and interpretations that usually bear little truth. Research shows that overthinking is linked to cognitive distortions, which exaggerate potential threats. (Mahoney, A.E.J., McEvoy, P.M. & Moulds, M.L. Psychol Psychother 90, 114–132 (2017))
- It leads to indecision and fear. Weighing all options ad nauseam leaves us feeling confused and frozen. Overthinking makes us afraid to take action. Studies by psychologist Barry Schwartz show that too much analyzing leads to paralysis, undermining decision-making abilities. (Schwartz, B. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco, 2004.)
- It disconnects us from the present. When we obsess about the past or future, we miss out on the gifts of the moment. We neglect self-care, relationships, and joy. Harvard research reveals that mind wandering often focuses on negative futures or past events, correlating with unhappiness. (Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932.)
- It amplifies anxiety and grief. Going in circles about a problem leads to mounting stress. Dwelling on loss or change keeps wounds fresh. Ruminating on negative thoughts or feelings can become a self-perpetuating cycle that exacerbates distress, according to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. (Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Parker, L.E., & Larson, J. (1994). Ruminative coping with depressed mood following loss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(1), 92–104.)
- It erodes self-trust. Overthinking makes us second-guess our choices and instincts. This chips away at our confidence in ourselves. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1991). Responses to depression and their effects on the duration of depressive episodes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(4), 569.
Arianna Huffington writes, “We place so much pressure on ourselves to get everything right that we become afraid to let ourselves breathe.”
Sometimes, the weight of overthinking leaves little room for the ease, inspiration, and serendipity that arise naturally when we are simply present.
Why We Fall into the Overthinking Trap
Why do so many of us get trapped in overthinking?
- Early programming. Many sensitive children absorb messages that the world is dangerous, life is full of risk, and that worrying keeps us safe and prepared. Combative family dynamics can also program vigilance.
- Seeking certainty and control. When facing uncertainty, our mind desperately wants to control the uncontrollable. Overthinking is an attempt to create safety and certainty.
- Avoiding intuition. Many women disconnect from their inner wisdom due to cultural conditioning. Relying on intellect alone leads to unbalanced overthinking.
- Past or future focus. Staying stuck on re-living the past or imagining the future pulls us out of the now. Presence is our form of power.
- Thinking is power. Some equate thinking with productivity. Our culture praises non-stop action, multi-tasking, and constant connectivity. Just sitting and being seems lazy – but it’s here that magic arises.
The paradox is that overthinking does not lead to certainty or control. It pulls us further from our power source. When we are caught in the whirlwind of thoughts, it’s time to come back to presence.
Reclaiming Peace of Mind
Stopping overthinking takes gentle, consistent practice. Afterall, the habit developed as an attempt at self-protection. So start with compassion and gratitude for the part of you that was doing her best to protect. This too, is a practice.
Here are deep reflection questions to consider when you are in an overthinking trap:
- If my habitual thoughts were whispered to me by a concerned friend instead of my own inner critic, how might I receive them more gently?
- How would my higher/wise self advise me if she could lovingly talk to me now? What would she say about this situation?
- If I step back and view my thoughts as passing clouds, rather than absolute truth, how does that change their meaning and power?
- What might I see or understand if I shifted my perspective to that of a neutral third party? What advice would I give someone I loved in this same predicament?
- How can I separate circumstance from story? What actual facts are triggering fear versus the narratives I’m creating?
- What are the consequences of listening to my worried thoughts versus tuning into my inner wisdom? Which voice serves me best right now?
- What am I avoiding or resisting that is fueling this repetitive thinking? What happens when I give this situation my full presence and care?
Finding Your Way Back to Serenity
Halting the thought avalanche requires tender dedication. Start with an embrace of self – this habit was once a shield. And now? It’s time for transformation:
Commit to a daily centering ritual. Start each day checking in with your breath, become aware of your body with a body scan, say a mantra prayer, repeating a calming quote. This shifts you out of thinking mode into being mode. Try focusing on your senses – really taste the coffee, feel your feet on the ground, listen to the world waking up.
Write morning pages. Open your journal first thing and let whatever wants to come up flow freely, without self-judgement. Let your deep wisdom and intuition come through. I saw Julia Cameron, founder of the Artist’s Way and creator of these morning pages, decades ago in my early 20’s. I was three rows away from her and had the biggest panic attack of my life while she stared right at me. It wasn’t because of feeling uncomfortable, it was because I felt so at home with her, what she was saying, her frequency…and, now looking back, it was one of the first times in my life that I was truly embodied. My body didn’t know that feeling at the time. It only knew hypervigilance…so, of course, panick!
Limit digital distractions. External noise keeps our mind churning. Reduce time on devices, tv, and media. Spend time in nature and absorbing inspirational books.
Move your body, not just your mind. Get out of your head through hiking, yoga, dance, swimming. Not exercise as stressor, but movement as magic. So no HIIT or 20 mile runs (even though I know they can all us closer to Spirit. We are trying to calm the stress response here and have cortisol & adrenaline finally chill out. These forms of movement create a meditative bridge to inner wisdom.
Make all activities mindful. Whether cooking, showering or brushing your teeth, direct your attention to the sensations present. Appreciate the miracle of the mundane. This is a game changer. Feels funny at first. Stay with it.
Release attachments. Avoid trying to control people and outcomes. Practice radical acceptance of what is, and release expectations. This lessens the grip of obsession. This, like most authentic living, is a practice. Awareness is the first step.
Find an expressive creative outlet. Playing music, making art, baking sourdough, writing- these all can help you transcribe worry loops into inspiration.
Sit in stillness and be with yourself. Somatics & Nervous system regulation are the foundation of all my work. The foundation of my every day. And the starting place for real transformation. Even 5 minutes of legs up the wall, closing your eyes and focusing on your breath starts to drain worry. Give your thoughts space to settle.
Cultivate self-trust. Instead of endless analysis, check in with your gut instinct. You know you know. No need to check in with anyone but you. Honor your intuition and inner voice. The answers are within.
Talk to a friend or coach. Processing worries can help dispel their power. Find community and perspective from loved ones.
Concluding Ideas: Trusting Yourself Beyond the Overthinking
Though overthinking can be utterly exhausting and feels like an adversary, it shows us where we still need healing.
The antidote is not ruthless thought-stopping, but meeting ourselves with patience & kindness. Each instance of mental spiraling is a nudge to return to the sacred now.
As you traverse this human-ing journey, you’ll find the shackles of overthinking dissolve. Your life becomes less harried, more intuitive and purposeful. You relate to yourself with kindness, trusting your path.
The grand alchemy? When you stop forcing life’s rhythm, you gain the only real control – mastery over your inner state.
Overthinking fades, unveiling the space for clarity, audacity, and the divine flight of freedom.
*Save this post so you can come back and re-read it when you notice your mind spiraling again.*