We’ve all been there – you just can’t switch off, your head feels like a washing machine on the fast cycle, thoughts are spinning round and round like a carousel. You struggle to focus, you can’t sleep properly and you may start to feel quite low, stressed and anxious.

Overthinking is quite natural. Our brains have evolved to think creatively and seek solutions to problems—which is great—but what if your brain goes into overdrive and doesn’t know when to stop? What if you’re thinking about something which doesn’t have a solution, because either the worst has already happened or you’re trying to solve something over which you have no control or which is purely hypothetical.

When we are caught up in overthinking we are taken away from the here and now. We may find ourselves ruminating about the past, wondering why something has happened to us, wondering why someone else behaved the way they did or perhaps regretting something we did or didn’t do.  We may also worry about the future, imagine worst case scenarios and doubt our ability to cope.

Both rumination and worry can lead to us feeling low, stressed out and anxious. The trouble is that the more low, stressed and anxious we feel, the more likely we are to ruminate and worry, thus creating a negative cycle of thoughts and feelings which can be tricky to get out of. Tricky, but not impossible!

When you are caught up in an overthinking spiral there’s no point telling yourself to ‘stop it and snap out of it’. Being hard on yourself is never a good idea, also the more you tell yourself not to think of something, the more you will end up thinking of it. Try it now: take a few minutes to sit quietly and try your best NOT to think about pink elephants. What do you notice? I bet you thought about pink elephants a lot more than you have at any other point today! It’s the same with whatever we are ruminating or worrying about: the more you try not to focus on thoughts the more you will. This is just the way our brains work.

Instead, try to notice if there are any factors which make overthinking worse for you.  For example: I know my brain goes into overdrive when I have a hangover or I haven’t slept properly.  Other things to look out for are whether you have eaten properly and are well hydrated. Are you exercising regularly and making time for rest? Some simple ‘self-care’ steps such as these can really help to break the cycle of overthinking.

Another thing which I’ve found really helpful over the years is mindfulness, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. This is a technique you can practice on a day to day basis to make you more resilient, specifically during times of overthinking.

Finally, try this six step process:

  1. Notice that you are overthinking. I know it sounds obvious, but how many times have you been staring into space for a good ten minutes before you suddenly realise that you’ve been lost in your thoughts?
  2. Speak kindly and gently to yourself. For example: ‘Ah, I’m overthinking again!’ Remember that you’re only human, and it’s quite natural to get caught up in your thoughts.
  3. Take a few slow breaths whilst really focusing on how your body feels as you inhale and exhale.
  4. Ask yourself: ‘is it useful to me to be thinking about this right now?’
  5. Refocus on each of your senses by asking yourself: ‘What can I hear, see, feel, smell and taste right now?’
  6. Focus on whatever you were doing before overthinking took over.

While overthinking can be a normal part of day to day life, it can also be a symptom of depression or an anxiety problem like generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), health anxiety, or a reaction to trauma. If you’re concerned that these problems may be affecting you, then please speak to a health professional and access CBT.