You stare at your bedroom ceiling, willing yourself to go to sleep. Thoughts race through your head, holding your mind hostage. Or you ruminate on the awkward conversation you had with your boss on the way home from work.
Overthinking can happen at any time of day or night and can leave people frozen in indecision.
People are often trapped by their own thoughts because they are striving for perfection or are trying to find a way to control a situation, said Kimber Shelton, a psychologist and owner of KLS Counseling & Consulting Services in Duncanville, Texas.
“We want to figure out every single angle and be able to control what would happen if this should occur, and we get stuck in this process of overthinking,” she said.
When people overthink, Shelton said, their thoughts begin going in circles and they can’t find a conclusion.
Thoughts of mishandled or embarrassing past events can also disrupt people and lead them to play back the events in their head over and over, she added.
Overthinkers have trouble prioritizing their issues and understanding what problems are within their control, said Deborah Serani, psychologist and senior adjunct faculty at the Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
How to break the cycle of overthinking
Serani created a five-step process to escape the endless cycle of overthinking.
Step one: The first step is to become aware when you’re overthinking, she said. Sometimes other people will point it out to you, and while it can be irritating to hear, it’s helpful in learning how to spot it within yourself.
For her, Serani said her palms become sweaty and her heart begins to beat faster when she overthinks.
Step two: The next step is to take a step back and gain some perspective of what it is you’re overthinking and if you have any control over it. “Am I thinking about something that’s beyond my control, or is it something that I can control?” Serani said.
You might not be able to control the traffic, but maybe you can control the route you take next time, the GPS you use to get around traffic jams, the beverage in your cupholder, and how you react to the situation.
If it is something you can’t control, you can tell yourself, “I have to really prioritize what I have the ability to change” and this is beyond my ability to change, Serani said.
Step three: If the situation is within your control, the third step is to be in the moment and isolate the singular problem.
Step four: Once you have identified one issue, the next step is to set a time limit on how long you’re going to give yourself to problem-solve. It’s important to not slip into problem dwelling, which isn’t productive for resolving the issue at hand, Serani said.
For example, if you’re stuck in traffic and going to be late for an appointment, a problem solver might look for alternative routes, call the person they’re meeting to let them know they’ll be late, or take deep breaths while listening to the radio.
Serani said a problem dweller might think, “I can’t believe I’m stuck in traffic” or “I can’t believe I’m going to be late for this appointment; this doesn’t look good for me professionally.”
Step five: The final step is to recognize the baby steps you took toward solving your problem, even if you weren’t able to solve it completely. “You’re going to celebrate the fact that you took a situation, recognized that you were overthinking and that you tried to solve the problem,” Serani said.
Many people may not be successful the first couple times they practice this method, and she stressed that it’s normal to feel that way.
Winding down at night
Overthinking plagues many people at night as they toss and turn in their beds. If incessant thoughts are keeping you up, Shelton recommended you schedule time to overthink.
“I’m going to give myself five minutes and allow my brain to go wherever it needs to go,” she said.
Afterward, engage in some relaxing self-care activities like taking a bath or listening to music, she added.
Another strategy is to write down your worries to allow your thoughts to escape your brain, Shelton said. They can be written down as you think of them, or you can create a pros and cons list.
Overthinking while meditating
Meditation is a common self-care practice that focuses on having a mind free of thoughts. For an overthinker, this can be especially difficult.
When you find your mind wandering during meditation, Shelton said to become aware that your thoughts have drifted off. Once you recognize that, refocus your mind on your breathing.
If you’re a beginner, she said to begin with 30 seconds of meditation and then slowly work your way up to longer times.
Meditation isn’t something everyone can do, Serani said, and she doesn’t want people thinking that they’re failing if they can’t do it.
Slow, calming activities like reading, walking or listening to music are a great alternative for overactive minds, she noted.
Know when to seek professional help
If you find yourself overthinking for weeks or months on end, it may be time to seek professional help, Serani said.
You could have a mental disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder, she said. “Generalized anxiety is a very common experience, particularly since Covid started, because there is just so much pressure with the pandemic and life changes,” Serani said.
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Overthinking can also be triggered by past trauma, Shelton noted.
Therapy can help heal that trauma so “our thoughts are no longer dictated by a past event, and we can make thoughts that are more based on reality today,” she said.