You may recognize the moments when you start overthinking a situation. Your boss told you to step it up for a presentation. Your new romantic interest never texted you back. You’re so worried about all the ways a gym session could go wrong that you avoid it completely. It’s totally normal to think about these situations and interactions for a while. But when those thoughts keep you from actually moving forward, that’s when overthinking turns negative. To help you distinguish good, thoughtful analysis from the bad and counterproductive, we talked to a few psychology experts. Try their tips for using the power of overthinking to your advantage—rather than letting it be a setback.
The Pros and Cons of Overthinking
“There are lots of advantages to spending some time thinking about making an important decision, weighing the pros and cons, and coming up with a plan,” says Kristin L. MacGregor, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center. For instance, you might spend a lot of time thinking about and planning out how to nail an important meeting. Or you’re figuring out how to create a consistent workout routine.
“Going over material that catches our attention or prompts anxiety is exactly what we need to do to make sure we protect the relationships and situations we care about,” says Alicia Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do.
Be mindful of rumination.
The catch happens when you dwell on those thoughts and never take any action. “Ruminating, by definition, has no resolution. By continuing to replay negative situations over and over again in our minds, all it stands to do is make whatever negative feelings attached to that situation worse,” MacGregor says.
An example of that rumination from MacGregor: You keep asking yourself, “Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say this instead? Why do I always say stupid things?” Sometimes that just turns into remembering other situations in which you reacted poorly—or what you thought was poorly. This spirals into feelings of guilt and sadness. Then you may start withdrawing from social situations. “If we continue to engage in this negative pattern of thinking, our emotions and behaviors will be directly impacted,” MacGregor says.
The easiest way to distinguish positive overthinking versus negative is that the former involves an answer, and the latter, more consequences.
“Ideally, thinking through a situation leads to solutions—ways you can take responsibility for and repair damage done, including things you will do differently next time as well as acceptance for consequences you can’t control,” Clark says. “Mistakes and failures, as some researchers argue, are opportunities to get our attention and nudge us to change. Without them, we might not grow as efficiently. Obsessive thinking can become a negative circular loop when it never jumps out of the problem into the solution, leaving the thinker feeling the very worst part of anxiety: powerlessness.”
Tips to Recognize Overthinking—and Then Stop It
So, how do you know when you’re analyzing a situation in a way that leads to positive results rather than negative? The short answer: When you actually come to a conclusion instead of going around and around in your thoughts, repeating the same complaints and getting stuck in the problem, Clark says.
“One of the biggest traps that leads to overthinking is focusing on the choices you wish you had rather than the choices you have,” she explains. “You wish your body were healthier. You wish you didn’t like junk food. You wish this weren’t so hard rather than thinking about what you can do to get healthier, to avoid the trap of junk food, or how to make following a plan easier. Focusing on your choices allows you to steer your thinking toward solutions. [This] is how to channel anxiety to your advantage.”
Be confident in your conclusions.
If you do figure out a way to handle a problem, then stop there. Be confident in your decision, says Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “If you have an answer that’s good enough, that’s the time to stop. You don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to make a perfect choice,” she explains. “Also, if your thoughts are impeding your ability to act and keeping you stuck, you are overanalyzing.”
When you do recognize the same thought popping up several times over, MacGregor says to ask yourself: “Is this way of thinking helpful?” If it’s not: “Is there a way to think about this situation differently?” Also, focus on other times you were in this situation and it worked out rather than the times it did not.
You can always take a walk to clear your head, too. “Interrupt the cycle when you find yourself ruminating,” Greenberg says. “Get up and focus on something positive about the present moment.”
How Overthinking Can Affect Your Health Goals
While extensive analyzing often goes hand in hand with social situations, it can also hold you back from your health goals, whether that’s starting a workout routine, losing weight, or just getting healthier.
“Wellness goals aren’t easy to reach. It takes resolve, courage, and effort to stay on a path to better health,” Clark says. “There are many impediments that can get in the way, including negative thoughts. Comparing yourself to others rather than staying focused on yourself is a common way you can get sidetracked. Feeling intimidated or inadequate can give you just the excuse you need to not push yourself any further.”
That means the opposite is true: If you focus on the good—such as progress, effort, and success, no matter how small (simply showing up to work out counts!)—you will stay motivated. “Instead of focusing on the dread of going [to the gym], focus on how good you feel when you make it to your workout, how much stronger your body is now, and how much easier it is now than it used to be,” Clark says.
These simple switches in your thinking can easily push you in the right direction of healthy payoffs. Just remember: Thinking about failure before you even start will likely crush your drive, Greenberg notes. “Then you are more likely to quit when things get difficult,” she says.
Stay in the present.
“While the past is where we developed our thinking and the ground from which we learn for the future, the past is ultimately in the past and outside of our control,” Clark says. “The only thing we can control is our right now.” So, start there. What can you do now to make a situation better? What steps can you take to get healthier starting today?
“Grow your self-compassion, so you can forgive yourself for past mistakes. Keep redirecting your thoughts to what is happening right now,” Greenberg says. “See the past as something to grow from, not as something that defines you.”