Overthinking: From Hello To Goodbye

This is a practical guide to dealing with overthinking, like, really practical, with worksheets and clear steps. It worked on me.

What is overthinking, really?

Is Einstein spend months thinking about a scientific problem with no result overthinking? If not, why?

Here is my definition of overthinking:

Overthinking is excessive thinking under negative emotions in an unproductive way. 

Overthinking is often analytical and problem-solving just like normal healthy thinking, and people who overthink do feel like they are trying to solve problems. 

The difference between healthy thinking and overthinking is the three key words in this definition: “Excessive”, “Negative emotions” and “Unproductive”. Thinking needs to meet all three requirements to be overthinking. 

  • Excessive: Thinking way more than you should. How much is “more”? No clear line, but you know it. 
  • Negative emotions: Your thinking is driven by fear, sadness, anger… Not actively trying to solve a problem. 
  • Unproductive: No real progress or solution is made after a lot of overthinking. 

2 types of overthinking

There are only two general types of overthinking: Worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. 

1. Worrying about the future. Yes, worry is a kind of overthinking, in fact, it’s the most common type of overthinking. It’s driven by fear, and often with no real progress made on the problems you are worrying about. More about worry here. The most common worry is general worry and decision-making worry. 

  • General worry: Worrying that every walk of life could go wrong.  Example: What if I lost my job and end up homeless? What if I got hit by a car? 
  • Decision-making worry. Example: Choosing career path. Collecting every piece of information, making tons of pro/con analysis, but you are still not sure which option to choose, because you fear that one bad choice and your whole life will be screwed. 

2. Ruminating about the past. The most common ruminations are emotional rumination and problem-solving rumination. 

  • Emotional Rumination. Keep replaying negative emotional (like sad or angry) past experiences in your mind. This often solves no problem but only ends up in sadness, guilt, anger, or shame. 
    • Example: Depressive Rumination. Keep thinking about the day you break up with your girlfriend repeatedly. 
    • Example: Angry Rumination. Keep thinking about that jerk who cut you off yesterday and called you an idiot and how you could win the argument better. 
  • Problem-solving rumination. Trying to figure out something that happened in the past that could not be figured out. 
    • Example: Trying to analyze why your parents did not love you enough when you were a child (now they are gone). 

Why you overthink

First, the brain keeps thinking non-stop by default, for our survival. It’s not you, but EVERYONE, at any time. 

To make things worse, the brain tends to label anything uncertain as dangerous by default, to prevent you from being hurt (so you can survive). The result is we label too many things as dangerous, so we worry about way too many things. 

Why the brain make our lives miserable by overthinking? Because humans are optimized for survival, not happiness. “Better suffer than die”, the brain says. 

On top of this default setting, for people who OVERthink, most of them developed the overthinking habit as a result of traumatic experiences, normally as a child, just like all other Bad Mindsets

When they were a child and did not get enough love from or got hurt by their parents, life to them were scary and difficult. As a helpless child whose whole life depends on others, the only tool they had to deal with their scary lives, and the only thing they can control is, thinking. So they think and think in their little brains, even nothing changed, because it gives them a sense of control, and this sense of control gives them a sense of security. 

As they grow up, this overthinking habit did not disappear but grows up with them, to this day. 

As adults, we overthink because it meets these needs: 

  • Need for control. We hate hopelessness and things out of our control, and overthinking gives us the illusion of control. Because when we overthink, we are telling ourselves that “I am trying to solve this problem here”.
  • Need for certainty. Uncertainty means danger. So we ruminate on our traumatic past trying to figure out what went wrong, and worry about everything that could go wrong in the future. We collect every piece of information to make a decision, so we can be SURE that we did the right thing. Why? Because doing something wrong means mom’s slap, and making no mistakes means mom’s love. Deep down, we are actually trying our best to be lovable. 
  • Need for superiority. Ruminating on the wrongs of other people makes us feel morally superior. Anger actually feels good, because it makes us feel powerful and superior. 

Unfortunately, overthinking only gives us the ILLUSION of meeting these needs. And this in turn gives us the illusion we want even more: Security. 

Overthinking → Illusion of control, certainty, superiority → Illusion of security. 

How to stop overthinking

Overthinking is a habit, so it can be changed with practice, just like any other habit. 

But because we are optimized for survival, not happiness, there is no built-in mechanism to correct overthinking, your body will never tell your brain “Man, this is too much, time to reduce the thinking”. We have to do it actively ourselves. 

And remember, change takes time. 

1. What Not to do

Indulging in overthinking. Humans do a lot of crazy shit, one of them is we are willing to do anything to feel safe, and one major thing that brings safety is familiarity. So we listen to sad songs when we are already sad, girls repeatedly get back to boyfriends who beat them up, and we join chat groups of other overthinkers to co-overthinking. Why? Because it feels safe and comfortable. But that’s just in the moment you do it, in the long term, indulging in overthinking makes it worse. 

2. Mindset prepare

Tell yourself these mindsets every day: 

1. Be extremely realistic.

Do only what’s useful. Question all the things you are overthinking, is this realistic or imaginative? Is your overthinking productive? 

2. Know what you can control and can not control about your future: 

  • What you can control: Predict, prepare, repair. 
  • What you can’t control: Make wrong decisions, things go wrong, bad things happen, you fail, you get hurt.

Do what you can control, accept what you can’t control. 

Make predictions about what will happen. 

Do what you can to prepare for it. 

If something you did not expect and prepare for happens, just see what you can do to repair it then.

If there is nothing you can do, just accept it. 

3. Don’t set high expectations for yourself and beat yourself up with it.

“I can make no mistake”. Yes, you can! And you will! “I need to always be the best”. No, you don’t! And you won’t! Because everyone fails and everyone suffers. Be prepared for things to go wrong, to get hurt, to fail, to bear the consequences. Trust me, this is liberating. 

4. Love yourself.

You overthink because deep down, you are still the hurt child trying to get your mom’s love by making no mistakes and being the best. But you know what? Forget about your mom, you don’t need her love now, you can love yourself.

If you can have these mindsets, you can skip the rest of this article. Because the ultimate problem is “Yeah, yeah, I know what you are saying is absolutely right logically, but I JUST CAN’T LET GO of worrying and thinking!” 

Self-help is mostly doing before knowing. I know you won’t adopt these mindsets just because you read these words. That’s why we need to do the following to change your mindset, make you feel it emotionally. 

3. What to do when you find yourself overthinking

4 steps:

Step 1: Schedule an overthinking time

Treat thinking as an item on your to-do list. Set a period of time in your calendar to think about it and set a reminder. For example, 7:00 pm to 7:30 pm tonight. If now is your scheduled overthinking time, jump to step 4. 

Step 2: Do a quick mindfulness practice with deep breath.

Take 10 deep breaths. Notice what sensation you are having on your body, feel the movement of your chest or abdomen. 

Step 3: Do what you need to do right now, forget what you are trying to think about.

Remember, you will think later, most of the time just live in the present. 

Step 4: Do your scheduled overthink, on paper. 

Below is the scheduled overthink practice for general worry and rumination. I will put the practice for decision-making worry in another post about decision-making.

  • General worry: 

Write down your detailed answer to the following question with this practice sheet: ReWorry worksheet:

One sheet for only one thing you are worrying about. 

1. What am I worrying about? 

Example: Being poor. 

2. Is this a problem that is solvable? 


3. What bad thing could happen in specific? When? 

  • I could lose my job, due to all kinds of reasons, in the next 1~10 years. 
  • Since I don’t have another stable income source, I will run out of savings soon.  
  • I will have to downgrade to live in a shared apartment during that. 
  • I will not even have money for buying books or courses, to support my activities like swimming or hiking, exploring new hobbies, traveling to new places, and meeting new people. 
  • Then I have to work part-time, find another job, or find other ways to make money. 
  • But if I got some serious disease, or some accident happens during this period, it could empty all my savings in a night. 
  • Then I could end up homeless. 

4. What’s the probability of each of these bad things REALLY happening? (1-10)

  • 10
  • 7
  • 5
  • 8
  • 10
  • 3
  • 10

5. What could realistically happen? Be specific.

  • True
  • Do some calculations. Based on my current saving and spending, I will have at least XX of money by the time I lost my job. The estimated maximum spending I am OK with is: XX on accommodation, XX on eating and other basic needs, XX on … All these add up to about XX a month. And with the savings I have, I can live for XX years with no income. 
  • Yes, maybe, depends on which city I choose to live in. 
  • No, I still have enough money for these. 
  • Yes. 
  • Could happen. 
  • Could happen. 

6. Once it happens, that’s it, I can do nothing about it? 

  • Lost job: No. I can find other jobs. 
  • Disease: No. I can treat it. 
  • Accident: No. I can repair it. 

7. What can I do to prevent it from happening? 

  • Lost job: Nothing. 
  • Disease: Eat, exercise, regular physical check. 
  • Accident: Nothing. 
  • Remember: Be prepared for things to go wrong, for you to get hurt, to fail. 

8. Suppose it will happen, what can I do to prepare for it? 

  • For losing job: Develop my side hustle from now. 
  • For disease: Save money, buy insurance. 
  • For accident: Buy insurance. 

9. If it happens, how can I fix it, even just a bit? 

  • For losing job: Even if I lost my job, I can keep working on my side hustle with my savings for X years, then by the time I spend up all my money, there is a big chance that I can get some new income. I can also do some part-time job or freelancing. 
  • For disease: Treat it with the money I saved and insurance. 
  • For accident: Same as disease. 
  • Remember: If you did what you can, and it still happens, just accept whatever result it is. 

10. Why am I even worrying about this in the first place?

Remember, It’s always negative motivation, to avoid being hurt or trying to be loved. No matter what you are, you are lovable NOW. And you only need love from one person: Yourself. 

  • Rumination

1. What am I ruminating about? Write all your thoughts down here. 

2. Is there any practical actions you can take? What are they? 

3. If not, just read this to yourself: “I know it’s unfair, they did wrong. There is nothing I will do practically. Ruminating about it makes me feel good in this moment, but it’s toxic in the long run. So I will just try to let it go and do my daily stuff.”

Long-term tools to eliminate overthinking

Just shut up and go meditate

Do it for 2 consecutive weeks every day, if you still don’t feel any small improvement, contact me

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