How to stop negative thoughts and overthinking?
Thanks for asking this question. I closely relate to it. Having faced negative thoughts and overthinking after I lost my job, and throughout my life in general, I managed to get back on track based on ideas I had vaguely formed in my head since I was a kid.
Nowadays, I have a much clearer perspective from years of being an entrepreneur and taking on other scary or difficult pursuits, and my old, vague ideas are crystallized into 5 tips.
If you are interested in more on this topic, you can read my article “How to Never Wimp Out Again“, on my website.
For now, here are five tips to avoid negative thoughts and stop overthinking.
#1 Create a habit loop around noticing negative thoughts:
Thoughts are incredibly related to our habits. For instance, once upon a time, getting up in the morning pissed me off every single day. It set me up in a mediocre mood. I realized, eventually, that it wasn’t the feeling of waking up as I had thought. I loved to wake up, at my own pace, on a weekend. It was actually the habit of waking up from an alarm. Being woken up deliberately, by the same sound every day, sucked. I decided I didn’t need it. For one month straight, I would try trusting myself to get up on time when I needed to and to not get up on time when I didn’t need to if I didn’t want to. If that was too difficult, I would also work on changing the expectations of my life, so I didn’t have as many times where sleeping in would be a problem.
Within a week, I knew I was never going back. I do not use an alarm anymore, except for very special occasions, and my mornings are great.
Certain situations might lead you into an overthinking headspace, like an assassin who slips a little poison in every cup of tea you drink. It’s important to break the habit that causes it, once you’ve discovered it.
Once you start to overthink and notice it, try changing as much as possible. The location, the activity, who you’re talking to, whether you’re talking to people at all, look up at the sky if you were looking at the ground, look at the ground if you were looking at the sky, you get the idea. Just change the situation somehow, when you feel a difficult mental situation taking hold. Change your approach to doing that negativity-producing thing so that it feels new. Newness is really important because once our lives get too samey, negativity is inevitable.
Always try new things and break habit loops that upset you. Just the act of noticing how you’re behaving, and acknowledging it as behavior, not some immovable truth about you, will give you a lot more control over yourself than most people will ever have.
But what do you actually do, once you notice your negative thought loops early? Well…
#2 When you get a negative thought, briefly embrace it to the laughable extreme:
The thought doesn’t matter, no thought matters. Thoughts are just a fog that ties some semblance of meaning into the things we do. People exist, that’s a fact of nature. As a person, you exist. You have a body, a voice, and a history with others who know you. Compared to that, your thoughts have zero tangibility. Embracing a thought completely de-powers it by exposing that the emperor has no clothes, that you were afraid of nothing after all.
Let’s take an example from dating because it’s so easy to get caught up in negativity there. Most guys are afraid to talk to a girl, or ask her out, thinking she’ll say no. Trying to convince yourself she might actually say yes is stupid. Instead, imagine her saying no. Imagine her saying Hell No, and then the whole team of kids on a field trip spot you striking out and laugh. And then a pie falls from the sky onto your face. And then a piano falls on you.
It’s absurd, isn’t it? Well, it was no less absurd when you decided, without any point of reference, that a stranger was not going to like you. When you embrace negative thoughts in a humorous, exaggerated way, you begin to realize that what the thought really wants is for you to fight against it. That’s what you’ve been doing all along.
Our brains are like the most stereotypical insecure significant other. It brings up negative things about us, and consequently itself so that we can jerk into life and shout out opposite affirmations. However, this is pointless. Such people, and such minds, cannot be ever fully satisfied.
Don’t fight a thought with its opposite. A thought may be logical, but what inspired it was not. You must train yourself to unburden, to take on fewer thoughts and ideas at a time, but be choosier, and hold them more intensely. To do that, remember #1 about changing the scenario.
#3 Fear is good, enjoy it:
Fear and excitement are both equally good things by themselves. They are like hot and cold, one feels good in the overwhelming presence of the other. When you’re freezing from a hailstorm, a hot shower feels much better than usual. So in the same sense, that heat isn’t bad, but global warming is, we suffer from fear because the world has too much of it. Our fear reflex responds too often and too much.
Fear on its own is not bad, and you do not have to ‘be fearless’ or any other Herculean act. Just try to see fear more like the opposite, but a counterpart to the excitement. If it helps, try to flip the script and associate fear with pleasant things. For example, when you’re excited about something, but then start to worry, take a hot shower and explore your thoughts for a bit, without internal arguing.
#4 Acknowledge your achievements:
It’s easy to worry about the latest big deal in your life so much that you forget the 20 things you’ve achieved so far that worried you just as much at the time. When you acknowledge your achievements and success, your vague negative notions about the future will be defused. If you don’t think you achieved anything significant then remember that you might still be very new to the thing that’s worrying you. Perhaps less than 6 months. Furthermore, if you really were incompetent, you wouldn’t be alive to worry at all. Your survival till now is itself an achievement, because much as we rely on civilization’s cloak, it’s still a cold world out there, and it’s all about survival of the fittest. If you’re still here, it means something.
#5 Meditate and disconnect from physical matters:
Meditation does not have to be complicated. It doesn’t even have to be spiritual, although I feel it generally should. All it requires is silence and stillness, inside and out, as much as possible. Great meditators use inner silence and stillness to compensate for outer noise and movement.
How different would you be as a person, you think, if you could comfortably meditate in the middle of a hail storm? If you could meditate so hard you did not even really notice or care about such a thing? Once you get some experience in meditation beyond 10 or 15 minutes, at some point beyond there, you will start to better understand that you are not your thoughts, you are an observer of thoughts. You are like an eyeball seeing the world, and the behavior of your life is like a microscope lens the eye is pressed up against. Or rather, let’s say the lenses are like masks you wear or the roles you play in different parts of your daily life.
A lens for your life could be something like being a good parent or earning well enough to never worry about money again, or being a confident person who doesn’t worry about anything. Whatever it is, a scientist realizes that when the lens is there, when he uses it to look at something, even if it’s invisible in itself, he knows what he’s really seeing is what he wants to look at, through one of the lenses of his life. If you wear corrective glasses, that’s an even easier analogy. You cannot flip the lenses in glasses the opposite way, or upside down, and get the same effect.
Once you understand this separation of you from your thoughts on a baseline level, a lot of options begin opening up to you. Got a problem that makes you worry and overthink? Try a different lens, or meditate deeper and chuck out all the lenses. Invent a better, perfected lens combining the best of your others. It’s all up to you how you deal with it.
The above tips have worked for many people after I suggested them. If I had to boil it down to just one thing, I’d say start meditating and get in the habit of zooming out, noticing your thoughts as things that came out of you, instead of literally you.
Feel free to reply, if you have any questions.