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7 ways to train your brain to stop overthinking everything

person trying to figure out how to stop overthinking
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Problems. We all have them.

Some are small; others are big.

But whatever life is throwing our way, one thing remains true:

We think about them.

We think about solutions and worries, whether it’s productive or not.

However, sometimes this thinking can become so constant that it’s impossible to stop.

But if we want to take action in our lives and live in the moment, we need to learn how to stop overthinking.

The problem that we’ve all experienced, however, is that the harder we try to stop thinking, the more intense our thinking becomes.

So, what can we do?

According to Buddhism and western psychology, it’s all about learning the art of acceptance and letting go.

Check out the below seven strategies to stop overthinking so you can start living.

How to stop overthinking: 7 nonsense tips

Woman sitting on top of mountain. If you want to change your life, you can.

1) Practice present moment awareness using mindfulness

quote on how to stop overthinking

A 2007 study by professor Norman Farb at the University of Toronto broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.

It found that humans have two different sets of networks in the brain for dealing with the world.

The first network is for experiencing your experience. This is called “the default network.”

This network is activated when not much is happening, and you begin thinking about yourself.

It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It holds together our narrative about the world.

The second network is called “direct experience network.”

When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience.

When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself.

Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.

For example, if you are in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting your body.

The interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated.

If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand because the network involved in direct experience is less active.

You don’t feel your senses as much.

Fortunately, this works both ways.

When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.

What does this mean in terms of overthinking?

Therefore, whenever you intentionally activate your direct experience network by using your senses, you’re reducing activity in your default network, which is involved in overthinking.

This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re overthinking because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe.

Your senses become alive at that moment.

You can do this at any stage through the day.

Just tune into your senses. Whether it’s your feet hitting the ground, or your hands touching the coffee mug.

The more you do this, the more you’ll rewire the brain to experience the present moment and stop yourself from overthinking.

2) A Zen Master explains how to practice acceptance

If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, you’ve probably found that more seem to arise.

It’s almost like putting out a fire with fire, even though it seems like it’s the most logical thing to do.

However, Zen master Shunry Suzuki says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”

The teaching is direct – we merely watch our thoughts and give them plenty of room.

We don’t try to control or shove them aside.

Instead of treating them like we were the “thought police,” we instead act like a more casual observer.

Zen master Annamalai Swami echoes this advice:

“If you can be continuously aware of each thought as it rises, and if you can be so indifferent to it that it doesn’t sprout or flourish, you are well on the way to escaping from the entanglements of mind.”

For more inspirational content on mindfulness, like Hack Spirit on Facebook:

3) Understand that everything comes and goes

According to Zen Master Shunry Suzuki, the underlying key to calming the mind is to accept change:

“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.”

Everything changes; it’s the fundamental law of the universe.

But we find it hard to accept. We identify strongly with our fixed appearance, with our body and our personality.

And when it changes, we suffer.

However, Suzuki says we can overcome this by recognizing that the contents of our minds are in perpetual flux.

Everything about consciousness comes and goes.

Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anger, grasping, despair.

For example, it’s hard to stay angry when you see anger for what it is.

This is why Zen Buddhism teaches that the present moment is all that exists.

Suzuki says: “Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else”.

4) Learn to become an observer of the mind

If you’ve ever read wisdom from the likes of Buddha, or Eckhart Tolle, then you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “become an observer of your mind.”

It’s similar to the practice of ‘acceptance’ that I mentioned above.

But how do we go about it?

Becoming the observer means taking a step back from your mind and becoming aware of your thinking patterns and how you’re responding to things.

Here’s a great quote from a spiritual master on how to go about it so you can stop overthinking:

“Become an observer of the currents of thought that flow through your consciousness. Just like someone sitting by the side of a river watching the river flow by, sit by the side of your mind and watch…. Don’t do anything, don’t interfere, don’t stop them in any way. Don’t repress in any way. If there is a thought coming don’t stop it, if it is not coming don’t try to force it to come. You are simply to be an observer….

“In that simple observation you will see and experience that your thoughts and you are separate – because you can see that the one who is watching the thoughts is separate from the the thoughts, different from them…

“And if you become aware that you are not your thoughts, the life of these thoughts will begin to grow weaker, they will begin to become more and more lifeless. The power of your thoughts lies in the fact that you think they are yours.”

The question is, how can we practice “observing the mind?”

Here’s a great video of Eckhart Tolle describing how to let go of thoughts by observing the body and our senses:

In this video, Eckhart Tolle explains what to do when you feel like you have a hyperactive mind. Here are the 6 steps he mentions:

1. First of all, refrain from giving too much input to your mind. You can do this especially in conversation with others.
2. When you’re talking to someone, try to listen 80% of the time and speak only 20% of the time.
3. While you’re listening, feel the inner body.
4. One way to do this is to be aware of the energy you feel in your hands. If possible, try to also feel the energy in your feet.
5. Feel the aliveness in your body while also listening to what the person you’re speaking to has to say.
6. This helps you to be more aware of your body and the information you’re receiving, as opposed to what you’re thinking about.

You don’t need to be perfect at this. It’s enough to give it a try and be aware of your body.

You could also try going out into nature and being more aware of your other senses, such as hearing and your smell.

(If you want to learn more about meditation, check out my cheat sheet to meditation here)

5) Learn the art of reframing

When overthinking gets the better of us, it mainly involves negative self-talk.

Every time you allow this inner dialogue to take shape, it just becomes stronger and more limiting.

But as we all know, when these cycles begin to take shape, it can be tough to figure out how to break it.

This is where a little positive psychology can help, notably an idea called “reframing”.

Much of these strategies are going to come down to a mindfulness technique of your observing your mind and watching your thoughts.

Here are six ways to reframe a negative mindset:

1) The first step is to begin consciously identifying the type of inner dialogue or language you use daily. We all have one. What’s yours?

2) Starting noticing when you’re using negative words or phrases. Just make a note of them. Perhaps you can use a journal for this.

3) Now it’s time to pay attention to the times you use them again. What situations are causing you to be negative?

4) Note what you’re feeling, what time of day it is and where you are.

5) When you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought by saying “Stop!”. This alone is powerful and will make you aware of how many times you are thinking negatively.

6) Now dig deep inside yourself and ask yourself if your assumptions are true.

Are you assuming something is negative when maybe it isn’t? Is there actual evidence that backs up your assumptions?

For example, if you’re telling yourself that you can’t handle something, perhaps you should ask yourself if you can handle it.

The second thought feels more hopeful and leads to more creativity.

By challenging your thoughts and generalizations – you’re helping yourself to see that they might be irrational and that it’s more useful to think optimistically.

6) Start being more optimistic and positive

Instead of focusing on what can go wrong, start making a list of all the things that could go right.

When you focus on the positive, good things start to happen.

When you focus on the negative, you focus on everything that is wrong and lose sight of opportunity and possibility.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Ernest Agyemang Yeboah:

“If you think the world is full of darkness, let us see your light. If you think the world is full of wickedness, let us see your goodness. If you think people are acting wrongly, let us see your right action. If you think people don’t know, let us see what you know. If you think the world is full of uncaring people let us see how you care about people. If you think life is not being fair to you, let us see how you can be fair to life. If you think people are proud, let us see your humility. We can easily find fault and we can easily see what is wrong but a positive attitude backed by a right action in a true direction is all we need to survive in peace and harmony in the arena of life.”

7) Practice gratitude 

A great way to train your brain to stop overthinking is to be more grateful.

To become more grateful, an effective technique is to reflect on your day before you go to sleep and think of 3 positive things that happened that day.

Whether it’s a great workout, a friend buying you a coffee, or a phone call with your parents, just scan your day and write down what you appreciated. Even the smallest things are worth writing down.

In fact, many studies recently have found that people who consciously count what they’re grateful for tend to be less depressed and happier in general.

And happy people overthink less.

According to UCLA, expressing gratitude (being thankful and appreciative) literally changes the molecular structure of the brain.

Thrive Global describes how gratitude can boost feel-good chemicals in the brain:

“In the study the researchers measured brain activity of participants experiencing different emotions, and found that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. In short, just like Prozac, gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.”

In conclusion

As you can see, these mindful strategies involve similar principles. Here is a checklist to implement them all:

  • Practice focusing on the present moment by focusing on your senses.
  • Accept the thoughts you have and that you can’t forcibly change it
  • Understand that change is the only constant in the universe. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions and thoughts, realize that it won’t last forever.
  • Realize that you are not the mind and you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You can do this by observing your mind and your senses.
  • Challenge the validity of your thoughts.
  • Train your brain to be more optimistic and positive. Start thinking of what could go right.
  • Think of 3 things you’re appreciative for each day to train your brain to be more grateful.

If you think that others can benefit from these strategies, please don’t hesitate to hit the share button on your favorite social network.

For more inspirational articles on mindfulness and self-improvement, like Hack Spirit on Facebook.

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If you want to learn more about eastern philosophy and how it can help you reduce anxiety and stress, check out my new eBook: The No-Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy For a Better Life.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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