How to Reduce Overthinking: Controlling Your Thoughts

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Soundtracks" by Jon Acuff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your mind constantly racing? How do you reduce overthinking?

Overthinking tends to undermine your productivity and self-esteem, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, Soundtracks by Jon Acuff says that you can stop overthinking before it happens to have a peaceful state of mind.

Here’s how to reduce overthinking and stop negativity.

Interrupt Negative Overthinking

To learn how to reduce overthinking, Acuff argues that you must first interrupt negative thoughts to prevent overthinking. Overthinking occurs when your negative thoughts are so persistent that they begin to distract and discourage you. Over time, overthinking leads you to believe that any action you take will result in failure, so you avoid going after your dreams.

For example, suppose that your lifelong dream is to become a first-rate sushi chef, but because you lack confidence in your skills, you’re convinced you’ll never get a foot in the door. Nevertheless, you apply to a few restaurants, and to your surprise, your top choice offers you a trainee position. In the days before your first shift, you can’t stop imagining the embarrassment when the staff realizes you have no idea what you’re doing. You get so anxious about it that you decide not to go in at all, and the opportunity passes you by.

Your Brain Is Wired for Overthinking

According to Acuff, it can be difficult to interrupt negative thoughts because human brains have a natural tendency toward negative overthinking. Acuff notes that your brain responds to minor negative events in a similar way to how it handles major traumas, deeply internalizing these experiences and their consequences. Your brain’s habit of latching on to negative memories makes it easier to remember failures than successes, which can lead you to form inaccurate negative beliefs about yourself.

(Shortform note: You may be more or less biologically inclined to overthink depending on your gender. According to a recent study, on average women are more given to overthinking than men. Scientists hypothesize that women may be more inclined to overthink due to higher average levels of frontal lobe activity and blood flow within the brain. These physiological differences also offer benefits including increased focus and intuition, alongside the drawbacks of overthinking and anxiety.)

As Acuff notes, once you’ve formed a negative belief about yourself, you’ll tend to interpret new experiences in a way that reinforces your prior negative belief, thanks to a phenomenon called confirmation bias. Because of confirmation bias, if you hold a negative belief about yourself, your brain will interpret even minor setbacks as evidence that the negative belief is true.

(Shortform note: While Acuff focuses on how confirmation bias can reinforce negative beliefs about yourself, confirmation bias can also work in your favor. Experts say that in the right conditions, confirmation bias can help bolster confidence. The key is starting with the right belief—if you start with a negative idea about yourself, new experiences will deepen your negativity, but if you start with a positive belief, you’ll interpret everything as evidence that your positive belief is true. While Acuff doesn’t consider this potentially beneficial side effect of confirmation bias, he does offer strategies for forming positive beliefs about yourself, which you can use to take advantage of confirmation bias.)

Strategies for Interrupting Negative Thoughts

Now that you know how negative thoughts can prevent you from working toward your goals, let’s look at some strategies you can use to interrupt negative thoughts and stop them from holding you back.

Question Negative Thoughts

To interrupt negative thought patterns, Acuff recommends that you take a moment to critically examine negative thoughts when they come up. When a thought gets stuck in your head, there are three criteria you can use to determine whether it’s counterproductive.

The first factor to consider is whether the thought is true. Many negative thoughts are simply false, and taking a moment to recognize this can help you escape the cycle of negative thoughts. This can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with negative thoughts that tell you you’re inadequate or underqualified. 

For example, suppose your boss offers you a promotion that includes increased responsibility. Negative thoughts could tell you you’re not ready for such a role, and you’ll fail if you accept the promotion. However, if you take a moment to ask if these thoughts are true, you’ll realize that you are qualified for the new position—otherwise, your boss wouldn’t have considered you for the role in the first place.

Next, assess whether a given thought will help you accomplish your goals. If a thought doesn’t help you move forward, or actively hinders your productivity, that thought probably isn’t worth dwelling on. Recognizing that a negative thought is unhelpful can help you be less affected by it.

For example, imagine you have a deadline coming up at work, and you can’t stop thinking about how you could be fired if you fail to meet it. Instead of working on the now-stressful project, you’re inclined to completely avoid it due to anxiety. However, by taking a moment to think about it, you realize that by focusing on a hypothetical negative outcome, you’re making it more difficult to get anything done. Instead, you choose to focus more positively on the acclaim you’ll receive when the project is completed, which motivates you to keep pushing forward.

Finally, when dealing with a negative thought, take note of whether the thought makes you feel good. It can be easy to think mean-spirited, negative things about yourself. However, these kinds of thoughts can lower your confidence and prevent you from striving for your goals.

To identify unkind thoughts, Acuff suggests you consider how you’d feel if the thought was directed at one of your friends. For example, suppose you can’t stop thinking that you’re not smart enough to get into medical school. On reflection, you realize that if someone said something like that about one of your friends, you’d dismiss that person and their statement entirely. Reflecting further, you decide not to listen to such a patently unkind thought and return to working on your medical school applications with renewed faith in yourself.

Relax and Refocus

Acuff notes that assessing your thoughts may not always be enough to interrupt them. It’s possible to recognize that a thought is untrue, unhelpful, and unkind, and still remain fixated on it anyway. When dealing with these kinds of persistent negative thoughts, Acuff recommends that you step away from whatever you’re working on and take a moment to engage in a relaxing activity to help refresh your mind before going back to work. 

How to Reduce Overthinking: Controlling Your Thoughts

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jon Acuff's "Soundtracks" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Soundtracks summary:

  • A guide to stop overthinking and start chasing your goals
  • Why human brains are wired for overthinking
  • How to repeat positive thoughts until they become patterns

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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