How to stop overthinking

Overthinking comes in a variety of forms, all of which come under the category of ‘cognitive distortions.’ These refer to patterns of thinking that are biased, negative, irrational, or inaccurate. These thought patterns can lead to emotional and behavioural challenges and can be distressing. 


This article will highlight a variety of different cognitive distortions recognised in cognitive behavioural therapy. This will offer an understanding of the types of overthinking you’ve become accustomed to and will be followed by ways to change these for yourself, reduce (or eliminate) overthinking, and feel more relaxed with a great deal more headspace.

Distorted thinking

Let’s dive straight in. Common examples of distorted thinking include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking (or black-and-white thinking) – seeing situations in absolutes, in extreme polarised terms without recognising the grey area, the middle ground. For example, seeing an event as either a success or a failure without the ability to see it went really well despite some setbacks. Can be linked to perfectionism.
  • Over-generalisation – drawing broad conclusions based on a single, or limited, number of experiences. For instance, if someone is rejected for a job and they then assume they will be rejected for all jobs so avoid applying.
  • Catastrophising – exaggerating the negative outcomes of a situation and imagining the worst possible scenarios. This is a common complaint against overthinkers who attempt to prepare for every possible outcome leading to anxiety and fear. 
  • Discounting the positive – ignoring or downplaying the positive aspects of a situation, yourself, or others. For instance, dismissing compliments, or positive achievements as insignificant. This is also often connected with perfectionism and the idea we could always have done better and don’t deserve praise.
  • Emotional reasoning – believing that emotions reflect reality, regardless of evidence. For example, believing that feeling anxious about a situation means it will inevitably go wrong – likening it to premonition.
  • Mind reading – assuming you know what others are thinking or feeling without any evidence. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. This is a very common cognitive distortion characterised by phrases beginning with statements such as “They will think that I…” or “They are going to feel…if I...”
  • Fortune telling – predicting negative outcomes without sufficient evidence. This is often accompanied by anxiety about the future. Statements such as “I just know it’s going to go wrong” or “I’m going to fail” arise regularly.
  • Personalisation – taking excessive responsibility for events, especially negative ones, without considering other contributing factors. Assuming everything is your fault. A common theme is “They weren’t themselves with me today, it must be something I’ve said.”
  • Should statements – using ‘should’ ‘must’ or ‘ought’ to impose unrealistic expectations on yourself or others, leading to feelings of guilt or frustration. This again can be linked with perfectionism. Example: “I should always be busy,” “I must do well,” “They ought to get that report in on time” etc.
  • Labelling – applying negative labels to yourself or others based on past behaviour, leading to a narrow and fixed view of character e.g. “I failed once, therefore, I’m a failure,” “They burned that cake, they’re a terrible cook.” Often characterised by the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’
  • Mental filtering – focusing solely on negative aspects of a situation whilst filtering out the positives. For instance, “That bus journey was terrible, it took ages to get home” whilst neglecting the fact you had a seat to yourself, it was warm and dry, you had music to listen to or a book to read, you had a chat with a fellow passenger, the driver was polite and friendly, and so on.
  • Magnification and minimisation – exaggerating the importance of negative events (magnification) and downplaying the significance of positive events (minimisation). This will directly correlate with levels of pessimism. You tend to focus on the things that don’t go well and assume you’re destined to have things go wrong whilst paying little attention to the range of things that go well because they don’t fit with your negative belief.

Identifying and challenging these cognitive distortions can be an essential part of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy, supporting individuals to develop more balanced and rational thinking patterns which in turn can improve emotional well-being and decision-making.

Overcoming distorted thinking

Overcoming distorted thinking is a valuable skill that can greatly improve your mental health. Here, we outline the steps you can take to overcome distorted thinking:

  • Identify the distorted thoughts – the first step is to become aware of your distorted thoughts. Pay attention to negative thought patterns as described above and keep a journal to track your thoughts and identify patterns.
  • Challenge the thoughts – once you recognise a distorted thought, challenge its validity. Ask yourself if there is evidence to support this thought or if it is based on assumptions and biases. Consider alternative explanations and more balanced perspectives.
  • Seek evidence – look for evidence that supports or contradicts your distorted thoughts. Are there past experiences that disprove the negative beliefs you have about yourself or the situation? Gathering evidence can help you see things more objectively.
  • Practice mindfulness – mindfulness involves staying present in the moment without judgement. By practising mindfulness, you can become more aware of your thoughts and learn to observe them without getting overly attached or carried away by them.
  • Replace distorted thoughts with realistic thoughts – replace distorted thoughts with more balanced and rational thoughts. Focus on what is most likely to be true, considering both positive and negative aspects of a situation.
  • Use positive affirmations – utilise positive affirmations to counteract negative self-talk. Repeat empowering statements to yourself to reinforce a more positive and constructive mindset.
  • Avoid comparisons – avoid comparing yourself to others as this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and distorted perceptions of your own worth. Focus on your progress and growth instead.
  • Practice self-compassion – be kind and understanding towards yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is going through a tough time. Avoid self-criticism and replace it with self-compassion.
  • Seek support – talk to a friend, family member, or therapist about your distorted thinking. Sometimes an outside perspective can help you challenge your thoughts and provide encouragement.
  • Practice cognitive behaviour therapy – CBT is a therapeutic approach that focuses on identifying and challenging cognitive distortions. Consider seeking a qualified therapist who can guide you through this process.

Overcoming distorted thinking takes time and consistent effort. Be patient with yourself as you develop healthier thinking patterns. Celebrate your progress along the way and remember that seeking professional help is always an option if you find it difficult to do on your own.

It can be extremely difficult to work through and change distorted thinking when this has been your pattern of behaviour for a long time. It is often very useful to establish where these derived from in the first place as this can make the process a little easier to understand and enable you to offer less weight to your thoughts once a connection has been made to the core beliefs they stem from. 

CBT doesn’t always offer this deeper level of understanding of your patterns of thinking and behaving so additional psychotherapeutic approaches can be added to enhance your recovery. I am able to offer this integrated approach if you need support in overcoming your overthinking. Spaces are extremely limited so reach out today to secure your place.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Manchester, Greater Manchester, M27 8UW
Written by Tracy McCadden, Counsellor & Supervisor BSc(Hons) MBACP
Manchester, Greater Manchester, M27 8UW

I have been in private practice since 2009 and have an educational background and vast experience in Psychology, Person-Centred Counselling, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Couple's Counselling. Support is tailored to individual need and I welcome individuals and couples that are committed to making a change for the better.

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