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Harnessing Our Racing Thoughts

harnessing our racing thoughtsTo stop overthinking (also known as ruminating), we first have to understand why we do it.

Our brains favor a hardwired “negativity bias.” This keeps our subconscious scanning our environment for any kind of perceived threat to our physical or psychological safety. If our brains, consciously or subconsciously, interpret any kind of threat, we have a psychological and physiological response called “fight, flight or freeze” that will go into effect to keep us safe.

We’ve all experienced dry mouth, jitteriness, butterflies, or dizziness prior to a speech, game, interview or test. We fear, and often predict failure, social scrutiny, rejection, or some other disastrous outcome. Overthinking is one example of this “negativity bias” that has become stuck in the “on” position as a way to keep us safe from real or perceived psychological threats (Siegel, 2007). Depending on our genetics and environment, we may fight, flee, freeze, or all three in any given situation. We are all wired to instinctually seek safety, but how we react will vary.


We might experience:

  • Racing thoughts as we try to solve our sometimes-unsolvable feelings or circumstances (“this can’t really be happening”)
  • Temporary relief from feelings of helplessness because we feel we are actively doing something, even if it includes self-blame
  • Verbal sparring in our mind between all parts of us, as self-doubt and fear mount
  • Feeling mentally exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things


  • Exhaustion from trying to solve our sometimes-unsolvable feelings or circumstances, we try to avoid thinking about it as a means to bring temporary relief
  • We might literally put physical distance between our problems and our selves
  • An ongoing urge to be running to escape something, but not knowing from what
  • Feeling no real progress toward relief or resolution
  • Feeling mentally exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things


  • Literally feeling physically or mentally frozen in our excessive thinking. This is when we become a deer in headlights.
  • Fear of the “what if’s” keeps us frozen for a long time. “What if I get it wrong?” “What if things don’t change?”
  • No real progress toward relief or resolution, we can experience further discouragement
  • Feeling mentally exhausted and unable to focus or concentrate on other things

Our bodies also experience the effects of overthinking, ranging from body tension, shallow breathing, sweating, difficulty sleeping, agitation or lethargy, and change in energy, eating or sleep patterns. Overthinking keeps us in our head, despite the fact our body is also sending us strong and valuable information.

We can regain a sense of safety by reconnecting to all of our parts — mind, body and spirit. It begins with feeling safe and familiar within our body, since it can hijack our thinking in times of perceived threat. Some of my clients work hard to just tolerate a feeling within their body before they can even talk about its impact or origin This is learned by devoting a minimum of 3-5 minutes every day of being still, in a comfortable position, and simply noticing your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Repeat each day for two weeks.

According to a 2014 post in Psychology Today, calming our nervous system in this way sends a signal to our organs to “rest and digest,” creating an inner calm. Feeling this inner calm and safety then grants us the permission and patience to be curious about how overthinking may be serving us to feel safe from fear, rejection, or other emotions.

Neuroscience research tells us that mindfulness (intentionally focusing on our thoughts, feelings and body sensations without judgment), informs us how our experience is affecting our thought, feelings, body and beliefs — good, bad or indifferent. Resting in this knowledge lets us drop our guard and release the fears that have been dictating our decisions. When we take action, we are able to disprove our fears when inevitable setbacks are experienced as a challenge. Now we are able to set the pace of our growth, adjust our expectations, and offer ourselves empathy along the way.

There is a saying in recovery, “What resists, persists.” Too often we think if we release our denial, or drop our guard, and allow what persists within us, we will feel overwhelmed, exposed, or misunderstood. However, the opposite is actually true. Much like holding a beachball underwater, if we notice the pressure, release it slowly and often, and receive it with curiosity and kindness, we reduce our own tension and fatigue.

Each time we do this, we are learning how to identify and release pressure in healthy ways, avoiding or reducing ruptures or chaos in our lives. Over time, we create a reservoir of resources from which to draw for self-care and joy while creating our life, not afterward.

Mindfulness helps to reduce overthinking. There is no prior knowledge necessary, and there is no right or wrong. Inhale deeply through your nose as you ask yourself kindly, “What do I need?” or “What am I trying to solve?” and exhale any guilt or self-criticism. Repeat daily for minimum of 3-5 minutes.

Being curious and open to learning about ourselves can make us feel vulnerable because it’s an admission there is still more to know about ourselves and our world. (Imagining that a loved one or mentor is speaking to you exactly what you need to hear in that moment of vulnerability also is helpful.) This allows us to ease our fears about not always having the answers. Instead, we accept times of knowing and not knowing as part of the human condition. We increase our patience and reduce our reactivity to things we can’t control. Staying connected to the good in you breeds contentment and patience, allowing for more authentic expression without fear.



Harnessing Our Racing Thoughts

Sloane Fabricius, LMFT

Sloane is a licensed marriage family therapist and clinical supervisor practicing in Westlake Village, CA. She specializes in addiction, mood disorders and trauma. Her experience and approach is based upon understanding our mind-body interaction rooted in neuroscience, attachment and values. She also authored an article, "Is Anger a Problem For You?" featured in the book, "Managing Anger," designed to meet the requirements for executives, research scholars and students of professional programs. Visit for more information.

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APA Reference
Fabricius, S. (2018). Harnessing Our Racing Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.