How to Stop Overthinking: 7 Tips, combining neuroscience and Taoism for a Calm Mind

How to Stop Overthinking: 7 Tips, combining neuroscience and Taoism for a Calm Mind


photo of a woman meditating in a sunlit room

Do you find yourself overthinking every situation? Do you wish you could switch the thoughts off or run away?

In this post, we'll delve into the reasons behind overthinking and its impact on our minds, bodies, and spirits. We'll explore the fascinating intersection of neuroscience and Taoism, revealing how these fields complement each other in providing insights for cultivating inner peace. By combining Taoist practices with understanding our brain's remarkable ability to adapt and change, we can unlock the secrets to a calmer, more balanced life.

So, Why Do We Overthink?

The Neuroscience of Overthinking

Our brains are wired to solve problems and keep us safe, and the prefrontal cortex takes the lead when we face challenges. This area of the brain assesses risks and possible consequences, helping us make informed decisions. However, when situations are unclear, complex, or emotionally charged, our minds can get caught in a loop, resulting in overthinking.

    The Fight or Flight Response

    The fight or flight response is a natural reaction to perceived threats, even if they are imagined, activating the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
      This response can lead to heightened anxiety and overthinking as our brains attempt to identify potential dangers and find solutions.

        The Taoist Philosophy on Overthinking and Interconnectedness

        Taoism emphasises the interconnectedness of all things and the need to live in harmony with the natural world. This philosophy aligns with neuroscience's findings that our brains are wired for social connection and that positive social relationships are vital for our health and well-being.
        Cultivating a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence can help us manage overthinking by encouraging a broader perspective and fostering harmony within ourselves and with others.

        photo of a woman meditating in a sunlit room surrounded by plants

        How does overthinking affect us?

        Neuroscientific Perspective

        • Overthinking activates the brain's stress response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can cause physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances, as well as mental issues like anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making. When our brains perceive danger, they try to protect us, but overthinking can create a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety that may not reflect reality.

        Taoist Perspective 

        • Overthinking weighs down our spirit and disconnects us from the harmony of the Tao, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness, and a longing for balance.


        How to Stop Overthinking

         Tip 1: Move Your Body

        The Neuroscience of Physical Activity

        Neuroscience shows that physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that help regulate mood and combat anxiety. Exercise also reduces cortisol levels, alleviating stress and overthinking.

        The Taoist Connection

        Taoism emphasises the importance of maintaining balance and harmony between the mind and body. Physical activities like Tai Chi, Qigong, or yoga, which combine mindful movement with deep breathing, are rooted in Taoist principles and can help promote relaxation and mental clarity.

        How to move your body:

          • Engage in regular physical activities that you enjoy, such as walking, swimming, or cycling.
          • Incorporate mindfulness-based exercises like Tai Chi, Qigong, or yoga into your routine.
          • Take regular breaks throughout the day to stretch, breathe, and move your body.
          • Use physical activity as a form of meditation, focusing on your breath and the sensations in your body.
          • Books like "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" by John J. Ratey offer further insight into the benefits of exercise on mental health. 
          meditation room

          Tip 2: Breathwork

          The Neuroscience of Breathwork

          Breathing exercises can have a powerful impact on our mental and emotional state. By consciously controlling our breath, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and reduces stress. Additionally, breathwork can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, improving cognitive function and mental clarity.

          How to practice breathwork:

            • Try square breathing: inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, and hold for 4. Repeat this cycle several times.
            • Practice the 4-7-8 technique: inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat this cycle four times.
            • Incorporate breathwork into your daily routine, such as during meditation, before bedtime, or when feeling stressed.
              • Books like "The Healing Power of the Breath" by Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg.and Patricia L. Gerbarg offer a deeper understanding of breathwork and its effects on the nervous system.

              Tip 3: Practice Acceptance

              The Neuroscience of Acceptance

              Practising acceptance involves acknowledging our thoughts and emotions without judgment or resistance. This approach can help reduce stress and anxiety by preventing us from getting caught up in negative thought patterns. Research in the field of mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies have shown that acceptance can promote neural changes associated with increased emotional regulation and decreased reactivity to stress.

              The Taoist Connection

              Taoism teaches the importance of accepting the natural flow of life and embracing change with a sense of peace and tranquillity. By practising acceptance, we can align ourselves with the Tao, fostering inner harmony and reducing overthinking.

              How to practice acceptance:

              • Engage in mindfulness meditation, focusing on your breath and observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment.
              • When faced with challenges or negative emotions, remind yourself that they are a natural part of life and that they will pass.
              • Try guided meditations designed to cultivate acceptance, such as loving-kindness or body scan meditations.
              old stone wall covered in vines

                Tip 4: Set Boundaries

                The Neuroscience of Setting Boundaries

                Setting healthy boundaries is crucial for our mental and emotional well-being. By establishing clear limits, we can protect ourselves from unnecessary stress and maintain a sense of balance in our lives. Neuroscience research suggests that setting boundaries can help reduce anxiety by promoting a sense of control and predictability in our environment.

                The Taoist Connection

                Taoism encourages the cultivation of balance and harmony in all aspects of life, including our relationships with others. By setting healthy boundaries, we can maintain a sense of equilibrium and avoid becoming overwhelmed by external pressures, aligning ourselves with the natural flow of the Tao.

                How to set boundaries:

                • Identify your personal values and priorities, and use them as a guide for setting boundaries.
                • Communicate your boundaries clearly and assertively, without becoming aggressive or defensive.
                • Be consistent in enforcing your boundaries, and be prepared to say "no" when necessary.
                • Evaluate and adjust your boundaries over time as your needs and circumstances change.
                Woman walking dog alongside river

                Tip 5: Mindfulness

                The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

                Mindfulness involves maintaining a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, which has been shown to promote neural changes associated with increased emotional regulation, decreased stress reactivity, and improved cognitive function. By focusing on the present moment and disengaging from rumination and worry, we can reduce overthinking and anxiety.

                The Taoist Connection

                Taoism emphasises the importance of living fully in the present moment, as this is the only time we can truly experience life and connect with the Tao. Practising mindfulness can help us cultivate a sense of presence and inner harmony, in line with Taoist principles.

                How to do it:

                • Engage in regular mindfulness meditation, focusing on your breath, bodily sensations, or the sounds around you.
                • Incorporate mindfulness into daily activities, such as eating, walking, or cleaning, by paying full attention to the task at hand.
                • Practice non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts and emotions, recognising them as transient experiences that come and go.

                Tip 6: Cultivate Gratitude

                The Neuroscience of Gratitude

                Gratitude is a powerful emotion that can positively impact our mental health and well-being. Studies in neuroscience have shown that practising gratitude can increase the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that contribute to feelings of happiness and contentment. By focusing on the positive aspects of our lives, we shift our attention away from negative thoughts and overthinking, promoting emotional well-being and resilience.

                The Taoist Connection

                Taoism emphasises the importance of appreciating the natural flow of life and recognising the interconnectedness of all things. Cultivating gratitude aligns with this philosophy, as it involves acknowledging the beauty and abundance present in our lives, fostering a sense of harmony and balance.

                • Keep a gratitude journal, in which you write down things you are grateful for each day.
                • Practice gratitude meditations, focusing on the people, experiences, and possessions that bring you joy and contentment.
                • Make a habit of expressing gratitude to others, whether through verbal acknowledgement or written notes.
                • Reflect on the positive aspects of challenging situations, seeking opportunities for growth and learning.
                • Books like "The Gratitude Diaries" by Janice Kaplan offer inspiration and guidance on cultivating gratitude as a daily habit.

                Tip 7: Meditate With Intention.

                woman sat next to a window with a singing bowl

                The Neuroscience of Meditation

                Meditation is a practice that has been shown to have numerous benefits for mental health and well-being. Neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that meditation can enhance cognitive function, increase cortical thickness in regions associated with attention and emotional regulation, and promote neuroplasticity. By training the mind to focus and disengage from excessive thoughts, meditation can be an effective tool for reducing overthinking.

                The Taoist Connection

                Taoist meditation practices, such as Qigong and Tai Chi, focus on cultivating inner stillness, balance, and harmony. These practices encourage a deep connection to the present moment, helping to alleviate overthinking and align with the natural flow of the Tao.

                Guided Meditations for Overthinking

                1. Body Scan Meditation: This meditation practice involves systematically bringing awareness to different parts of the body, from the toes to the head. By focusing on the sensations in each body part, you can redirect your attention away from overthinking and into the present moment.

                2. Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta): This practice involves cultivating feelings of compassion, kindness, and love for yourself and others. By focusing on positive emotions and well-wishes, you can counteract negative thought patterns and overthinking.

                3. Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation teaches you to observe your thoughts and emotions non-judgmentally, allowing them to arise and pass without getting caught up in them. This practice can help you develop a more balanced relationship with your thoughts, reducing overthinking.

                4. Visualisation Meditation: This technique involves focusing on a calming or inspiring mental image, such as a serene natural landscape or a personal goal. Visualisation can help redirect the mind away from anxious thoughts and promote relaxation and mental clarity.

                5. Breath Awareness Meditation: This practice involves focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Concentrating on the rhythm and sensation of the breath can help anchor the mind in the present moment and reduce overthinking.

                By integrating these Taoist tips and in-depth neuroscience-backed practices, you can embark on the journey to overcome overthinking and cultivate healthier relationships. Remember, the path to finding peace of mind is a personal one, and progress takes time. Be patient with yourself, practice self-compassion, and continue moving forward, one step at a time.

                Seek Professional Help (if you can access it)

                • If overthinking is severely impacting your life and relationships, consider seeking help from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and support.

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                More reading:

                1. "The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff: This book introduces the principles of Taoism through the beloved characters of A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. 

                2. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness: The Astonishing Science behind How Everyday Hobbies Help You Relax" by Dr. Stan Rodski: This book explores the neuroscience behind mindfulness practices and their effects on the brain. 

                3. "Buddha's Brain": The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom" by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius: This book combines neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative practices to help readers overcome suffering and cultivate happiness. "The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions" by Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg: This book provides various breath work techniques and explains their benefits for mental and physical health. 


                1. Physical Activity and Brain Health:

                • Ratey, J. J., & Loehr, J. E. (2011). The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: A review of underlying mechanisms, evidence, and recommendations. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 22(2), 171-185.

                1. Breathwork and Neuroscience:

                • Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 353.

                1. Acceptance and Neuroscience:

                • Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.

                1. Setting Boundaries and Neuroscience:

                • Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ørnbøl, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(2), 102-119.

                1. Mindfulness and Neuroscience:

                • Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.

                1. Gratitude and Neuroscience:

                • Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1491.

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