A Beginner’s Guide to Overthinking

If you’ve ever been so wrapped up in your own thoughts that it feels like you’re wading through cognitive treacle, you might be suffering from overthinking.

Perhaps you endlessly evaluate options in your head, simply unable to make decisions or continuously replay worst-case scenarios in an attempt to protect yourself from unpleasant outcomes.

Regardless of your specific situation, overthinking can be a debilitating psychological issue, adversely affecting your ability to stay present and enjoy life.

In this article, we’ll dive into the topic and provide some suggestions for counteracting this mental monster.

Definition

Overthinking is the act of over-analyzing a topic or problem to the point that it interferes with daily life.

It can often lead to rumination, which is when someone fixates on negative thoughts or emotions.

It can also cause distress, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as avoidance, procrastination, and self-medication.

People who overthink often have difficulty making decisions, constantly second-guessing themselves, while suffering from perfectionism and trouble finishing tasks.

If left unchecked, this recursive tendency can have a significant impact on mental health, as we’ll see shortly.

What causes overthinking?

There are various causes of the condition, but some of the most common include:

Rumination (constantly focusing on negative thoughts)

Rumination is a form of repetitive thinking that is often focused on negative emotions and experiences. It can involve obsessing over past mistakes, rehashing arguments, or dwelling on unhappy events. Rumination has been linked to a number of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, it can interfere with problem-solving and make it difficult to concentrate on other tasks. Rumination is a destructive habit that can trap people in a negative spiral of thoughts.

Perfectionism (striving for unattainable standards)

Perfectionism is a tendency or personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards of performance, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations. They often have difficulty accepting compliments and may also be unable to relax or take pleasure in their accomplishments, with their constant focus on the next goal.

Worry (fearing the worst will happen)

Worry and fear are both normal emotions that can help us deal with potentially dangerous situations. However, when these emotions become chronic, they can interfere with our daily lives. People who worry excessively often think about the worst possible outcome of a situation and dwell on negative possibilities. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and despair, and make it difficult to concentrate or enjoy activities. Fear, on the other hand, is usually more focused on a specific threat. It is a natural response that helps us protect ourselves from danger. However, when fear becomes excessive, it can turn into anxiety or phobias.

Overthinking symptoms

Those suffering from this tendency will often be aware of it.

If they’re anything like me, they’ll become incredibly frustrated with themselves when they’re over-analyzing and unable to make a simple decision. And if not, friends and family will likely point it out!

Some common symptoms of overthinking include:

  • Negativity
  • Excessive planning
  • Obsessing over details
  • Second-guessing oneself
  • Becoming easily overwhelmed
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Physical health problems such as headaches and stomachaches

Overthinking example

In a relationship

Overthinking is a common problem in relationships.

It can manifest itself in many different ways, but the end result is always the same: one or both partners become so wrapped up in their own thoughts and fears that they are unable to enjoy and appreciate the relationship.

Overthinking can lead to obsessive behaviors, such as constantly checking your partner’s phone or social media accounts, or it can cause you to withdraw from the relationship altogether.

It can also lead to arguments and conflict, as you try to vocalize your thoughts and convince your partner of your point of view.

If you find yourself trapped in this unhealthy cycle, it’s important to first understand why you’re doing it:

  • Are you afraid of being hurt?
  • Are you worried about being left alone?
  • Are you worried about making a mistake?

Once you know what’s driving your behavior, you can work on letting go of those fears and allowing yourself to relax and enjoy your relationship.

Overthinking side effects

When left unchecked, overthinking can interfere with all aspects of life – from work and school to relationships and hobbies.

Often overthinkers are so wrapped up in their analysis of preconceived problems, that they are never present in life.

Instead, they inhabit a mind-made world full of anxieties and worries, either living in a depressing past, ruminating on what they ‘should have done’, or projecting their insecurities into an anxious future.

Frequently, overthinkers are obsessed with making the ‘right choice’, which leads to a deep state of analysis paralysis and frequently, procrastination, even with the smallest of decisions.

This constant mental turmoil makes it incredibly difficult to switch off and relax.

How to stop overthinking – 9 strategies

If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of overthinking, there are a few steps you can take to break free: 

  1. The first step is to become aware of your thoughts. Pay attention to when you start overthinking and what topics tend to trigger your overthinking. 
  2. Once you are aware of your thoughts, try to challenge them. Are they really true? Do they help you in any way?
  3. Practice accepting things as they are, rather than trying to control everything
  4. After observing your thoughts, let them go. This can be difficult, but it is essential in order to stop overthinking. Imagine putting your thoughts on a leaf and watching them float away in a stream. 
  5. Finally, focus on the present moment. One way to do this is through mindfulness meditation, which can help you to learn how to focus on your breath and accept thoughts as they come and go without getting caught up in them. I find the body scan meditation particularly effective for taking me out of my head and into the visceral sensations of the world.
  6. Try to create a feedback loop, using stream of consciousness journaling to document your anxieties and fears. Often the process of releasing this information from your mental repository is a form of catharsis.
  7. Distance yourself from overthinking by engaging in real-world activities that bring you joy. Whether that’s spending time in nature gardening or playing sport, get out of your head and into the world.
  8. Exercise! Physical movement, whether it be a simple walk to a more strenuous weights session is almost a panacea for many mind-made ills.
  9. Make a commitment to spend less time alone with your thoughts by staying connected with loved ones and participating in activities you enjoy.

By following these steps, you can begin to break the cycle of overthinking and live a more peaceful and present life.

Best book on overthinking

The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You Into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It by David A. Carbonell

A major symptom of overthinking is worry. And that’s why this book is essential reading for any chronic overthinkers. Here’s why:

  • No outlandish claims or cures – just a grounded investigation of the issue
  • It which will make you re-assess the psychological mechanisms underpinning worry
  • It addresses some of the traditional approaches to combat the condition, and why they might not be helping
  • It provides suggestions on alternative schools of thought and therapy

Click here to read about my other four book recommendations for overthinkers.

Summary

Overthinking can be a debilitating habit that prevents you from enjoying the moment and fully engaging in life.

Fortunately, there are ways to manage it, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and journaling.

However, in the cases of excessive overthinking, consider seeking help from a mental health professional.

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