When Overthinking Becomes a Problem & What You Can Do About ItApril 12, 2021 - Katie McCallum
We all get too deep in our head about things, and we've all found ourselves stuck in the never-ending spiral of "what-ifs" that come and go with life.
What if I can't actually afford this? What if they don't like me? What if this change makes things worse?
These are important questions to ask, to be sure. But Dr. J. Christopher Fowler, director of professional wellness at Houston Methodist, says there's a difference between thinking the right amount and overthinking.
"Our brains are amazing processors that make conscious and subconscious decisions upwards of 35,000 times per day. Careful analysis and scrutiny can improve some choices, but if we get caught up in analyzing every potential outcome, due diligence can lead to excessive worrying and decision paralysis," explains Dr. Fowler.
But, when is your inquisitive nature helpful and when does overthinking truly become a problem? And is there really anything you can do to stop it?
How do you know if you're overthinking?
The first thing to realize about overthinking is that it can feel an awful lot like problem solving. But the two are definitely distinct.
"Problem-solving is when you ask questions with the intent of finding an answer and/or enacting a solution," says Dr. Fowler. "Overthinking, on the other hand, is when you dwell on possibilities and pitfalls without any real intent of solving a problem. In fact, a problem or potential problem may not even actually exist."
Overthinking can also sometimes feel like self-reflection. Again, the two are distinct.
"Self-reflection is an internally inquisitive process rooted in a higher purpose — whether that's to grow as a person or gain a new perspective. If you're obsessing over something you don't like about yourself that you either can't change or have no intention of improving, it's not self-reflection — it's overthinking," explains Dr. Fowler.
Still, in the moment, overthinking can be hard to spot.
Signs that you might be overthinking include:
- Dwelling on past events or situations
- Second-guessing decisions you've made
- Replaying your mistakes in your mind
- Rehashing challenging or uncomfortable conversations
- Fixating on things you can't control, change or improve
- Imagining the worst-case scenario or outcome
- Following your worries out of the present moment and into an unchangeable past or unforeseeable future
- "Running your list" while trying to fall asleep
- Questioning but never making a decision or taking action
How does overthinking affect you?
While it may feel like overthinking is just something that happens in your head, it's more than that.
"Overthinking can affect how you experience and engage with the world around you — preventing you from making important decisions, keeping you from enjoying the present moment and draining you of the energy you need to handle daily stressors," explains Dr. Fowler.
Plus, whether you're fixating on the past or catastrophizing about the future, thought patterns that are more destructive than constructive can take a toll on both your mental health and physical health.
"Studies show that ruminating on stressful events can, over time, lead to anxiety and depression," warns Dr. Fowler. "From a mental health standpoint, anxiety can affect your ability to cope with everyday stressors, and depression results in sadness, loneliness and feelings of emptiness."
Anxiety and depression come with physical symptoms, too, including:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
"What's more is that generalized anxiety disorder is linked to high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health, while depression can increase your risk of heart attack and suicide," warns Dr. Fowler.
Now that you know how to tell if you're overthinking and why it's bad, it's time to talk about your action plan for stopping this unhealthy habit in its tracks.
What to do when overthinking hits
The next time you catch yourself second-guessing your decisions or imagining the worst-case scenario, Dr. Fowler recommends fighting back against overthinking using these tips:
Don't sweat the small stuff
You already know this, but it needs to be said: Of the thousands of decisions you make every day, the majority are simply not worth draining your brain power over.
To identify the decisions that do warrant careful analysis, consider your priorities and know what's truly meaningful to you. This can help you determine when it's okay to embrace your inquisitive, perfectionist nature and when a decision doesn't really require critical thinking, scrutiny or skepticism.
Combine critical thinking with instinct
When the decision you're making is a big one, it's easier to get caught in the loop of obsessing over possibilities and pitfalls. Ask your questions, do your research and collect the facts, but don't be afraid to trust your gut to help you make a final decision.
And remind yourself that logical problem-solving is not always a cure-all.
"Going with your intuition or gut is sometimes far more accurate than being slow and deliberative," according to Dr. Fowler. "And while neither approach is foolproof, snap decisions leverage the implicit processing capacities of your mind and can disrupt ruminations."
Set a decision deadline and/or take a break
The more time you allow yourself to think through a decision, the likelier you are to overanalyze it.
When it's time to problem-solve something, set a deadline for making your final decision. Bigger decisions will require more time, so consider taking breaks to distract yourself when or if the decision-making process becomes overwhelming.
Take action on the things you can control and let go of the things you can't
As soon as you notice you're "in your head" about something, ask yourself if your thoughts can be made more constructive — towards making a decision or finding a solution.
If your thought pattern can't be made more constructive, you're likely dwelling on something out of your control — whether that's because it's already happened, may never happen or simply can't be changed. Beware of these negative thoughts and consider working towards letting them go.
"One way to let go of the unsolvable is to view these as 'gravity problems.' We can't control or change some facets of life, just as we can't undo gravity. We might, however, work on the aspects that we can change instead," recommends Dr. Fowler.
One example Dr. Fowler points to is our general temperament, which we know to be genetically determined. But if we are naturally high-strung and easily perturbed, we can take up yoga and meditation to take the edge off our reactivity.