O is for Overthinking
“A crowded mind, leaves no space, for a peaceful heart” Christine Evangelou
What exactly is overthinking?
Thoughts, per se, are neutral. Our ability to think about things; to reflect, to analyze, to question even our own thought processes sets us apart as humans. This ability to think is a helpful tool when used properly and leads to adaptation, creativity and innovation, however when we attach emotions to these thoughts, and over-focus on the wrong things that can lead to problems. Ordinarily, our brains help us solve problems and understand things more clearly—but overthinking does the opposite.
Overthinking could be described as thinking too much and allowing your thoughts to spiral. It is usually associated with negative outcomes e.g. when you excessively analyze, evaluate, judge, ruminate and worry about things to the point where it starts affecting your mental health and physical health; i.e. when your thoughts control you, rather than you having control over your thoughts. Overthinking can allow our thoughts free range over and beyond what is beneficial to us.
When we overthink our mind inevitably drifts into the future or back to the past rather than focusing on the present; the here and now. It is often consumed with past regrets or future outcome -orientated thinking.
“Due to high levels of spontaneous activity in the prefrontal cortex which govern conscious perception of threat (overthinkers) have a higher tendency to switch to panic sooner than average people due to high processing in nuclei of the amygdale which governs emotions. This means that you experience intense negative emotions even when there is no threat present” Dr Adam Perkins
Overthinking can cause individuals to react to perceived stress rather than actual stress and as a consequence, when thinking spirals out of control, over-thinkers can experience negative mental and physical consequences e.g. anxiety, brain fog, fatigue and difficulty sleeping which left unchecked can cause havoc with health and interactions with others. When we allow our brains to overthink negatively, we only undermine its potential power. Fortunately, there are many techniques including breathing exercises, defusion, meditation etc that can help us step back a little and see things in a more balanced way
Overthinking isn’t all negative though, there is another more useful side that we can tap into. Overthinking can create ideation which leads to strategic thinking which results in creativity and innovation
Why do we overthink?
“Many of us have become habitual over-thinkers because it gives us the illusion that we’re doing something about the problem we’re overthinking about.” Nick Trenton
Genetics and environmental factors
Overthinking can be linked to genetics. Researchers from Yale identified a gene variation in 2007 associated with chronic worrying or overthinking. The ‘worry gene’ that was discovered is the result of a genetic mutation that predicts a tendency to obsess over negative thoughts.
The way the brain is wired regulates our response to danger and threatening events. For some people, that circuitry is more activated and causes more anxiety and frustration. Parts of the brain associated with planning, reason and impulse control show increased activity in worriers especially those diagnosed with OCD. ( obsessive-compulsive disorder). Swedish and German scientists also believe that two genes account for the development of fears that are not easily overcome in some people.
Sometimes our environment (past or present) contributes to our tendency to overthink and our genetic make-up also interacts with the environment, causing some people to be more susceptible to fear and anxiety. Most researchers conclude that anxiety is genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors. When we live in an environment full of unhealthy stress, we develop anxiety.
Whether overthinking is the fault of nature or nurture, it doesn’t have to have a negative impact on our lives, it is possible to learn to manage our thought processes and reduce our stress levels with proper techniques or harness its power for more useful purposes.
What are the causes of overthinking?
Overthinking can be caused by — and can contribute to — depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders e.g. OCD (see above) and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
If you can successfully treat the depression etc then often the symptoms of overthinking also diminish.
Sometimes you start to overthink when you have a really difficult decision to make or know that shortly you are going to be doing something that you have never done before or think that you will find difficult.
Overthinking can be useful in the long run i.e. if you are mentally rehearsing all the potential things that could happen, you will have already worked out a solution in advance, should something untoward happen, but at other times when you just go around in circles worrying unnecessarily, stuck in seemingly never-ending loops of anxious thoughts and dead ends without ever coming to a useful solution or conclusion then all it does is drain your energy and produce fear and confusion.
What happens when we overthink?
When we overthink we often engage in cognitive distortion (skewed thinking) it often manifest in all-or-nothing thinking where we think in extremes. i.e. we are either a success or a failure. If something isn’t perfect, then it is a complete disaster etc. The language that is employed tends to highlight the extremes of thinking e.g. “Everything is terrible; nothing good ever happens.”, “It's always going to be like this.” “ I always….”, “I never…” etc
The antidote to this type of distortion is making an effort to look for shades of grey or use the experience as an opportunity to learn e.g. “On this occasion x happened, in the past I have achieved y” or “Next time I will know what to look out for”
Often when we overthink, we immediately imagine the worst-case scenario that could ever happen and then augment this in our brains so that we overestimate the likelihood of that scenario occurring and, in our minds and it becomes the inevitable outcome of the situation that we are worried about. This type of thinking is known as catastrophizing.
Overthinking can lead to indecision. Overthinking can cause many different thoughts and possible outcomes to rush into your mind, leaving the possibility of making a split-second decision impossible
So how can we change our habit of overthinking?
We can get better at managing our thoughts through practice and techniques such as breath work, mindfulness practice, defusion, distraction, challenging your negative thoughts, deliberate reverse thinking work, postponement etc.
Good time management , healthy habits and working on our priorities based on our values also frees up our energy and helps us find a path through the confusion. In an age of uncertainty with change occurring daily, it can cause us to become reactive to the chaos around us, but when we simplify and consciously pare life back to the essential and create good habits it is easier to avoid succumbing to stress, worry and depression, which means we reduce the opportunities for overthinking.
There are a variety of breathing techniques described in the blog post dedicated to breathing that you can read about via this link ( https://www.reflectiveresources.com/post/to-breathe-properly-is-to-live-properly-change-your-breathing-change-your-life ) but a simple technique to start with is 5-5-5 ie. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 seconds and then breathe out for 5 seconds. This technique can help to distract your brain from overthinking.
“If you want to conquer overthinking, bring your mind to the present moment and reconnect it with the immediate world.” Amit Ray
A distracted and non-present mind is the biggest cause of unhappiness. It prevents us from seeing life as it is and what possibilities lie before us. We are left constantly walking on eggshells and our daily life turns into a minefield rather than a set of new opportunities.
Mindfulness is about consciously bringing awareness to the present moment (the here-and-now) with openness, receptiveness and a certain amount of curiosity and interest without becoming caught up in your thoughts or distractions; it is about giving this moment our undivided attention.
“Defusion is relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb, worry, stress or depress you.” Russ Harris
Our mind is continuously bombarded with thoughts and we often invest too much of our time and energy pondering on them particularly the sort of thoughts that start with “What if...” , “I wonder if I should have....?"
Cognitive defusion involves creating space between ourselves and our thoughts/ feelings so that they have less of a hold over us and we are not ‘fused’ or ‘entangled’ and don’t blindly accept them as reality. By creating space it enables us to realise that just because we think something it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true; thoughts and feelings are just ‘stories’ or narratives we are telling ourselves and we don’t need to react immediately or automatically follow their suggestions, we can take time to consider whether they may or may not be important or helpful.
Defusion is the antidote to fusion and its aim is to enable us to face a thought and see it for what it is, so we can make an informed decision as to whether we are going to give it any more of our time and energy. We can ask ourselves whether these thoughts are helping us towards living a rich, meaningful life of value or are they causing us needless pain and suffering.
“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.” John Stuart Mill
By doing something physical like taking a walk, having a change of scene or engaging in activities like meditation or reading it can help reduce your baseline level of anxiety and make you less likely to overthink.
It is also possible to employ specific distraction techniques e.g. the 5-4-3-2-1 method is a method used by doctors to help their patients overcome panic disorders. The idea is to distract your mind long enough for you to regain a sense of control.
Sufferers are encouraged to slowly count down from five to one using each number as a cue to engage one of the five senses. e.g.
Five – look at five objects in your environment.
Four – hear four distinct sounds.
Three – feel three sensations.
Two – detect two smells.
One – identify one taste.
Challenge your negative thoughts
When a negative spiral of thoughts threatens to take over, practise challenging and reframing them into more positive, empowering thoughts. You could ask yourself questions like Is this thought helpful? What evidence is there that this negative thought I am having is actually true? You can also look for an alternative possibility i.e. What else could this mean? etc By challenging and testing your thoughts, it helps to create a more accurate and balanced perspective
In Stop overthinking by Nick Trenton he introduces the 4As of stress management to help with overthinking:
Avoid (what you cannot control),
Alter (alter the stressors),
Accept (accept it),
Adapt (to cope with stressors).
Reverse- thinking is about taking a negative thought and then turning it on its head. ie. I am going to fail, x,y and z are going to happen and I am going to feel like this. Reverse -thinking would change the narrative to I could succeed, then a, b, and c would happen and I would feel like this.
What if? Follow through
When we overthink, a phrase that is often repeated in our minds is What if? When this occurs a useful technique is mental rehearsal i.e. follow the scenario through to its natural conclusion then start again and think about what you could do differently to change the outcome, so should that scenario actually come about, you are already mentally prepared and know what to do as you have already spent time thinking about the various options and outcomes from the choices in front of you.
“Worry postponement is a very direct and effective way of interrupting anxiety spirals…We can seldom eliminate worry from our lives, but we can consciously limit its time of onset and duration.” Nick Trenton
I often say “I’ll worry about that later” when I find myself not being able to think straight because I am spinning too many plates. I suppose it is another slant on the “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” phrase.” Often if I do this, the ‘later’ never materialises and other actions beforehand have naturally resolved any issues.
At other times though, it can be useful to deliberately choose a specific, limited time in the day to implement a “worry period” e.g. 30 minutes maximum. When you have concerns during the day that don’t need to be dealt with immediately then you simply write them down on a notepad for later. During the “worry period”, you can also write down any other worries. The next step is to go through your list and highlight the worries that you you have control over then you can spend some time brainstorming solutions. For the items you have no control over (e.g. how someone else may react towards you or in a situation), practice letting them go until your next worry period.
By keeping a record of our thoughts it enables us to analyse them more easily and notice patterns in our thinking which when worked on can help us reduce stress.
While everyone overthinks sometimes, if you are persistently unable to control how much you worry and it starts interfering with your ability to function, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
The positive side to overthinking
“Worry is the mother of invention” Dr Adam Perkins.
To use our ability to overthink to work for us rather than against us, we need to take control of our thought processes so we can in turn take control of our emotions. To control our thoughts more easily requires us to be aware and focused on the present not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. That being said, the ‘right’ amount of worry about things can lead to pioneering breakthroughs. e.g. worry about illnesses has led to break-throughs in medicine
“Overthinking is not a disease; it is due to the under use of your creative power.” Amit Ray
Often if we look at things from a different perspective it can really open our eyes to the possibilities that we are missing. Overthinking, rather than being seen as a curse could be looked upon as a superpower that, if used correctly, can bring endless opportunities and creativity into our lives. It can help us discover new things and leads us to further knowledge and wisdom through the questions that we ask.
Brainstorming, individually or with others can lead to innovative and creative solutions, one person’s ideas, bouncing off another.
Overthinking per se is not inherently bad. Overthinking from a base of creativity and abundance rather than fear distinguishes negative overthinking from constructive, positive overthinking.
Whenever you think deeply about things it is always useful to have boundaries in place to help, not hinder, the process of progress. A useful technique is to put things down on paper because it allows you to visually examine the flow of your thoughts and you don’t waste time and energy rehashing the same stuff anew. By putting our thoughts on paper it is easier to share our ideas with others which could then expand reached viewpoints and trigger new lines of thought and ideas.
It is also essential that we retain awareness of where our mind is going and where our boundaries are e.g. time limits, a place/day, principles, subjects, values etc We can limit options we know that we don’t want to or are not prepared to explore because of our values, time or financial constraints for example
Personally speaking, I don’t think that overthinking is good or bad, it is just a tool or character trait that we can use to see beyond the obvious possible answers, or solutions and can help lead to new discoveries and possibilities. Overthinking only becomes harmful when we haven’t learned the skills necessary to help us observe our passing thoughts without attachment or we forget to put in place the techniques that we have learned.
On the whole I think that overthinking can help us see the bigger picture and we can use this to our advantage. Overthinking can lead to more creative solutions, it can feed our curiosity and give us a thirst for knowledge.
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius
For further exploration on this subject you may be interested in reading some of these articles: