Think before you act. Look before you leap. Better safe than sorry.
These proverbs have been around so long because they speak truth: thinking is good. The human mind is the source of our creativity, innovation, cooperation, foresight; it enables us to learn, adapt, plan and anticipate risks. It leads us to survive, evolve and thrive.
Unfortunately, this evolutionary wiring also means we’re susceptible to focusing too much on the negative. And with a tsunami of information flowing over us nowadays, there’s a lot of negativity to take in. The result? Overthinking.
What’s the difference between thinking and overthinking?
If you’re squandering your brain power ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, you might be overthinking. It’s distinct from the healthy thinking approaches of problem-solving and self-reflection. Here’s how:
If you say thinking about a problem is the first step to solving it, you’re right. Problem-solving is asking yourself questions with the intent to find an answer or take action to solve the problem. But if you’re dwelling on the pitfalls and how bad you feel in an endless spiral of negativity, you may not recognise your options – or even that what you perceive as a problem isn’t a problem at all. You’re no longer problem-solving; you’re overthinking.
Self-reflection involves thinking about yourself and your circumstances in a way that helps you learn and get a clear perspective. It’s a process of internal inquiry that lets you grow and mature. If you’re absorbed by aspects of yourself that you don’t like but either can’t or won’t change, you’re overthinking rather than self-reflecting.
Here are some of the ways we overthink:
- Fear of not being in control. The more we believe a situation is beyond our control, the more our minds struggle to gain control over it.
- Decision paralysis. It’s far worse than a temporary loss of confidence; it’s the terror of making the wrong choice and suffering for it, or being judged.
- Fear of failure. For every outcome, there are pros and cons; but when we overthink, we can be blind to the pros.
- Catastrophising. We’ve all heard – and maybe used – Murphy’s Law: ‘If something can go wrong, it will.’ Imagine feeling like that all the time, always expecting the worst outcome.
- Intellectualising. As a way to delay a decision or deny our feelings, we prolong the process of rational analysis for as long as possible, circling round but never actually coming to the crux of our fears.
How do I know if I’m overthinking?
You might be overthinking if:
- You have trouble sleeping; your body’s exhausted but your mind is running a mile a minute.
- You’ve lost your appetite while lost in your own thoughts.
- You’re disengaged and isolated from other people, and often miss what’s going on around you.
- You no longer take pleasure in things you once enjoyed as you worry incessantly about everything that can go wrong.
- You replay events and conversations in your mind, wondering how you could have spoken or acted differently, and whether other people are sincere or have an ulterior motive.
- You ask yourself What If and are afraid to think through the answer.
- You have trouble deciding – and once you’ve decided you don’t just second-guess yourself: you third- and fourth-guess too.
Why is this happening to me?
Homo sapiens wouldn’t have survived for long if we spent all our time worrying about life’s uncertainties. We’d never be able to invent, create, design, learn, explore, cooperate or grow. But there are situations in each person’s life that can knock us into the overthinking trap: the death or severe illness of a beloved family member or friend; the loss of a job or source of income; a debilitating injury, illness or circumstance that keeps us physically inactive or isolated; a natural or environmental disaster.
The Covid-19 pandemic is an example of many of these triggers at once.
While it’s natural for pain, grief and worry to flood our minds in the immediate aftermath of such events, staying in overthink mode for an extended period is dangerous to our physical and mental health and our ability to function. It’s often difficult to catch ourselves overthinking in the moment, but by being alert to the behaviours described above, we can try to avoid falling into the overactive mind trap.
How does overthinking affect me?
In its most immediate sense, being an overthinker is a recipe for decision paralysis. Imagine every action or interaction with others, however small, being fraught with underlying negative thoughts. It’s nearly impossible to live normally for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
As overthinkers deal with their negative thoughts, the stress they experience might manifest in physical problems like headaches, body aches, nausea, fatigue, digestive issues and potentially cardiac ailments. Over time, mental health issues like depression and anxiety can develop, which are serious challenges in themselves.
In considering overthinking and mental health issues, it’s not always easy to distinguish the cause and the effect. Regardless, overthinking can lead to a decline in mental health, which in turn makes overthinking an easier trap to fall into – another downward spiral. Isolation and withdrawal from human interaction make these issues worse. Sadness, loneliness and emptiness drain the mental and emotional energy, dragging us further downward.
How can psychotherapy help?
Don’t wait for your tendency to overthink to explode into a full-blown mental health issue before seeing therapeutic help. Overthinking causes anxious feelings which can be overwhelming and harmful to your mental and physical health as well as impede your daily life.
Your mental health counsellor or psychotherapist can help you arrest this never-ending spiral of dispiriting thoughts and ideas that are exhausting and meaningless. In a structured, calm and non-judgemental therapeutic environment, you can examine in depth the patterns and triggers of your overthinking, and learn to distinguish between thoughts with real significance and those that may disguise your feelings and experiences. The psychotherapy process creates an opportunity for all ideas, thoughts and feelings to be considered with equal weight and value.
In this way, you can examine, analyse and discuss your overthinking issues with care, and put your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the right perspective to help you break out of the trap of your overactive mind and resume a more real, meaningful and connected life.
Ms Trisha Ray
Consultant Psychologist & Special Educator with HealtheMinds. She also consults at RxDx Healthcare.
MA, Clinical Psychology | BEd, Special Education | CBT Certification, Beck USA | RCI Registered
Trisha is highly skilled in Psychological Consultation, Assessment (for ages 17 and under) and Psychotherapy and Remedial Therapy for children, adolescents and adults.
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