The Never-Ending Cycle: How to Finally Stop Overthinking
Overthinking can be something as harmless as indecision about what movie to watch as you endlessly scroll through your Netflix feed. But is overthinking bad or harmful? It turns out, that when the emotional stakes are raised, getting trapped in thought loops can have serious effects on your health – and potentially your life.
This article is your guide to the phenomenon of overthinking. We’ll cover what causes overthinking, its health consequences, and most importantly – how to stop overthinking and regain control over your life.
What is Overthinking?
Overthinking is a pathological form of excessive thinking, usually focused on negative emotions or things out of the individual’s control. Overthinking has a reciprocal relationship with common mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Overthinking often becomes a negative cycle when the subject of focus becomes the overthinking itself. ‘Overthinkers’ often believe that analysing why they are overthinking will help them to snap out of the habit. Unfortunately, this is rarely the result.
People who overthink tend to be highly self-aware, and often make a distinction between who they are and who they want to be. They are also often very sensitive to their own actions, as well as the actions of others. They can have a strong desire for control over the situations they find themselves in.
What Causes Overthinking?
There are different causes of overthinking. The first type is worry. Worrying is a repetitive process of overthinking that is focused on possibilities and consequences of future events. Worrying is distinct from healthy, preparatory thinking in that it is based in fear, and leads the individual to avoid behaviours out of a false sense of self-preservation.
Another major form of overthinking is rumination, which comes in several variants. Depressive rumination focuses on thoughts of sadness or loss. The individual gets stuck in negative patterns of ‘what ifs’ or ‘should haves.’
Angry rumination involves thoughts of hostility and revenge, often after the person feels they have been wronged. This event could have been recently – or it could have occurred years or decades ago. The problem with rumination is that it puts one in a passive frame of mind and greatly prolongs the negative feelings associated with the situation.
You might think that overthinking is an individual problem. However, people can also engage in what is called ‘co-rumination’. This is when two or more people extensively discuss and revisit problems, focusing on the negative feelings involved. This could be two friends never getting past something a mutual friend did, or a couple who keep rehashing the same fights.
Everyone experiences difficult situations or important decision making in life. But healthy problem solving and self-reflection become pathological overthinking when they lack purpose, and fail to focus on the positive aspects of learning opportunities, which can be used to take action.
We’ll delve deeper into the links between overthinking and the overarching mental health challenges involved. But first, we’ll share some of the key signs of overthinking you can look out for to catch yourself in the act.
Simplified Overthinking Definition
Overthinking about the future = Worrying = Anxiety
Overthinking about the past = Ruminating = Depression/Anger
How to Tell if You’re Showing Signs of Overthinking
There are some common patterns and signs of overthinking that you should be aware of. You may have experienced some or even most of these at one point or another. If you read the following scenarios, however, and find that any of them are a weekly or daily occurrence, it may be time to view overthinking as something worth seeking help in or dealing with sooner rather than later.
Replaying a Past Scenario
Whether it’s an argument you had with an acquaintance, an awkward first date (that didn’t lead to a second), or an embarrassing mistake you made during a work presentation, you keep playing the event back in your head.
You might imagine things going differently, what you should have said, or how another person wronged you. You may even experience a physical reaction when rehashing these memories, like balling your fists or your heart beating out of your chest.
Imagining the Worst-Case Scenario
Your spouse doesn’t reply to your text. You have a job interview tomorrow. You have two end-of-semester exams coming up. Overthinkers will take these relatively normal situations and catastrophize them. This can lead to imagining the worst possible outcomes, despite these scenarios rarely playing out.
The irony here is that all of the mental energy that goes towards worrying about fictitious outcomes can not be used to calmly prepare for or investigate the matter. Sometimes, so much anxiety might build up that the individual might avoid the event altogether, despite hurting their situation even more.
Thoughts Disrupting the Present
Overthinking tends to pop up at the most inconvenient times. Many people suffer from insomnia, and overthinking is a major cause of not being able to get to sleep. During the day, overthinking can make you seem distant when in the presence of others, while dwelling or worrying about some time other than the present.
These phenomena make overthinking a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person may worry they are going to get fired, then overthink so much that they lose sleep and do not perform well at work. They spend their workday imagining the worst, and thinking about what they could have done, or should have said. Productivity declines further, and eventually, that outcome they spent all their energy dreading, comes to pass.
These are just a few of the ways that overthinking can precipitate in life. We all go through it at one time or another, but it will usually pass with time for the majority of people. For those who experience chronic overthinking, however, there are serious tolls on one’s mind and body.
The Mental and Physical Health Effects: Is Overthinking a Disorder?
So, is overthinking a disorder in itself? Long-term overthinking is usually a related symptom of an underlying mental health issue. As we mentioned, overthinking is usually connected with common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or a combination of both.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common anxiety disorders, and is characterised by persistent intense and uncontrollable worrying over a number of topics. One in five primary care patients who suffer from anxiety or depressive problems is diagnosed with GAD.
GAD can affect an individual for ~8-10 years, and can be difficult to shake, even with treatment. It has a high correlation with depressive disorder, alcohol abuse, and dependency on certain medications. It is important to seek professional treatment for GAD, as it can severely diminish work and social functioning, impeding problem-solving abilities while stimulating avoidance behaviours.
Regarding depression, this disorder is thought to potentially be both a cause, and a result, of overthinking. The metacognitive model posits that negative beliefs about one’s lack of control over their own thinking, and fears about the consequences of their overthinking, contribute to and feed off of depressive symptoms.
The rumination associated with depression also has links to other mental health issues, including binge-eating, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies. Another disheartening consequence of overthinking can be that an individual’s social support network can sometimes erode, with friends and family withdrawing from someone who is ‘never present’.
The mental health struggles one goes through with chronic overthinking can have deleterious effects on physical health as well. The fatigue, disrupted sleep cycle, and sense of apathy leads one to being less physically active, and also more prone to making other unhealthy lifestyle choices.
This combination of sedentary behaviour and unhealthy habits greatly increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. These comorbid conditions affect up to 60% of patients with more severe forms of overthinking-related disorders.
Women are affected disproportionately here, with studies showing a strong and common association between depressive symptoms and developing obesity in the female population. Anxiety and depression linked with overthinking also contribute to a heightened stress response, causing stress hormones to potentially accelerate the ageing process.
Overall, the combination of mental and physical changes from overthinking potentially can take years off your life. Individuals with mental illness typically do not live as long as healthy people in the same age group.
Clearly, overthinking is something to be taken quite seriously if it’s a recurring issue for you. Which brings us to perhaps the most important section of this article: how to beat overthinking for good!
How to Stop Overthinking
The advice ‘stop overthinking it’ is obviously much easier said than done. Let’s break down the process of overthinking and how to systematically overcome repetitive negative thoughts. Feel free to follow along with a personal example in mind – even one from a past experience with overthinking – to see if these steps help improve the situation.
If you just want to read through and see how the process works, we’ll provide an example scenario:
Zoe is a university student. End-of-semester exams are coming up in two weeks, and she has just received the exam timetable. Two of Zoe’s exams fall on the same day, one in the morning, and one that afternoon. Zoe immediately begins worrying, and becomes distracted as well as irritable.
Identify the Cause
To begin breaking the cycle of overthinking, it is necessary to first pinpoint the limiting beliefs you have. Try to get the repeating thoughts in your head onto paper by writing down the story you’ve been telling yourself. This might be a short sentence, or a paragraph about the situation and the meanings you’ve ascribed to it.
Example: ‘It’s not fair that I have two exams on the same day – and for my two worst classes! Who is organising these exams? What do they think they’re doing? I’ve doing okay in my assignments, but how am I supposed to get the grades I need when I have no time to prepare between exams? If I fail, I won’t be able to graduate for another six months! It’s too much, it’s not even worth it.’
Take Decisive Action
Once you have exposed the overthinking story out in the open, you can take an objective look. Try to separate the facts of the situation from the meanings and emotions you are connecting with it. Then, you can make a list of actionable items to give you the best chance of a positive outcome, while accepting the factors that are out of your control.
Example: ‘The fact is that these exams are when they are. Is it ideal? No. Can I do anything to change it? No. So, what can I do? I could plan a study timetable to prepare for both exams, so I feel better going in. I could write a short summary page of important points to quickly go over between exams to jog my memory for the second test. Maybe the school even has someone I can talk to? I’ll look online.’
If your issue is rumination on a prior event, your actions will be focused on accepting what happened, planning on how to deal with it, and deciding to move forward in a positive way – leaving the past in the past.
Find Positive Distractions
After you’ve made an action plan to take control of the situation where possible, you can also find other stimuli to keep your mind occupied in your downtime. Re-engage with hobbies you used to like, meet up with a friend for a hike, or watch a favourite movie that you know makes you laugh every time.
If you have trouble with overthinking while trying to get to sleep, find a good podcast or sleeping meditation, and put it on a sleep timer. Just having some background noise to fill your mind will take some of the pressure off you, so you don’t have to stress about trying not to think.
Example of a positive distraction:
Zoe meets up with a friend from class for a planned study session. While on campus, she takes a flyer for a social soccer group that gets together once a week. As part of her preparation plan for her exams, she has included time slots for fun and social activities, which she plans to fill. Zoe has also recorded herself reading out some key study notes, which she listens to in bed – this puts her to sleep in no time!
The reason we become so overwhelmed when overthinking is that we are putting ourselves in situations that don’t exist. The past and the future are not the present – they only exist in the mind. The only reality we have is the here and now. That is the only place and time in which we have control. So, working to remain in the present is critical to feeling positive and empowered, rather than lost or helpless.
Being present does not necessarily mean ignoring your feelings. In fact, it is the best place from which to perform healthy self-reflection and problem-solving. You could try a guided meditation, or simply schedule five minutes each day to sit in a quiet spot to tune into your senses. Breathe, listen, look around, and take a step out of your thoughts. Watch them like a movie. A small practice like this can feel amazing if you’re used to feeling constantly bombarded by a million thoughts.
Example of being present:
Zoe decides to make her morning coffee her time to focus on being present. She takes a moment to feel the hot cup, watch the steam rise, and smell as well as taste the fresh coffee. She checks in with herself, notices any thoughts or worries, acknowledges them, and then focuses on her plan for the day. The exams are today, and she has prepared the best she can. She takes a deep breath, smiles, and accepts what will be will be.
One of the things people who are always overthinking forget (or don’t have room in their minds to realize) is that they are not alone! There are so many online resources, health professionals, and programs available to help guide you through the process. The most important concept is to reach out and ask for help. No matter the situation, there are people who care and want to help.
Benefits of Getting Your Overthinking Under Control
Time spent overthinking is rarely time well-spent. Going through these steps and seeking help if you need it, can help get to the root cause of overthinking and stop the analysis-paralysis before it starts. Going through these steps will help you to be more decisive. Once you exchange your fear of failure for a sense of preparation and acceptance of things out of your control, you’ll gain a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy.
Defeating overthinking will also help improve self-image, social skills, and mental focus. Be prepared for a pleasant surprise as you start to notice other symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression begin to lessen. Remember, if not overthinking was easy, we wouldn’t need to write this article! It’s something everyone has to learn, so be kind to yourself and take it one step at a time.
We hope this article has helped make overthinking seem more manageable, and has encouraged you to take some steps needed to manage iit if it’s an issue for you. Let us know in the comments if you have any tips that have helped you stop overthinking.
Jesse Hyson is an accredited exercise and sports scientist. He is currently completing clinical residency for a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, Australia.