Overthinking is examining and reexamining negative emotions, thoughts, and memories. Both men and women can fall into a pattern of overthinking, although women tend to do it more often.
While standard worrywarts fret about the future, overthinkers circle their negative mental wagons around past occurrences, become preoccupied with them, and may stop moving forward.
The Slippery Slope of Overthinking
According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., the way our human brain is organized makes overthinking an easy habit to fall into. Our memories and thoughts form an intricate web of associations so one idea or remembrance that gets triggered stirs others that are similar.
If we slip into an anxious, stressed, or depressed mood, thoughts that resonate with our mood are aroused. A cascade of mental activity that is mood-compatible is released, and we may end up ruminating about things that have nothing to do with the event that set-off our mood. For instance, we might find ourself dwelling on why our boy or girlfriend broke up with us after getting a poor grade on an exam.
Our amazing neurological network is a blessing that allows us to think creatively, but feels like a curse when it is stuck in negativity. Once our mind starts spinning around negative emotions and memories, it is difficult to stop. The more we engage this type of thinking the more habitual it becomes.
Depression, Anxiety, and Overthinking
Not only does overthinking become a pattern with practice, but the thoughts tend to get darker over time. Negative thoughts about a specific experience can generalize or expand to color other areas of our life, causing us to scrutinize still more troublesome memories—amplifying the negativity.
The amplification of negativity leaves us distressed about the past, troubled about the present, and fearful, or fatalistic about our tomorrows. A mind overwhelmed with these thoughts is naturally going to despair, or panic, or both. It is easy to see how overthinking can lead to, or worsens, depression and anxiety.
Overthinking often encompasses our relationships, body-image, family issues, career, and finances. It can also center on recent events such as an argument with a co-worker or friend. The things we ruminate about may be real problems that beg for solutions, but overthinking has never solved anything.
Help for Overthinking
Thinking and contemplation are both worthy endeavors, but using them beyond the purpose they serve is counter productive, and we get bogged down.
Overthinking is often a process of:
- Looking for answers that can only be gotten through action (e.g., talking to someone, checking the facts).
- Looking for answers that may never be available or satisfactory (e.g., “Why wasn’t my love enough for him/her?”).
So, the remedy for much of our overthinking is either effective problem-solving, for which we need a clear mind, or acceptance of the past and letting go.
If you catch yourself overthinking, try distracting your mind by engaging in another activity such as watching a movie, calling someone, reading, or playing a video game. It is also helpful to practice meditation—learn to watch your overheated thoughts come and go as an objective observer would. Acquiring this skill makes it easier to disengage from thought.
Many people who have a habit of overthinking need the aid of a counselor to become aware of their thought patterns and begin changing them. Our thoughts are so enmeshed with our emotions it can be difficult to release engrained thought-habits without assistance.
Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, Women Who Think Too Much, Holt, 2004.
You can also read this article at PsyWeb.