Overthinking: Definition, Causes, & How to Stop Overthinking
By Sarah Sperber, Psychology Researcher
What is overthinking? Learn all about overthinking, including what it is, whether you’re doing it, why it is unhelpful, what causes it, and how to stop.
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What Is Overthinking? (Overthinking Definition)
Has anyone ever told you, “you’re overthinking it”? You’re not alone. Many of us are familiar with the experience of overthinking, even if we haven’t defined it as such. Generally, “overthinking” refers to the process of repetitive, unproductive thought. Since thoughts can be focused on many different things, research has generally differentiated between “rumination” about the past and present, and “worry” about the future. Regardless of which word we use, we are talking about constant thought loops that don’t seem to have a resolution.
Am I Overthinking?
Your ability to think is one of your greatest gifts as a human being. Our brains have evolved to produce complex thoughts that allow us to understand information, solve problems, plan ahead, and learn from our past. Thinking has allowed us to create complex societies and develop as a species over time.
However, the age-old adage “too much of a good thing” comes to mind here. When we overthink, worry, or ruminate, we are certainly thinking. The differentiation of “over”-thinking highlights that our thinking is not getting us anywhere and is not helpful to us. So if you notice that you are stuck thinking about the same issue over and over again but are not coming to any sort of “solution,” you may be overthinking. Read on for some specific examples of common topics that we tend to overthink to reflect on what, exactly, you might be overthinking.
Video: 10 Signs You Might be Overthinking:
Overthinking the Past
So, what sorts of things do we tend to overthink about? As mentioned earlier, “rumination” is the word often used in research to refer to a repetitive and unproductive way of thinking about the past (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Regrets and resentments might fall into this category - have you found yourself wishing you had taken a different path in life or made a different choice at a certain crossroad? On a different scale, perhaps you keep thinking about the embarrassing thing you said on a Zoom call last week. Regardless of what it is, you may be overthinking the past in ways that are not helping you in the present or future.
Overthinking the Present
It is also possible to ruminate or overthink aspects of the present, such as your circumstances, relationships, personality, or identity. Do you wonder day in and day out whether you are in the right relationship? How might those thoughts be affecting the relationship? Your relationship with yourself can also be shaped largely by the thoughts you have about yourself in the present. Do you tend to think of yourself positively or do you tend to fixate on your perceived character flaws and mistakes?
Overthinking the Future
Overthinking about the future often falls into the category of “worry.” You might be worrying about something in the short-term, like an upcoming presentation for school or work. Or you might be preoccupied with more long-term existential concerns, like “will I ever feel fulfilled in life?” or “what if I never find a partner?” Regardless, it is most likely the case that your worries are not helping you in any way.
Why is Overthinking Unhelpful?
Perhaps you’ve been at a celebratory occasion like a birthday party, but instead of enjoying the music, food, and company, you were preoccupied with an argument you had the day before, or the laundry list of to-dos for the next. These, or some of the examples mentioned above, may feel familiar to you, and overthinking may be getting in the way of living your life.
Of course, you don’t set out to overthink, ruminate, or worry. But if you have read this far, you are likely familiar with these problems and are hoping to figure out how to change the way you think. To change any habit, we need the right motivation - read on for some examples of why overthinking can be so harmful and why it is so worthwhile to tackle.
Overthinking & Decision-Making
When you are overthinking, you are likely trying to solve a problem in your life. Am I pursuing the right career? Is this relationship right for me? How can I get a better handle on my finances? The catch-22 here is that overthinking actually harms our ability to make decisions. van Randenborgh and colleagues found that rumination negatively affected individuals’ decision-making processes, with ruminating participants finding decisions more difficult and being less confident in their decisions (2010).
Overthinking & Anxiety
Research has found a strong association between overthinking and mood (Segerstrom et al., 2000). In particular, future-focused worry has been associated with anxiety (McLaughlin et al., 2007). This seems to make logical sense - you may be familiar with the experience of having worried thoughts while also struggling with anxious feelings and sensations. Temporary and chronic anxiety can be unpleasant experiences, and research suggests that changing worried thoughts can reduce anxiety (Gana et al., 2001).
Overthinking & Depression
While future-focused repetitive thinking (worry) has been associated with anxiety, past- and present-focused repetitive thinking (rumination) has been associated with depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000). This association is strong, with rumination linked to more frequent, longer, and more severe depressive episodes.
Overthinking & Sleep
You may have found yourself lying awake at night, unable to stop the “train of thoughts” running through your mind. Overthinking and the accompanying symptoms of anxiety and depression can negatively affect your sleep (Pillai & Drake, 2015). Poor sleep is, in turn, associated with negative health outcomes (Luyster et al. 2012). If you feel like overthinking is impacting your physical health, read on to understand why you overthink and how to stop.
What Causes Overthinking?
If you have read this far and have identified that you tend to overthink, you may be frustrated with yourself. Why am I doing something so bad for me? It is important to remember two things here.
How Can I Stop Overthinking?
Not only can overthinking rev us up and make us feel anxious, but it can work the other way too - feeling anxious can lead to more worry, creating a vicious cycle. You can stop this cycle in its tracks by using relaxation techniques. What sorts of activities help you relax? Perhaps it’s going for a walk, taking some deep breaths, doing yoga, or watching a feel-good movie. If you notice that you are on edge, take a step back and ask yourself what you can do for yourself to relax.
2. Practice mindfulness
If you are reading this article, you may have recognized that overthinking is a problem for you and are trying to solve that problem. However, you don’t want to fall into the ironic trap of overthinking your overthinking. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix. However, regular practice could help you become more aware of when you are overthinking. After years of dabbling with various mindfulness practices, I still find myself overthinking but have noticed that I can more quickly notice when I am doing so, and am more easily able to hit the “pause” button on those strings of thoughts. Taking a step back from unhelpful ways of thinking gives me the chance to choose more helpful patterns of thought and action.
3. Get some perspective
Mindfulness and similar contemplative practices allow us to step back from our train of thought to better recognize where it is going. This ability to take a more objective look at our thoughts is key to stopping overthinking. When we are overthinking, we can feel consumed by whatever issue we are focusing on and be unable to find perspective. When you find yourself in this place, it might be helpful to ask yourself, “Will this issue still matter to me in a year, five years, etc.?”
4. Try problem-focused thinking
It might be informative to ask yourself, “Are these thoughts helpful to me?” Once you have an awareness of when you are overthinking, you can take a step back and decide how you want to move forward. You have two options here.
This choice is put eloquently by the Dalai Lama, “If there is no solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it.”
5. Talk it out
A common maxim in cognitive-behavioral therapy is, “thoughts are not facts.” It is so important to remember this because thoughts that we have about ourselves, our past, and our future can feel like facts: “I am not a likable person because I don’t like myself.” As you start to recognize when your thinking may not be helpful or reflect reality, it can be helpful to talk to people you trust. Sometimes just getting an outside opinion can help reframe how you think about a situation.
6. Go to therapy
For some people, the above approaches could be enough to take control of overthinking. But if you are struggling to overcome your overthinking, or your overthinking might be contributing to the mental health issues I mentioned like anxiety or depression, it might be worth considering seeing a mental health professional who specializes in an evidence-based practice like cognitive-behavioral therapy.
7. Learn from your pets
In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky highlights the differences in how we experience stress compared to other species (2004). The title of the book alludes to the idea that while other species such as zebras might experience momentary stressors like running from a predator, they generally do not experience chronic stress like us. This is related to their propensity to live in the present moment. Your dog is not ruminating about when she fell yesterday in front of all the dogs at the dog park or worrying about whether she is doing enough with her life. Of course, I am anthropomorphizing here - but the point is that animals give us a great example of living in the moment and being happier for it.
Video: How to Stop Overthinking Everything
Books About Overthinking
Our thought patterns are just that - patterns that have become habitual over years. It may take time, but you are capable of changing those patterns so that overthinking is no longer your default. As you embark on this journey, some of these books might continue to give you insight and inspiration:
5 Articles That Can Help You Stop Overthinking Everything
Here are a few more articles that may help you get more insight into your thought patterns and manage your overthinking more effectively.
Overthinking is not just unhelpful, it can actively harm our well-being. Understanding what overthinking is, why we do it, and learning how to stop it using some of the tips above could help you break free from patterns that are holding you back.