Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your thoughts? Many of my clients have expressed frustration, even anguish, with their relentless experiences of self-imposed mental interrogation. It occurs as an irresistible urge to analyze practically everything they think, but especially the unwanted, spontaneous thoughts that just pop into their mind.
Consider a young woman we’ll call Jessica. She sought treatment for anxiety, but within a short period of time, it was clear that she was caught in a self-defeating mental trap. Any negative, unwanted thought triggered an agonizing process of self-analysis.
She’d ask herself over and over “what caused me to have this thought,” “what does it mean," “what if I get stuck and become more and more anxious,” or, “I need to find a way to get better control of my mind." She spent hours analyzing thoughts that suddenly popped into her head. She’d also overanalyze what people said to her, always questioning whether a negative intention was meant. By her own admission, Jessica was “stuck in her head.”
Can you relate? Do you find yourself caught in a distressing cycle of overanalyzing your thoughts? Overthinking is a prominent characteristic of worry, rumination, and obsessive thinking. But it is not limited to these conditions. It can be a problem in its own right, and yet few people recognize the negative effect it can have on our emotional health, happiness, and well-being. Many people have concluded that overthinking is part of their personality; they’ve not realized that strategies are available to counter this anxiety-inducing habit.
The Overthinking Mind
I am using the term “overthink” to refer to an excessive tendency to monitor, evaluate, and attempt to control all types of thought.1 Overthinkers are not only highly aware of their thoughts, but they also spend a lot of time trying to understand the causes and meaning of their thoughts.
Sometimes this can be a useful characteristic if our thoughts are significant, and we need to decide on the best course of action. For example, if I have a thought like, “Should I leave my spouse and file for divorce?” “I’m going nowhere in this job; maybe I need new employment,” or “I’m having chest pains; maybe I should go to the hospital,” I need to pay attention to these thoughts. Ignoring the thought or not taking it seriously could be disastrous.
Overthinking is a problem for another type of thinking that I discussed in a previous post: negative intrusive thoughts. When we pay too much attention to such thoughts, overanalyze their meaning, and try too hard to control them, we can slip into unhealthy forms of thought, like worry, rumination, obsession, and the like. And when we overanalyze negative, intrusive thoughts, we can end up anxious, depressed, frustrated, and guilt-ridden.
Signs of Overthinking
If you’re wondering whether overthinking is a problem for you, consider the following questions based on a test I developed for The Anxious Thoughts Workbook2:
- Are you easily aware of what you’re thinking at any given moment?
- Do you often question why you are having certain thoughts?
- Do you often look for the deeper meaning or personal significance of your thoughts?
- When feeling upset, do you often focus on what you are thinking?
- Do you have a strong need to know or understand how your mind works?
- Do you feel it’s important to have strict control over your thoughts?
- Do you have a low tolerance for spontaneous, unwanted thoughts?
- Are you often in a struggle to control your thoughts?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, it’s possible you have a tendency to overthink.
There are two dangers to this. If you are overthinking important issues in your life, you can get stuck in indecision, avoidance, and procrastination. A person thinking about their relationships, health, career, self-identity issues, and the like needs to spend time in thoughtful reflection, but too much time in the head can be costly. On the other hand, we all have negative, intrusive thoughts that are best left alone. Spending time on these thoughts can lead to significant personal distress.
How to Curb Overthinking
If you suspect you’re falling prey to overthinking, there are several steps you can take:
- Know your triggers. Even the most ardent overthinkers don’t do it all the time. Probably there are certain thoughts or issues that are more likely to trigger overthinking. If you’re a worrier, for example, thoughts about the future may be more likely to trigger overthinking. For another person, it may be thinking about their competence or whether they are liked by others. Whatever the case, it’s important to know the “hot spots” that trigger your overthinking.
- Be aware of overthinking. To reduce overthinking, you need to know when it’s happening. What are the telltale signs that you’re overthinking? Is it when you’re trying to interpret the meaning of an intrusive thought when it probably has no hidden meaning? Is it when you’re trying too hard to control or suppress the thought? Or is it when you become frightened or anxious with the thought? There may be other signs that indicate you’ve slipped into overthinking.
- Fully embrace its futility. You won’t be able to curb overthinking as long as you believe it has value. Review your past experiences with overthinking and write down how it helped. Did the overthinking result in any meaningful solution or revelation? Were there more positive or negative consequences associated with it?
- Disengage. When people are “too much in their head,” this signifies over-engagement with unwanted thoughts. The opposite approach is to disengage from the thought. So, the best way to curb overthinking is mindful acceptance in which we observe but don't evaluate our unwanted thoughts. A second approach is focused distraction, in which we shift our attention to another train of thought or activity, without engaging in an attempt to resolve or understand the unwanted thought we’re overthinking.
Overthinking can be harmful to our emotional health, especially when it’s directed at unwanted, spontaneous, negative thoughts, images, or memories. Fortunately, we can learn to curb this unhelpful way of thinking through greater self-awareness and the practice of mental disengagement.
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1 Janeck, A.S. Calamari, J. E., Riemann, B. C., & Heffelfinger, S. K. 2003. Too much thinking about thinking?: metacognitive differences in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 17(2): 181-195.
2 Clark, D. A. 2018. The Anxious Thoughts Workbook: Skills to Overcome the Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts that Drive Anxiety, Obsessions & Depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.