Rethinking Overthinking


Overthinking is a common experience for many people, and it is something that can be especially prevalent in busy cities like Chicago. While a certain degree of worry and contemplation is normal and even healthy, when it starts to interfere with our daily lives, it can lead to more serious problems like anxiety, depression, and relationship difficulties. Let’s delve into the nature of overthinking, why it occurs, and what can be done to manage it. With the right tools and understanding, it is possible to overcome the negative impact of overthinking and live a more fulfilling life.

What is overthinking?

Critical thinking and contemplation can certainly be valuable tools when used in the right way. Consider the benefits of reflecting on how to tackle a challenge in an effective manner, striving towards personal aspirations, or seeking to expand one’s understanding of an idea previously unknown. These proactive and productive thoughts often result in positive outcomes, such as successfully resolving an issue, mapping out a path towards fulfilling one’s ambitions, or gaining newfound wisdom.

However, excessive musing on matters beyond our influence, rumination on past events, or visualizing the most unfavorable outcomes in the future can prove to be harmful and negative. Such thoughts can quickly spiral into a detrimental cycle, where one negative question leads to another and eventually to an unfavorable scenario. This cycle of unhelpful thoughts can be difficult to break free from and can have serious consequences for our well-being.

This pattern of excessive and unproductive thought is commonly referred to as overthinking, and it can be extremely draining, both mentally and emotionally. Overthinking can take a toll on one’s mental energy and has been linked to stress, anxiety, and in severe cases, depression. Even at its most benign, this cycle of negative thoughts can result in persistent feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Rumination: Past Focused Overthinking

Contemplating the past can take many forms, and it is important to distinguish between rumination and reminiscence. While reminiscing often involves revisiting fond memories and reliving happy experiences, rumination is characterized by an obsessive focus on past events, wondering about what could have been done differently, and repeatedly blaming oneself for perceived mistakes. Unlike reminiscence, which allows us to reflect and move on, rumination can become all-consuming, leading to a constant rehashing of negative thoughts and a feeling of being unable to let go.

Worry: Future Focused Overthinking

Spending excessive time and energy envisioning the numerous unfavorable scenarios that might occur in the future can prevent us from fully experiencing and enjoying the present moment. This type of worry can cause us to shy away from new experiences, opportunities, and relationships, as we become consumed by the fear of potential negative outcomes. By focusing too heavily on the worst-case scenarios, we limit our ability to imagine and pursue positive possibilities, and miss out on valuable opportunities for growth and fulfillment.  In the most problematic situations, worry can involve Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, PTSD, and OCD. 

Why do we overthink?

The root of overthinking and its close association with anxiety and depression can be traced back to our evolutionary heritage. Our primitive minds are wired to respond to perceived threats with heightened caution and an inclination towards negative assumptions. This is a remnant of a time when it was vital to be constantly alert and aware of potential danger, such as encountering a gigantic grizzly bear. This instinctual response often conflicts with our rational mind, which may recognize that an event, such as mistakenly calling our boss by the wrong name, is not a significant cause for concern. However, for individuals who are prone to rumination, their primitive mind dominates, causing them to fixate on potential worst-case scenarios and fueling feelings of stress, anxiety, and helplessness.

Overthinking is exhausting for a reason!

During the night, our bodies engage in the restorative process of REM sleep. This is where the brain processes events from the day and converts them into memories and narratives, effectively moving them from the emotional to the intellectual side of the brain. During this time, the brain may also act out unspent emotions in our dreams to use up any unused adrenaline. For example, a person who made a mistake will have time to move on from the event and not be consumed by it in the morning.

However, for individuals who struggle with overthinking, this process may not be so seamless. If they’re unable to sleep soundly due to excessive rumination, they will miss out on crucial REM sleep, potentially experiencing insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, and starting their day with low energy and a negative mood. This can further exacerbate the effects of overthinking and anxiety.

Interrupt the Pattern of Overthinking

  1. If you’re an overthinker, be careful not to overthink it! Additionally, it is equally crucial to resist the temptation to dwell on past missed opportunities to address the issue. Instead, it is time to take action and break the cycle of overthinking, rumination, and negative self-talk.
  2. To conquer overthinking, acknowledge its presence. When you catch yourself spiraling into a cycle of negative thoughts, take a step back and assess the root cause. Identifying what sparked the thought process can be a useful tool in your journey towards breaking the pattern. By recognizing the triggers, you can proactively take measures to avoid or manage them in the future.
  3. When you begin to feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, try shifting your focus to finding solutions instead of dwelling on the issue. Ask yourself constructive questions that help you reframe the situation in a positive light. Rather than dwelling on why you reacted a certain way, ask yourself what actions you can take to respond better next time. This can be a helpful technique to overcome negative thoughts and bring positivity into your thought process.
  4. Transform negative thought patterns into proactive approaches. Take control of your worries by devising a plan for handling challenging scenarios. For instance, instead of dwelling on the potential difficulties of an encounter with a past acquaintance, prepare yourself with a strategy for conducting yourself respectfully and maintaining the enjoyment of your night out with friends. By planning ahead, you can reduce the power of your fears and increase the chances of a positive outcome.
  5. Engage in activities that divert your attention. This can include utilizing a guided mindfulness application, tuning into an informative audio series, immersing yourself in music, or indulging in a lighthearted, low-stakes reality program. By distracting yourself, you can interrupt persistent negative thoughts and replace them with something less distressing. While the current focus might shift to the antics of cast members on a reality show, it is preferable to ruminating on this rather than dwelling on a past embarrassing experience.
  6. Watch out for perfectionism. People who set extremely high standards for themselves and strive for flawlessness can often become chronic ruminators. It is essential to understand that perfection is an unrealistic objective. Rather than fixating on an unrealistic ideal, visualize the most optimal outcome within the constraints of reality. Rather than striving for perfection, aim to consistently improve by learning from experiences and making gradual modifications.
  7. Set time limits on your contemplation. Considering past errors and anticipating potential challenges in the future can be beneficial, provided it is done in moderation. To regulate excessive rumination, it is helpful to establish a set time limit. Use a timer, such as on a phone or oven, to restrict these thoughts to five minutes or less. After the timer goes off, shift your focus to another task to break the cycle of excessive rumination.

In the event that efforts to curb persistent rumination and negative thoughts are unsuccessful, it may be beneficial to seek the assistance of a therapist.  A Chicago therapist, counselor, or psychologist can assist in uncovering the underlying causes of excessive rumination and collaborate with you to develop customized strategies for managing it. Seeking help is a demonstration of strength, not a concession of weakness, and it can be a crucial step towards finding solutions and reducing the negative impact of excessive rumination. Contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists today!

This blog is made for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice.
The information in this blog is not intended to (1) replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified licensed health care provider, (2) create or establish a provider-patient relationship, or (3) create a duty for us to follow up with you.


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