What causes overthinking? and How to overcome it.
Written By: Counselling Psychologist
M.Sc. Psychology - Swansea University, UK.
Reviewed By: Clinical Psychologist
National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities, Dehradun - M.Phil
Last Updated: 25-04-2023

What causes overthinking? and How to overcome it.


Why do people overthink?

We all think a lot, to analyze or to reflect. Instead, we should spend quality time being analytical and critical as well as being inquisitive in our thoughts. However, among us, some special people wish to overachieve! We are always told that “everything is its best when it is within limits.” The same works here and, in fact, with greater intensity. People who ended up doing this do not realize they have slipped down into a negative mental space until it worsens. Therefore the question we keep asking is what causes us to overthink and what can stop us from spiraling down into the rut.

An overthinker can easily confirm how the progression of overthinking makes you suffocate and exhausted, and how all that thinking was an absolute waste at the end of the day. Overthinking is characterized as unproductive and can further lead to rumination. It makes it difficult to enjoy daily activities and disrupts our emotional regulation and sleep patterns.

It’s a vicious cycle. Overthinking can be known as an unhealthy routine that brings in more stress where a person filters and focuses on only the negatives and worries about future events and dwells on the past ones.

Physical symptoms of overthinking

Excessive worrying and stress can lead to overthinking symptoms like irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, and insomnia. Digestive issues and tension in the shoulders and neck are also common physical symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. 

What causes overthinking?

The two basic things that are underly overthinking are stress and anxiety. Apart from these two, issues with one’s self-esteem and self-doubt are other common causes of overthinking. Highlighting the pandemic situation, social distancing has caused us stress and anxiety, and anxiety is a natural response to fear. In this pandemic, we are fearful for our futures- uncertainty about everything, such as illnesses, deaths, and finances, among others. These situations have led us to the path of overthinking. 

Fear is one of the most common causes of overthinking. When people are afraid, they tend to ruminate on their thoughts and become fixated on worst-case scenarios. This can lead to a cycle of negative thinking and can make it difficult to focus on positive outcomes.

Uncertainty about the future or about certain situations can also contribute to overthinking. When individuals are unsure about what might happen, they may spend a lot of time trying to predict the outcome or prepare for every possible scenario.

Trauma is a factor that can cause overthinking. People who have experienced trauma are more vulnerable to overthinking. For example, childhood abuse or parental neglect can alter an individual’s brain to stick in a constant hyper-vigilance state. That is to say, our response of fight or flight or freeze in danger situations is on high alert. Therefore, in such conditions, people with trauma may experience obsessive thoughts.

Those people who hold perfectionist values or have obsessive tendencies and those who are strict on gaining control may find themselves overthinking quickly. Such individuals begin to ruminate about their past mistakes or the ones they may make. They tend to worry about the judgments of others around them.

Now that you have figured out the root cause of overthinking, we need to eliminate this habit. Observe not only your thoughts but also how your body reacts and notice your behavior when you overthink. 

Three common unhelpful thought patterns:

Catastrophizing- This is a kind of thinking pattern where we began to think of the worst-case scenarios with little or incomplete information about any given situation.

Black and white thinking- This thinking pattern makes us think in two extremes. You are either the best or the worst. We ignore the gray area that lies between them. 

Personalization- In this line of thinking we feel we are personally guilty and/or responsible for the things which may not even be in our control. 

Can overthinking be harmful?

Overthinking can make it difficult to relax and enjoy life, as you become so wrapped up in your thoughts that you cannot be present at the moment completely. This can lead to increased stress levels and anxiety, as you worry about the future and keep questioning constantly of might happen.

In addition, overthinking can lead to a negative feedback loop, where you become more anxious and stressed as it continues to dwell on your thoughts. This can make it difficult to break the cycle of negative thinking and can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety disorders.

How to stop overthinking?

Try the below techniques to stop overthinking:

A lot of us think that ignoring thoughts is the way to go. But that is probably the last method you want to try. Ignoring means, you are using lots of energy to keep negative thoughts away. So basically, those thoughts are on your mind either way. 

Acknowledging your negative thoughts and then working on them to process them is more effective.

Thought Reframing

In this technique, allow yourself to notice the negatives of a situation and then see it from a different perspective. Is there another way to view the problem/situation?
Example- You are tired of being in your teaching role. You have lots of student work corrections, exam deadlines, and responsibilities. You are feeling exhausted mentally and physically. You have begun to hate your job. 

Now how about we twist some words and see how this sounds to us?

Reframed thought- There are challenging things for you at the moment, and you are not comfortable with them. You begin to wonder if there can be some ways to delegate tasks or alter expectations from the situation. 

Reframing words help you take a step back, observe and see if there is a different way to look at it. You can notice a quick change in your feelings by having this shift in thoughts. You will also notice a change in your behavior eventually. 

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and being mindful have been shown to enhance complete psychological well-being. It improves memory, concentration, and emotional regulation, and reduces stress. Being mindful is simply about being present in the moment. Being mindful allows you to acknowledge your thoughts are there, and you choose not to accept them and pay attention to something that pleases you. Also, practice makes you perfect, so making a habit of doing mindfulness meditation will improve how you handle your overthinking.

How to live in the present moment, you ask? Let us walk through the quick steps of living and savoring the present moment. 

One way to reduce overthinking is to be more aware of your thoughts throughout the day. Too much thinking can actually distract you from achieving your goals, so it s important to limit it.

Try to notice when you start thinking and avoid following through on every thought. By simply observing your thoughts without getting carried away, you can train your brain to stay more focused.

Set aside dedicated times for thinking, such as when journaling or planning your day for about 15 minutes. During those times, you can allow yourself to think more deeply and intentionally, but make sure to limit the amount of time you spend thinking.

Finally, try to enjoy the present moment and let go of thoughts about the past or future. No matter what has happened before or what you want to achieve in the future, it s important to appreciate the present moment and feel alive right now.

Breathing exercises

When you focus on slowing your breath down, you slow your heart, which helps to calm your mind. You can now reset your thinking pattern with a calm mind and begin afresh with a healthy thinking style. Begin by filling your lungs with air and holding it for several seconds. Then slowly exhale the air, and once you get the urge to inhale, take another deep breath. Keep repeating this until you are relaxed.

Put it on paper

When we are in an anxious state, our emotions are heightened, and it does not allow us to respond with rational decisions. We can get into overthinking very quickly. 

The key is awareness. You need to focus on what you thought and be aware of them. Journaling will help you be aware of your thinking pattern, and once you learn it, you can change it.

Change the direction of your thought

Overthinking is a product of fear, and we soon begin to pay attention to all the negative things that might occur. However, once you master to sense you are overthinking, you can stop and continue to think of all the positives. Spend time thinking about the things that can go right.

This may sound like toxic positivity. But in reality, you are simply allowing another extreme to be considered. With this technique, you will find a middle ground to the given situation which a more neutral way of looking at and expecting things. 

Distract yourself

Channel your energy to something different. Sometimes diverting your focus on pleasant things such as your hobbies can separate you from your negative thinking.

Try doing those things which can either relax you or are cognitively stimulating. For example, you can take a soothing bath or clean your cupboard if that is relaxing for you. Or try some brain games like sudoku to bring yourself out of the emotional and overwhelming state of mind to a more rational and decisive state.

Count your blessings

Better to be grateful than regretful because the latter will not help you change the past. Being grateful helps you realize all the good and positive things around you.
Overthinking is common, Nevertheless, if you prepare yourself to deal with it, you can convert your negative feelings and thoughts to positive, pleasant ones. Moreover, remember you cannot predict the future, and there is no use in ruminating about the things you do not even know will take place. Hence, learn to channel your pessimistic thoughts into productive, practical, and right thinking.

Too long, didn’t read? Here is a summary of the above article:

Overthinking is very common, but not healthy. We all have been there. Overthinking is caused due to various reasons like fear, intolerance to uncertainty, trauma, or perfectionism. Overthinking can also be a symptom of already existing mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, or depression. Three common unhelpful thinking styles are catastrophizing personalization and black-and-white thinking. There are ways available to keep your overthinking to a limit and work to improve it. 

Seeking mental health counseling with an online psychologist can help you in overcoming overthinking and making your daily functioning better in working by yourself gets too overwhelming or if it is not helping you. Our virtual counselling sessions will help you to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression. Schedule an appointment with our licensed therapists from the comfort of your home. Our virtual therapy and tele-counselling services will help you navigate difficult times.

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Sherman, P. (2019). The Gremlin: 10 Tools to Shush that Negative Voice in Your Head! Parachute jump publishing.

In Wikipedia. Overthinking (disambiguation)

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