To think too much about something: to put too much time into thinking or analysing something in a way that is more harmful than helpful (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).
When does it become a problem?
We all sometimes spend time overthinking, lying awake at night, ruminating about the past, trying to predict the future, or perhaps even looking forward to a special event. However, overthinking becomes problematic for some individuals when they cannot stop the constant thoughts. Left unmanaged, overthinking can start to disrupt a person’s daily life. When thinking becomes predominantly negative and obsessive, it can become an issue. Rehashing the past or imagining the worst can lead to trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, headaches and body tension and chronic fatigue. The flow-on effects lead to the inability to cope with the stressors of everyday life, anxiety and depression.
Ten signs that you may be overthinking:
1. I can’t stop worrying.
2. I often worry about things I have no control over.
3. I constantly remind myself of mistakes.
4. I relive embarrassing moments in my mind over and over.
5. I often ask myself “what if…” questions.
6. I have difficulty with my sleeping because it feels like my brain won’t shut off.
7. When I recall conversations with people, I can’t help but think about all the things I wish I had or hadn’t said.
8. I spend much time thinking about the hidden meaning behind things people say or events.
9. When someone says something or acts in a way I don’t like; I dwell on it.
10. I spend so much time either dwelling on past events or worrying about the future that I often miss what’s happening in the present.
What’s happening inside your brain when you’re overthinking?
When a person is in a constant state of anxiety, the body is in a continual state of ‘fight or flight’. Consequently, it impacts the person’s psychological and physical well-being. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain where we process our higher-order thinking, planning and problem-solving. In human development terms, this part of the brain developed last and set us apart from most of the animal kingdom in terms of complex thought. However, when we are in a state of fight or flight, we activate a different part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala prepares the body physiologically for survival. To do so, it releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These increase heart rate, muscle tension, and aggression, preparing the body for facing a threat or getting away from it.
When access to the prefrontal cortex is lost, a person finds it challenging to process logical, rational thoughts. From then on it defaults to being primarily governed by the amygdala. Facing prolonged stress from activities such as overthinking, the amygdala can overtake other more rational processes in the brain by ‘hijacking’ control. Essentially, this means that communication with the prefrontal cortex can be disrupted or disconnected.
How to manage overthinking?
Fortunately, overthinking doesn’t have to be permanent. It is a mental habit that can be changed by retraining the brain to look at situations from a more balanced perspective. Firstly, it must be understood that the brain cannot focus on the reverse of an idea, the common example: “Stop thinking of a pink elephant!” shows us that we focus on precisely the thing we are being told not to think of. The same goes for overthinking. Trying to “stop overthinking” will not work very well. We need to train the brain to focus on what we DO want to achieve.
However, focusing on your breathing is a simple way to begin. It slows down the thoughts and physiological effects of overthinking. Practising slow breathing enables you to fully step into the present moment. At the same time, it allows you to let go of your thoughts of the past and future. When your breathing calms down, it sends signals to your brain and nervous system to inhibit the amygdala and promote relaxation. When you are feeling stressed, tense or anxious, simply taking some deep breaths can help calm your body and mind. Here is an example of a simple script to practice anytime throughout the day:
- Take three deep breaths.
- Notice your breath flowing in and out of your nostrils.
- Follow the breath in and out with awareness, allowing it to fall into a natural rhythm.
- Noticing the slight pause at the turning point as the in-breath becomes the out-breath.
- Gently follow it all the way in and then all the way out.
- Keep your awareness on your breath; if thoughts begin to distract you, notice them, let them go and then return your attention to your breathing.
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes or until you feel present and relaxed.
4. Colino, S. (2003). Break the chain of worry: stressing yourself out by worrying too much can make problems even worse. Here are four steps to stop fretting. Shape, 22(12), 52.