Are you an overthinker?
Do you think you are an overthinker?
All humans think about the past and worry about the future. However, some people tend to overthink. They get caught in loops, thinking about the same problems and worries over and over again, without being able to turn off their thoughts, or solve their problems. Overthinking can affect physical and mental wellbeing and increases the risk of anxiety and depression. If you tend to overthink, read on to learn more about how overthinking affects you, and find out how you can learn to take back control of your thoughts.
It’s human nature to remember past embarrassment and wince a little, or to look forward and worry about tomorrow. Everyone does this, but for overthinkers, these thoughts become a constant negative spiral that they can’t turn off, resulting in stress, anxiety, and negative moods.
To see if you are an overthinker, read the following statements. Do you agree or disagree?
- I replay negative scenes from the past in my head over and over again.
- I keep thinking about old conversations that I’ve had and think about what I could have said or done differently.
- I constantly analyze things that other people say and do.
- It feels like my thoughts go around and around in circles, constantly thinking about the same things, without ever finding an answer.
- Falling asleep is hard because my thoughts won’t turn off.
- I lose track of things people say to me, because I’m thinking about things from the past, or worrying about what’s to come in the future.
- I worry about things I can’t control.
If you agree with many of these statements, there’s a good chance you are an overthinker. If an hour from now, you are still examining all of the ways these statements apply to you, then you are definitely an overthinker.
The Difference between Thinking and Overthinking
“While most overthinkers waste a lot of time going over “what if” scenarios in their head, it’s not the time spent thinking that’s the problem; it’s the lack of direction and productivity.”
Productive thinkers are in charge of their thoughts, while overthinkers are at the mercy of their thoughts.
For example, reflecting on the past isn’t the same as overthinking. Overthinkers tend to replay scenes from the past over and over, agonizing over who said what to whom. This isn’t helpful. However, looking back thoughtfully on the past can teach you lessons that you can use now and in the future. This can be very valuable.
A simple way to tell the difference between overthinking and reflection is whether you can learn a lesson (“Next time, in that situation, I’ll behave in X, W, and Z ways”) and then let the subject go. If you can’t let it go, that’s overthinking.
Problem-solving is also not the same as overthinking. Overthinkers often worry about the future, imagining different scenarios again and again. Problem solvers also do this. They take a situation and work through every possible variable. The difference is, a problem-solver is looking for concrete, actionable solutions to their problems. When they find a solution, they enact it and then let the problem go. Overthinkers, on the other hand, often get stuck imagining worst-case scenarios, and never get into a useful, problem-solving frame of mind.
If your thoughts get stuck in a negative place and you can’t find a way out, that’s a problem. However, if your thoughts lead you to new ideas and solutions and you can then let the subject go, think away.
Common Types of Overthinking
Overthinking has two main forms: ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Because overthinkers spend so much time in the past and the future, they rarely spend time in the only place where they can take useful action: the present.
When cows eat fresh grass, it goes to a special stomach to ferment. Then, they regurgitate it and chew it again. This process is called ruminating, and that’s where we get the name for the human habit of replaying past events in our minds.
Unlike in reflection, when a person turns to the past to look for lessons for the future, in rumination, the same thoughts cycle again and again, with no useful endpoint.
What’s worse, when humans ruminate, we tend to fixate on negative events. We might replay an argument, or relive an embarrassing event, or come up with long lists of things we wish we’d said. When ruminating, we tend to dwell on things that have gone wrong, mistakes we’ve made, or our imperfections.
This sort of negative thinking causes stress, tension, and anxiety. Overthinking can also lead to depression, and, in a chicken-and-egg situation, people who have depression tend to spend more time overthinking.
Whereas rumination is about the past, worry is about the future. While all humans worry about the future from time to time, overthinkers can lose hours to a spiral of worries.
Overthinkers also worry about things that are out of their control. They worry about the weather, natural disasters, and political situations halfway around the world. Closer to home, an overthinker may worry about which kindergarten will help their child be most successful as an adult, or spend days making pro/con lists for vacation destinations.
When overthinkers spend so much time worrying about what they can’t control, they waste time and energy they could spend working on things they can control. For example, you can’t control natural disasters, but you can make sure you have 72 hours of emergency supplies on hand. You can’t control how your child will live their life, but you can love them and support them as they grow. You can’t control other people, but you can create a positive atmosphere that will help your family, friends and colleagues flourish.
Breaking the Cycle of Overthinking
When you overthink, you are dwelling in the past or the future, not in the here and now. Try these tips to bring yourself back to the present:
- Move your body. Whether you stretch, walk around the block, or do a few burpees, physical movement helps calm the mind.
- Engage your senses. Whether you inhale some essential oils, bite a lemon, or pet the cat, engaging your senses helps you come back to the moment.
- Breathe. Sometimes, a few deep, slow breaths are all it takes to calm the body and mind.
The more you practice these techniques, the easier it will become to stop the cycle of overthinking.
Click here to download my free guide on how to stop overthinking everything. This guide contains simple strategies for obtaining more clarity and increased concentration.