We all experience stress in our lives from time to time. It can arise from external circumstances like a looming work deadline, financial difficulties, or relationship problems. But stress can also be self-imposed through habitual patterns of negative thinking. Ruminating over regrets, judging ourselves harshly, or endlessly second-guessing our choices can generate massive amounts of mental strain and anguish. This type of self-induced stress stemming from overthinking is an illuminating example of how our thought processes themselves can be a major source of mental duress.
Overthinking refers to excessive, repetitive thoughts that are distressing and often unrealistic. These relentless mental loops drain our energy, undermine our confidence, and keep us stuck in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. Many of us get trapped in overthinking specifically when faced with an important decision to make. We obsessively weigh the pros and cons, invent worst-case scenarios, and try to find the perfect, worry-free solution. Of course, this quest for total certainty is impossible, so we just keep compulsively bouncing between options, never able to settle on one. Caught up in this dizzying mental maze, we lose all sense of inner peace and perspective.
Another common theme of overthinking is rehashing conversations or events from the past. We mentally scold ourselves for something awkward we said or an opportunity we missed. Or we can’t stop picturing how a difficult confrontation could have gone better. We get hooked on judging our perceived mistakes or embarrassing moments, as if we can somehow change what already happened through agonizing over it. Needless to say, this does nothing productive and only fuels feelings of shame, regret and self-criticism.
For some people, the focus of overthinking is the future rather than the past. They become so overwhelmed picturing worst-case scenarios that could happen that they ignore the present moment. Everyday decisions seem monumental because their mind is busy generating endless graphs of imaginary risk. These excessive “what if” thoughts certainly don’t prevent bad things from occurring, but they do succeed at draining any joy out of the current circumstances. Even positive events can get tainted by the fear that everything will inevitably go wrong.
Overthinking may offer the illusion of control and preparedness, but it inevitably leaves people feeling powerless. Each obsessive mental loop just proliferates more unanswerable questions, unresolved doubts, and unsettling hypotheticals. Once caught in this web of rumination, every thought pathway seems to lead deeper into the abyss. The sheer volume and intensity of the overthinking creates a snowball effect, where negative thought patterns build on each other until the mind feels utterly overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, simply telling ourselves to stop overthinking doesn’t work. The same mental reflexes that generate these repetitive thoughts can also judge us harshly for not being able to control them. This quickly becomes a downward spiral of obsessive rumination about why we can’t stop obsessively ruminating. Instead of beating ourselves up, the key is to note when we’ve become ensnared in overthinking and then deliberately shift our focus elsewhere.
One effective approach is to immerse ourselves in an enjoyable activity that keeps our hands or body moving. Things like gardening, knitting, playing an instrument, or exercise can short-circuit the endless mental loops because we’re actively doing something besides sitting alone with our thoughts. The activity provides a positive outlet for mental energy and keeps us anchored in the present moment. It interrupts the tidal wave of “what ifs” by giving the mind something specific to focus on right now.
Another technique is to write down the thoughts that are troubling us. This externalizes them from the mind and contains them on paper. Seeing our worries spelled out can help create distance from the thoughts and show them for what they are – transient mental states rather than inescapable truth. The simple act of writing accesses a different mode of thinking that sometimes allows fresh insight. And being able to identify the thought patterns makes them less overwhelming.
We can also challenge the reality of our anxious thoughts through logical questioning. For example, if we’re agonizing over whether we made a mistake, we could ask ourselves, “Realistically, how likely is the worst-case scenario I’m imagining? What’s the very most probable outcome here?” Addressing our cognitive distortions brings a dose of reality into the situation. It loosens the grip of hypothetical “what if” thoughts by grounding us in factual likelihood.
At times, talking our concerns out with a trusted friend or counselor can also be immensely helpful. Verbalizing the thoughts swirling through our head makes them seem less formidable and all-consuming. The supportive outsider perspective of a therapist or confidant enables us to see our circumstances through a less biased lens. And sharing the burden of the thoughts can relieve some of their weight and intensity.
Overthinking arises from an instinct to protect ourselves by hyper-vigilantly anticipating problems. But ironically, it often creates more unnecessary misery than the situations it’s meant to prepare us for. Getting trapped in self-perpetuating thought loops can drain our energy, mood and overall wellbeing. By recognizing when we’ve slipped into overthinking and utilizing techniques to shift our mental state, we can decrease stress and reclaim a sense of calm and clarity. Eliminating the anguish of overthinking allows us to be more fully present, engaged and fulfilled.