Overthinking: The art of creating problems out of nowhere

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We have been there – we are faced with a decision, it can be a major or a minor one, and start weighing the pros and cons of the choices available. And we think so much, turn every possibility in our heads and weigh on every tiny aspect and the what-ifs so much that we can’t make up our minds. This freezing with inaction is called Overthinking by experts. While it’s human nature to think things through when making a decision or evaluating a situation, it becomes overthinking when you can’t get it out of your head. It happens to all of us at some point in our lives – we all experience events that cause us to worry or stress.

Some people can’t seem to turn their concerns off. They worry about the future, making catastrophic predictions about unlikely events that haven’t happened yet. They also ruminate about the past, beating themselves up about the should haves and could haves. They fret over what others might think of them or let negative self-talk build up in their minds. If I have to summarise overthinking in a couple of sentences, it is that overthinking is when you dwell or worry about the same thought repeatedly and those who overthink can be paralysed by their worries and may struggle to make decisions or take action. Overthinking can be caused by and can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Also referred to as rumination, overthinking is when one repetitively dwells on the same thought or situation over and over to the point it gets in the way of their life. Overthinking usually falls into two categories: ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Those who struggle with overthinking may feel stuck and unable to do much because it’s hard to get the thoughts out of their heads and concentrate on anything else.  According to experts, about 73% of 25 to 35-year-olds chronically overthink, along with about 52% of people aged 45 to 55.

Overthinking is unproductive but not the same as being stressed or worried about a specific circumstance. Having a lot of thoughts about a stressful situation in the short term can prompt one to make a move. When one is nervous or stressed, that can sometimes switch on the adrenaline rush and help with the task. Experts believe that even though people of all ages, genders, or personality types might struggle with rumination, those who are motivated by achievement can be more prone to overthinking.

Although not recognised as a mental disorder, overthinking is often associated with other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. One study found a two-way relationship between overthinking and other mental health issues where high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression can contribute to overthinking and overthinking, in turn, may be associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression.

Overthinking a tough decision can also cause problems. Replaying all the options in your head can lead to “paralysis by analysis” – you’re afraid to take the wrong action, so you take no action at all. But even making the wrong decision is better than making no decision. But overthinking is not always bad. Sometimes, overthinking can appear to be a benefit. Running through different scenarios in your head is a good way to make hard decisions, and visualising goals is essential to achieving them. But those are strategies that are employed to reach a specific goal. Overthinking is different, it isn’t rational, and it isn’t part of a larger strategy and in fact, it can interfere with problem-solving abilities.

Overthinking may also cause excessive activity in your brain that can be harmful with one Harvard study finding that this excessive brain activity depletes an essential protein, and that may shorten the human lifespan. There can also be major psychological consequences. Another study found that rumination, a form of overthinking, can lead to anxiety, binge drinking or eating, depression and self-harm.

Learning how to not overthink is good for both your body and your mind. Below are some strategies that can help an overthinker stop overthinking.

Keep track of triggers and patterns: A little mindfulness and attention can go a long way toward getting a grip on overthinking. Keep a journal and write down specific moments that cause you to overthink or worry. Soon, you’ll begin to notice patterns and recognise overthinking triggers before they happen which will help in developing a coping strategy for situations that will lead to overthinking.

Challenge your thoughts: The mind does not have to believe everything you think. An effective way to squash overthinking is to challenge worries and ruminations and view them objectively. Calling out overthinking thoughts that are not useful makes them easier to manage.

Get help from family and friends: Asking trusted family and friends for perspectives when you overthink or worry excessively helps to a great extent.

Move your body: Research demonstrates exercise may improve depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders and also help with chronic overthinking. Even a 5-minute walk can send an influx of good chemicals and hormones, like endorphins, to our brain. Physical movements might also help shift the nervous system out of fight-flight-freeze mode and may help calm any trauma-related rumination.

Seek professional help: If overthinking seems to be taking over your life, it might be good to see a mental health professional. If left unchecked, the stress associated with overthinking may lead to physical health symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, digestive issues like nausea or diarrhoea and difficulty in sleeping.

Retrain the brain: When the brain is at rest, the areas that light up are the problem-solving areas and areas associated with self-referential thinking. So, when left to its own devices, the brain will overthink, and this means, you have to train your brain to do otherwise — particularly if you’re overthinking at certain times, like before bed. It’s possible to reprogram that habit with other mind-clearing activities instead.

Meditate: Attention training is a meditation technique that can benefit people with anxiety and depression and the easiest way to practice it is to focus on something completely mundane and routine, like washing dishes or folding laundry. When one directs the attention to the task in a way that may even feel hyper-focused and zero in on observing themselves and any sensations that arise, that laser focus can help quiet other intrusive thoughts in the head.

Do a brain dump: Journaling is a helpful way to get thoughts out of the head so they’re not overwhelming. Another way that helps is creating to-do lists which can be as detailed as one likes and if on the phone, can be with someone always. This is especially useful when you are awake at night thinking about things. Once you do a brain dump, rest is easier.

Live in the moment: When you live in the now and stop negative emotions and stop overthinking before it spirals out of control and reset it, it can control overthinking. Breathe and focus on the moment and initially, it will take conscious awareness, but gradually it will help to retrain the brain and soon it will come naturally.

Focus on solutions: Identify problems, but give power and energy to solutions. Once you identify the causes of stress and anxiety, take charge and learn to remove or reduce the stressors from your life. It’s not easy and will take time, but if you are consistent, you will gradually get there.

Remember that once you learn to keep overthinking in check, you’ll be able to live your life on your terms and not on what lives inside your head.

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