An overview of overthinking

What is overthinking?

The Merriam-Webster definition of overthink is to “to think too much about (something) to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful” But that may not fully capture the nuances of what it means to be a person who overthinks or the spectrum of overthinking.

In this post I use the term “overthinking” to include:

  • Overanalyzing your thoughts
  • Trying to think through every aspect of every situation
  • The inability to let thoughts go
  • Nonproductive thinking where you keep thinking about doing something but have a hard time starting
  • Feeling stuck in your own head and your own thoughts

Some ways that overthinking can manifest itself

Caught up thinking about something from the past: an interaction with someone wondering how it could have gone differently, wondering if a decision you made was the right decision, reviewing the choices you made that brought you to this point in your life.

Stuck thinking about the present: worried about what you should be doing, thinking if you are being productive enough, wondering what other people are doing right now.

Persistent thoughts about the future: wondering how to prepare for any unexpected things that happen, planning out every minute detail of something you are going to do in the future.

There are varying degrees of overthinking and most people will have times in their life when they overthink.

Sometimes it means spending more time than is needed analyzing how to organize the pantry before deciding how to proceed. Other times it can mean re-reading an email over and over and having a hard time sending it. Getting stuck thinking if you are sending the email to the right people, sending it at the right time, wondering what questions people will ask, and if you’ve spelled everything correctly.

People may also only overthink in certain aspects of their life. Outside factors can affect us and our mental state. There may be times in our lives when we are more prone to overthinking. Working through what causes us to overthink, with the help of others as needed, can help lessen the burden.

Does overthinking mean I have a psychological disorder?

That is not something this post or any other post on the internet can answer for you.

It would be a lot easier if a straightforward answer could be found by researching online. Your life, your traits, your experiences are uniquely you. Doing research to better understand yourself can be a helpful place to start, but may not take you as far as you need or want to go.

That’s probably not the answer you were looking for, but being human is complex. Often we want there to be clear answers as to why we are the way we are, but the complexity of each of us is what makes life so interesting and fascinating. Our complexity makes life difficult at times, but it also adds so much depth.

Let this post be an invitation to look inward and to not shy away from asking for help from others on your journey of self-awareness and understanding.

What causes overthinking?

As with so many things, there often is not one individual thing that causes us to do the things we do. Some contributing factors to overthinking could be anxiety, perfectionist or obsessive tendencies, stress, depression, PTSD, trauma, agoraphobia, and the fact that we are sentient beings trying to understand our own existence. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but more to showcase that there could be many factors and layers of factors. Humans are nothing if not complex.

The reason you personally overthink is unique to you. There is a lot you can learn by listening to yourself and working to be aware of the times when you are overthinking.

Is overthinking bad?

There are absolutely downsides to overthinking. Getting stuck in negative or unproductive thought cycles can make it hard to get things done. It can also cause stress to feel that you cannot let go of thoughts and cannot stop thinking.

Overthinking can also make it hard to start things if you spend your time trying to think through every scenario before beginning. You may do a lot of planning, researching, and asking questions, but when the time comes to start you are unable to take the next step. You will end up missing out on opportunities because you never feel fully prepared.

When you are always thinking and analyzing you do not give your brain the chance to rest. It can cause you to burn out because you spend so much mental energy constantly thinking.

Is overthinking good?

Overthinking can take thinking and analyzing to an unproductive level, but there are aspects that can be quite useful.

Overthinkers can be detail oriented which gives you the ability to see and remember things that others may not. In your personal life this could be remembering specifics that friends have shared with you about their life or being able to read emotions to help better communicate with others. In your work life this could be proof-reading documents with a keen eye to catch any gaps or inconsistencies, or being able to read a room full of people to help lead discussions.

They can also be good at knowing what questions to ask to better understand a person or situation. Because overthinkers look deep into things, they naturally want to know as much as possible. This means that before committing to or jumping into something they ask questions to get the information they need.

Spending time in your own head can also give you an opportunity to work on communicating with yourself. Looking inward and analyzing helps you better understand the person you are and the person you want to be. 

What to do about overthinking?

First, know that you are not alone and there is not something wrong with you. But, if overthinking is negatively affecting your quality of life, it can be important to work towards loosening the hold it has on you.

To better understand yourself keep track of those times where you realize you are overthinking. Look to see if there are patterns in when you are overthinking: specific times of day, during certain tasks, when you are around certain people, when you are at a particular place, etc.

Note how you physically feel at times when you are overthinking. It is helpful to be aware of how your body responds to overthinking to understand the affect it has on you both mentally and physically.

Knowing what may trigger your overthinking can help you avoid it. This is not a simple journey, but it is possible to work towards not letting overthinking overtake your life.

Do not feel that you need to do this journey on your own. Mental health professionals can help you.

The internet, books, and podcasts can provide places to start, but do not try to do it all alone. Spend time learning about yourself and how you think, but be willing to look towards others for help.

Seeing a professional does not mean that you are weak or broken. One of the most important things you can do to live your truest and best life is to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you on your journey to better understanding yourself.

Final thoughts

Whether you are an overthinking or not, let this be an invitation for you to start looking inward at yourself. Working towards being open and honest with ourselves sets us up for success. Confronting hard truths and realizing the true impact that experiences have had on us allows us to move forward as the best and freest version of ourselves.

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