Have you ever found yourself constantly thinking about something that recently happened that you reckon you should have reacted to differently? Or you’re overplaying a situation in your mind, thinking about the various ways it could develop? You might have even contemplated a list of worst-case scenarios that you think are likely to happen.
It could be the case that you’re just the type of person who thinks through every scenario in your head before and after anything happens. Someone who is always looking for solutions to problems. But you could also be ‘overthinking’.
While everyone overthinks from time to time, it isn’t necessarily a good habit if you’re doing it a lot, as it could lead to other more serious issues. Also, when you’re overthinking, you’re not enjoying what’s around you.
“It’s all too easy to get lost in worrying and ruminating about all sorts of things that are out of our control,” says Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling. “Rumination and worry are exaggerations of thoughtful self-reflection, and contribute to feelings of unease and depression, distorting the natural sadness and grieving that are inherent in our humanity, and robbing us of joy and delight in our own present moments of precious living.”
Ms Serene Wong, senior psychologist at the department of psychology in Singapore General Hospital, explains how overthinking and thinking negatively affects our lives. “Overthinking is typically obsessing mindlessly over a thought or behaviour. Ruminating on certain thoughts can snowball into bigger, more extreme negative thinking.
“Preoccupation in negative thinking may affect our daily life or impair our daily functioning. Examples of this would be difficulty sleeping at night as we’re unable to switch off, or difficulty focusing in the day as we’re preoccupied with our thoughts,” she adds.
Am I overthinking?
Dr Games notes it’s important to know that overthinking isn’t helpful problem-solving. And it isn’t the same as self-reflection. Although it’s hard to recognise when you’re in the middle of it, she shares some signs to look out for:
* Dwelling on everything that is out of our control, or the future, making catastrophic predictions
* Finding you’re unable to stop worrying
* Reminding yourself of mistakes
* Reliving embarrassing or humiliating experiences, moments, conversations over and over
* Asking yourself “what if” questions
* Worrying about things you wish you had or hadn’t said – the “should haves” and “could haves”
* Thinking about potential hidden meaning in things that have been said
* Difficulties going to sleep because your mind is racing
The dangers of overthinking
Ms Wong says that even though overthinking is not a medical term, it can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and borderline personality disorder: “For example, depression comes from ruminating about the past, and anxiety comes from worry about the future. In other words, overthinking can make us feel mentally exhausted or miserable.”
It’s not just our mental health that overthinking could have an impact on, though. Dr Games points out that it could also contribute to physical disease.
“We know from recent research that stress in itself is not harmful but if a person experiences a stress response that remains active – like overthinking – then this excessive activity in our brain reactivates, causing a chronic stress response,” she explains. “A Harvard study has found that excessive brain activity like overthinking depletes an essential protein and may shorten the human lifespan. Overthinking has also been linked to binge-eating or drinking and self-harm.”
Are some people more prone to overthinking?
The relationship between overthinking and stress and anxiety works in the opposite way too. Ms Wong explains that stress and anxiety are two common factors that can lead to overthinking. Self-confidence and self-doubt are other factors that could contribute to it.
“Stress is our body’s way of telling us that we are dealing with an intense or threatening situation. This helps us to be more vigilant in dealing with those situations,” she elaborates. “Anxiety is a natural response to fear which is a way of protecting ourselves from something bad to happen.
“The current pandemic situation has caused us both stress and anxiety. We are fearful of many uncertainties like illnesses, deaths and finances, which can lead to overthinking. Individuals who are in high-stress and high-anxiety situations may find themselves overthinking quickly,” she adds.
Ms Wong states that people who want to be perfect or hold perfectionist values may also tend to overthink. They may be overly sensitive, tend to worry about judgement of others, over-analysing issues and looking into unnecessary details. Or ruminate about past mistakes or mistakes that they may make with the intention of avoiding all mistakes.
So what can you do to stop or minimise overthinking?
“Meditation isn’t something everyone can do and hence I don’t want people thinking that they’re failing if they can’t do it,” says Dr Games. “For those who overthink, meditation can be especially difficult. If you’re a beginner, you can start with 30 seconds of meditation and then slowly increase your practice.
“If meditation isn’t for you, then try slow, calming activities like reading, walking or listening to music – they are great alternatives for overactive minds.”
There are other things you can do to break this bad habit. Dr Games suggests three ways to do this: