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Overthinking: How to catch yourself and what to do about it.

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

Struggling with day to day stress of just trying to maintain homeostasis in life, your brain is often in overdrive. You might come home from the work day much more exhausted than your relatives or coworkers who DON’T experience a similar level of stress, whether that’s a stressful job, juggling parenthood, coordinating life for your family, or even if you experience mental health challenges such as depression/anxiety. Everyday can feel like you’re going down the road of burnout. You might even feel like at times that you need to unwind, but no matter how much TV you watch or even a glass of wine/bubble bath isn’t going to do it. You get headaches, everything feels noisy or chaotic, and you might feel defeated.

Among all of these indicators of stress, you probably overthink, and overthinking is probably causing you most of these stressful experiences. That’s not to say the situations you find yourself in aren’t stressful in and of themselves, but often our stress comes from how we feel we measure up to a challenge. I had someone tell me one time that I make mountains out of molehills. Yes, I was offended by that, but he was right! What I didn’t think to tell him at the time, but also think is a valid experience, is that it’s hard not to make mountains out of molehills when you feel like an ant. In this blog we will look at why our brains go into overdrive when we’re stressed, and what we should do about it.

Our Brains

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response before, but the function of this response in our brain can really get in the way even when you’re aware of it. When our brains perceive a threat, it can’t tell the difference between a bear, and a horrible boss or conniving coworker. Which means when you come across stressful situations, your brain is treating these situations as life or death to some extent. There are also other responses too, such as “freeze” (playing dead; not speaking, shutting down) and one I think many people do, “appease” (give someone what they want so they will go away). In some stressful situations, such as that horrible boss, it would be stupid to physically fight, right? So our brain decides a great way to “fight” the threat is to think about it as much as possible until we find a solution or to think as much as possible about monitoring nonverbal cues from our boss and from ourselves and orchestrating appropriate responses to situations, and to evaluate if our responses were successful or unsuccessful. It sounds really logical to me, so when I was in graduate school and I had professors tell me that part of disordered thinking patterns for depression/anxiety include the belief that overthinking/stressing about a situation will somehow solve the problem, I was shocked. Aren’t we supposed to think through a situation until we solve the problem? To an extent yes. But when our brains overthink, it actually causes more problems than solutions. When you have an already stressful lifestyle, or predisposition to depression/anxiety, overthinking isn’t about thinking through something until the problem goes away or you solve it. Overthinking is really about identifying threats or issues everywhere you look. I mean, can anyone who overthinks really honestly tell me they overthink about happy things??

Our brains aren’t thinking efficiently when we overthink. We often hone in on details that ultimately don’t matter, magnifying cues or issues that don’t need our effort to analyze. When we waste time analyzing or honing in on details that don’t matter, we waste precious brain energy, and we have very little left to give at the end of the day. Although, if you suffer from overthinking and I tell you that you’re honing in on details that don’t matter, your brain has already orchestrated an explanation as to how the details you hone in do matter. That’s how much your brain has overthunk!

Thinking patterns

You’ve probably heard of distorted thinking patterns, or at least are familiar with some, such as catastrophizing, black and white thinking, and over-generalizing. There are many more distorted thinking patterns, but stressful thinking sometimes comes from thinking that a problem is bigger than it really is, which is a reflection of how we feel we measure up to that challenge. Really what’s happening is that you’re not equipped--or not aware that you are equipped-with the tools and capacity to handle the stress you’re facing on a day to day basis. And, because overthinking has been a tool you’ve used for a long time, even when situations work themselves out, your brain gets a false cue that overthinking is the reason things panned out for you, so you keep doing it. This is also why procrastination is reinforcing by the way--procrastination is worse if you actually make good grades on the assignments you work on last minute, because it tells your brain that you succeeded BECAUSE you procrastinated.

What do I do now?

Mindfulness is a buzzword in our culture these days. Mindfulness isn’t about learning to be relaxed or calm all the time. It’s about learning to be the master of your mind instead of letting your mind master you. When some are told overthinking is “maladaptive” it’s natural and normal to go through a grieving process of loosing the belief that the brain could actually protect from threats. Many have to take their overthinking powers off of a pedestal and start realizing the brain doesn’t always know what’s best. Mindfulness strategies such as grounding techniques, identifying your senses in the present moment, and observing your thoughts as an observer and not the thinker, can all be ways you can become more skilled at recognizing when your brain is on what I like to call a runaway train. When you recognize that this is what’s happening, you can go to an exercise related to observing your thoughts and letting them come and go as they please, recognizing that you are hooked onto those thoughts and going through the process of unhooking from those thoughts.

Other things you can do with overthinking is focusing on letting go of control. Overthinking to some extent is about controlling various aspects of your life. Letting go of control, slowly of course, can be a slow step down process of reducing overthinking in your brain. Letting go of control is a complex process of creating mindfulness of when you do feel like you need to be in control, and restructuring your thoughts to let go of that control. Please reach out to me if you feel like you need more information on how to do this, I would be happy to walk you through it!

There is no one concrete way to handle overthinking. It’s a process of stepping your mind down from that runaway train over time. But if you find you suffer from overthinking and would like some extra help in that step down process, take a look at the various tools and packages available that can help you process your overthinking tendencies.

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