Quick disclaimer, I’m not a professional in psychology or therapy field. I realize, learning and naming the things I go through, has a good impact on finding a way to accept them, deal with them, and overcome them, eventually.
Being in the middle of a pandemic and all – our world has entered the 5th month going through a global pandemic caused by Covid-19, it’s hard not to overthink. I’m grateful to remain having a roof over my head, and monthly income to sustain, I’m not in a good mental place. Constant thoughts about past conversations, dwelling on choices, and feeling trapped in a tunnel of “what if” scenarios… This is me overthinking on a daily basis, while life passes me by with such speed that I couldn’t entirely comprehend it.
The exercise of looking deeper into my thoughts to find out why negative thoughts happened and how I can step away from harming myself with my own mind, hopefully will also help you walk out of this vicious circle, by taking small and steady steps towards acceptance of the situation, and to obtain better mental health.
Overthinking – Causes and Effects
Overthinking, by dictionary definition, is the action of thinking about something too much, or to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful.
Causes of Overthinking
Why do we overthink? Why do we keep questioning about the unchangeable past, the fleeting present and unforeseeable future? In Why We Worry, an article published on Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2009, science writer Victoria Stern mentioned one of the causes behind chronic overthinking, or chronic worrying – it stems from a craving for control. Yet, the more we fret, the less our bodies are able to cope with stress.
Chronic worriers operate under the misperception that their overthinking and attempts at controlling every situation allow them to problem-solve and plan for the future.
Instead their thought pattern hinders cognitive processing and also causes overstimulation of emotion- and fear-processing areas in the brain.Victoria Stern
We want to be in control, so we force our brain to “prepare” by running over and over different scenarios, thinking we are working on self preparation. But, as a matter of fact, none of the scenarios may turn out to be true, as we lack the information and data to predict what can happen, let alone preparing for it effectively.
Another reason that can be the cause of worry and overthinking, is the fear of being uncertain about the future. When we experience this fear, our brain jumps into “analysis mode” and starts beginning to prepare and think over every outcome. This thinking ignites our minds and creates a temporary comfort to deal with uncertainty.
This is especially true to me. When I try to understand the reason why I overthink, or become worried, it’s mainly because the uncertainty of the present and future trigger me into thinking “I’m not doing enough, to shelter myself for days, months and years to come”.
Negative Effect of Overthinking
Overthinking has a negative impact on not only our mental, but also our physical body in different ways.
- It causes us to dwell on our mistakes and shortcomings, increasing the risk of mental health problems like depression, panic disorder, anxiety,..
- It leads to emotional distress and destructive thought patterns – ruminating (rehashing the past) and worrying (negative predictions about the future).
- Due to overthinking, we may resort to unhealthy coping strategies, like alcohol, food or addictive substances.
- When we overthink and stress ourselves out, our bodies produce cortisol – the stress hormone. Over time, that constant release of cortisol can be depleting and cause burnout.
- Sleep deprivation and physical symptoms of stress are also the side effects of overthinking.
Here is a brilliant animated video from the School of Life, explaining The Dangers of Thinking Too Much.
3 Strategies to Control Overthinking
Too much of something is bad enough, this is of course true to most things. For overthinking, a moderate level can be associated with improved functioning: it can help to motivate us to take action, resolve problems and overall, it can benefit performance. But where do we draw the line between acceptable, constructive and excessive , harmful overthinking?
It boils down to how we cope with the overthinking, through different strategies to control it.
Identify solvable and unsolvable worries
Running over the problem in my head makes me feel like I’m getting something accomplished, but in fact, nothing is done. Identify the type of thoughts and worries you have will allow you to adjust your emotions and have a proper plan to deal with them.
Solvable worries are the concrete type, where you can visualize the cause, the effect and you can start brainstorming on the next course of action.
Unsolvable worries on the other hand, are those for which there is no corresponding action nor the action can solely be done by you.
My worries recently relate to my job. As a tech support, I deal with clients’ issues all the time when they use our products and what drives me to overthink is due to trying to find a perfect solution that can resolve the problem quickly.
The solvable worry here is I can escalate the issues up to engineers, to managers so they can be aware of the situation, keep track and update the clients frequently. The unsolvable worry, is my thought of what-if scenarios: the issue is keep piling up and other people blaming me, and chasing after me to get things done for them immediately, and I would be penalized for something that’s very much out of my control.
So, bottom line is: identify which worry you can act upon and which one you need to accept
- Make a list of all the possible solutions you can think of.
- Try not to get too hung up on finding the perfect solution.
- Focus on the things you have the power to change, rather than the circumstances or realities beyond your control.
Create and track a daily “worry” period
This is basically a strategy to postpone overthinking. Instead of trying to stop it completely or trying to suppress your anxious thoughts, give yourself the permission to have it, but put off dwelling on it until later.
- Create a “worry appointment.” Your day can be very hectic when you wake up until you go to bed, with job duties, with daily obligations, or study, or kids, or even cooking time. So for 20′- 30′ a day, have an appointment with your mind and all the thoughts in the world. You can even put it in the calendar, so you will be reminded of a whole 20 minutes of worrying. But once that time ends, make a mental stop. Commit to keep other times of your day to be a worry-free zone.
- Write down your worries. If an anxious thought visits you suddenly during the day, make a brief note of it and then continue about your day. Remind yourself that you’ll have time to think about it later, so there’s no need to worry about it right now. Then, during your “worry appointment”, write down your thoughts, think of it as a meeting minute between and your mind.
- Go over your “worry meeting minute”. As you examine your worries in this way, you’ll often find it easier to develop a more balanced perspective. If the thoughts still bother you, you can consider discuss them with your closed people. A pair of fresh eyes and attentive ears can help you see different views as well as identify whether the worries, the thoughts are solvable or not.
Mindfulness, in short, is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment.
I’m a total beginner in this, I’ve tried and failed a few times. But there is no such thing as the absolute right way that you must follow, the end goal is to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. And one of the methods that work for me is a short period of time in the day, focusing on deep breath in-out.
Here are the steps, shortened from Mindful.org and adjusted to myself:
- Set aside some time: a space that gives you the relaxing and comfortable feeling and a time within the day that you can be by yourself will do the trick.
- Observe the present moment as it is: quieting your mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm right from the start will be hard. Start simple: pay attention to your present moment, without judgment. Close your eyes, and focus on your breath.
- Feel your breath: bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: breath in through your nose, breath out through your mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest
- Be kind to your wandering mind: for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
- Return to observing the present moment as it is: come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
You can check out more reviews about Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life , a book about Mindfulness written by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Reference and Further reading
Drop me a comment and tell me your stories,it could be about how you overcome your overthinking, or how your days have been. Hope today has been kind to you!