By Helen Wells, Clinical Director at The Dawn Rehab Thailand
Do you feel eaten up by your worries and unable to concentrate on anything else? Is your sleep disturbed, your appetite affected due to stress? Do you feel plagued by an issue that you can’t resolve or let go of?
It’s completely normal to overthink things now and then, especially in times of stress. Yet constant overthinking can put a significant strain on your wellbeing. It can sometimes signal an underlying mental health issue, and have a negative impact on physical health too.
Understanding what causes overthinking, considering if another mental health issue might be present, and learning some strategies to help combat can be vital in breaking the cycle of overthinking – and preventing serious ill-effects.
How do I know if my thoughts are actually ‘overthinking’?
Big life decisions, like relocating or quitting a job, often require careful consideration. Overthinking, however, happens when thoughts around an issue become excessive, seriously limiting your capacity to think about anything else. At times, overthinking may inhibit your ability to function and can be disruptive to your daily life. It’s usually unproductive – you might lose sleep or miss a deadline because of overthinking, and it tends to focus almost solely on the discomfort of a perceived problem, without including consideration of potential solutions.
These key signs may help you assess if you’re engaging in this destructive form of thinking:
Feeling persistently worried or anxious
Focusing on worst-case scenarios
Regularly replaying situations or actions in your head
Feeling like you’re mentally exhausted
Experiencing depression as a result of your thoughts
Obsessing about things that are beyond your control
Insomnia as a result of persistent thoughts
Second-guessing decisions or actions
Regularly seeking reassurance from others to help alleviate the discomfort of overthinking
Feeling unable to concentrate on anything else
Is overthinking a mental illness?
While overthinking on its own isn’t considered a mental illness, it may be a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder. There are several different mental health conditions that can be linked to overthinking – including the following:
Anxiety: Overthinking can be associated with several types of anxiety disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Overthinking and anxiety disorders tend to feed into each other, creating a vicious cycle that prolongs stress and discomfort.
PTSD: The onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can spur hypervigilance, where you’re constantly on high alert, and your body is in a fight-or-flight mode. This state can include overthinking about possible signs of danger or potential threats.
Depression: Fixating negative thoughts and outcomes – and constantly replaying mistakes or past events – can either be a sign of depression or create a risk for developing depression.
ADHD: Overthinking can also be a part of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as racing thoughts can sometimes get stuck in a recurring loop. ADHD overthinking also tends towards negativity and worry and causes trouble sleeping or focusing on other tasks.
OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is also characterised by overthinking. People with OCD will often spend an excessive amount of time thinking about, analysing, or trying to clarify a repeatedly intrusive thought.
The physical effects of overthinking
Not only can overthinking create serious mental distress, but it can also have a significant impact on physical health. Overthinking may lead to immediate ailments like headaches, stomach upset, insomnia, and generalised aches and pains. In the long term, the heightened levels of stress caused by overthinking can lead to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues that can place strain on the heart. These serious effects highlight the importance of managing overthinking and developing new, healthier thought patterns.
Advice for ‘pressing pause’ and halting the overthinking cycle
Overthinking can make you feel as if you’re not in control of your brain, yet there are several ways you can start getting your thoughts back on track:
- Be aware of your triggers: What sets off a pattern of overthinking? Is it a specific topic? Does it tend to happen around certain types of events? Understanding better what triggers your overthinking can help you identify those thoughts as soon as they enter your mind, and work to either let them go or immediately employ some other coping strategies to help mitigate their effects.
- Move your body: Stop Google searching, put down your phone, shut your computer, and start moving. Whether it’s going outside for a walk, doing some stretches, dancing, or cleaning up around your home, physical movement can be helpful in breaking the cycle of overthinking. Changing the scene by going to grab a cup of coffee or hitting the gym may also redirect your thoughts.
- Be clear about what is within – and outside of your control: Are you beating yourself up over something you have absolutely no control over? This is a common factor in overthinking. Many of our negative thoughts can revolve around trying to control things that are out of our hands, and then when things go wrong, we view it as our fault. Being honest with yourself about what you genuinely are able to influence – and what you aren’t – can help with patterns of overthinking.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises are effective both in managing destructive patterns of thought like overthinking, and in helping to calm the body’s stress response. These practices shift the mind’s focus to the present and away from negative feelings about the past or worries about the future. Mindfulness practices include breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, walking, dancing, fitness training, relaxation techniques, yoga and stretching. It’s important to find a method that works for you.
- Consider talk therapy: Not only can a therapist provide a safe and supportive platform to air your worries, but they can also help you develop different thought patterns that serve you in a better, healthier way. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common form of talk therapy that involves identifying, examining and altering established patterns of thought to help better balance emotions and improve your overall outlook.
About the author
Helen Wells is the clinical director at The Dawn. Helen is a certified trauma professional and a member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (Pacfa). At The Dawn, Helen is responsible for ensuring both its clinical programme and clients’ treatment strategies are aligned with The Dawn’s clinical philosophy – which includes a Trauma Informed Care (TIC) approach.
Helen also oversees the clinic’s multidisciplinary team of psychologists and psychotherapist therapists, to ensure that all clients receive individualised treatment plans that she personally reviews with both the client and their focal therapist for maximum results.
More information on treatment for burnout can be found on The Dawn’s website