by Andrea M. Darcy
Overthinking is exhausting and can mean you both sabotage good things or avoid making any decisions.
Research from Harvard medical school even links excessive activity in the brain to a shorter life span, which could be be connected to overthinking, our behaviours, or both.
Why do I overthink everything?
Yes, some of us are born with a stronger intellect than others, and are more likely to be thinkers over doers. Nothing problematic about that.
But when our thinking comes with an emotional charge, it’s more than genetics. This looks like thinking that leaves you edgy, moody, or fearful.
So what else might be driving your busy mind and how can you stop overthinking?
Stress leads to overthinking because our mind is frantically seeking a solution.
Thankfully, stress is based on real problems, which means there are real solutions. Eventually, the problem sorts itself out, for better or worse, and the overthinking stops.
But what if it doesn’t? Your stress might have triggered anxiety.
Anxiety is the leading cause of overthinking, with the NHS reporting that one in five adults in the UK qualifies as having generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
It’s different than stress as it often doesn’t have a logical cause. Or it begins with what seems logic, and takes you into progressively less logic directions. And the more you think, the more one feeling grows — fear.
But why would you be prone to anxiety?
What causes anxiety?
There can be a genetic predisposition to being more anxious than others.
But for that predisposition to become a problem, environments come into play. And this means the experiences we lived through as children.
As infants and young children it’s essential that we have at least one caregiver who provides unconditional love and safety.
Otherwise, we develop coping mechanisms that mean we grow up into adults who have ‘anxious attachment’. We are constantly scanning others and trying to be what people around us want.
Trauma and ACEs
For many of us, our brain is set to anxious because of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and childhood trauma.
ACEs include things like an unwell parent, being neglected, or a home with violence. As a child we learn to always be scanning for danger, and it can become a lifelong habit if we don’t seek help.
Those who experienced ongoing traumatic experiences can also end up with ‘complex PTSD’. This means you live with constant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as edginess and mood swings.
Child sexual abuse often also leads to borderline personality disorder, which causes incessant overthinking about what others think about you and if they will abandon you.
How to stop overthinking
If your overthinking is because of stress, it can very much be about gaining the courage to be honest about what is stressing you and then reaching out for help. Friends or colleagues can help you see new perspectives and find solutions you missed.
Or professional support, like working with a coach, can help you take clear steps forward.
Anxiety, on the other hand, doesn’t have an instant solution. But it can be managed and become far less of a problem using the following tools (which also help stress).
Mindfulness is now a mainstream tool quite simply because it works. It helps you recognise that thoughts are just thoughts, often based on a past you can’t change and a future you can’t control. With practise, you learn to not attach relevance to your thoughts, and develop a much quieter mind, meaning you are more able to enjoy what is right in front of you.
Use our free and easy Guide to Mindfulness to get started.
2. Journalling tools.
Many people find that the process of moving thoughts from the mind to the page works as a sort of release.
You can up the power of journalling by using focused questions. Ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions of the thoughts that you keep having (why questions are to be avoided, they just create rabbit holes).
- What is this worry really about?
What is the worse thing that can happen here?
- How could I get help for this issue?
- How likely is this to really happen on a scale of 1 to 5?
3. The chair exercise.
This is a well-known tool from Gestalt Therapy. It sounds odd, but is quite powerful.
- Set up two chairs facing each other in a quiet private space.
- Clarify the problem you are overthinking. Make each chair one side of the argument (I should stay in the relationship, I shouldn’t stay).
- Sit on one chair and talk to the other chair from that perspective (I should stay because we share the exact same lifestyle and we have invested so many years).
- Switch chairs and speak now from the other side (but he doesn’t support c and it makes me feel really low, and our sex life is over).
- Keep switching chairs seeing where it takes you, not judging what comes up but just speaking as freely as possible and allowing your unconscious to unload.
Conscious breathing is gaining ground as a mental health tool. Breathing into your diaphragm in counted, measured breaths lowers stress and anxiety. They trigger the sympathetic nervous system, meaning you are on a cortisol high and tense. Breathing triggers the opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, which gives a feeling of calmness.
5. Consistent exercise.
Exercise is on the NHS list of things to do to counter anxiety. And it’s hardly surprising.
An overview of all current research to date on anxiety and exercise shows that it doesn’t just help by giving us a distraction from thinking (although that bit helps). It does affect both our brain and body in ways that physiologically lower stress and anxiety.
What types of therapy work for overthinking?
The clear winner here is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), recommended for anxiety by the NHS and shown as helpful by a large body of research.
CBT is all about helping you gain control of your thinking, and helping you recognise and question your negative thoughts and turn them into balanced thinking that doesn’t throw you into a spiral.
Other useful therapies can include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and clinical hypnotherapy.
Need help to stop overthinking controlling your days? We connect you with top London therapists in central locations. Or use our online booking platform to find UK-wide therapists and online counsellors available as soon as today.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy