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How to recognise you are overthinking and break the cycle

April 15, 2024
Tracie Burgess

Most of us will experience overthinking from time to time. We may find ourselves re-reading a message that we’ve sent to see whether it could be misinterpreted, dwelling on a past event and second-guessing the choices we made, or worrying about a future scenario and the various potential outcomes.  

Although it can feel as though analysing a situation will help us to solve the problem, it can actually be more harmful than it is helpful. Usually, the longer that we spend thinking about the problem, the more that our thoughts will spiral and the more convinced we’ll become of the worst case scenario.  

Once we’re caught up in this train of thought, it can be difficult to break free from and we may find ourselves stuck in a vicious cycle of anxiety and worry. This can lead us to feeling stressed and overwhelmed, where we struggle to think about anything else or feel unable to make decisions.  

It’s important to recognise overthinking as it can be a sign of a mental health issue, such as anxiety, social anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD, panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), all of which can take a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.  

What does overthinking look like?

The first step to managing overthinking is to recognise when it’s happening and how it’s making you feel. Some of the common signs that you may be overthinking can include:  

  • Difficulty thinking about another subject
  • Finding it hard to relax
  • Feeling constantly worried
  • Problems with sleeping (sleeping too much or less than usual)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Increased negative thoughts
  • Focusing on things that aren’t in your control
  • Changes to appetite
  • Feeling tired and exhausted

What can trigger overthinking?

Rumination is where you repeatedly mull over something that happened in the past or keep replaying a mistake you’ve made or an embarrassing moment, focusing on what you ‘should have’ done instead. You may ask yourself what you would do differently, wishing that you could go back and change the events.

Worrying about something bad happening in the future and asking yourself ‘what if’. You might worry about things that are out of your control and imagine the worst case scenario in every situation (which is a common symptom of an anxiety disorder). By constantly worrying about what might happen, you struggle to stay present and live in the moment. Learn about how worries can spiral.

Negative thought spirals can be part of the vicious cycle of overthinking. You may experience ‘all or nothing’ thinking, where you see things in ‘black and white’, without considering the shades of grey.  

Generalisation is also a type of negative thought spiral. This might look like having a set-back or failing at something and then believing that you will continue to get things wrong in the future.  

Catastrophising is where overthinking leads to you imagining the worst case scenario.  

How to manage overthinking

  1. Recognise overthinking

When we’re used to overthinking, we may not always notice that we’re doing it. The first step to managing overthinking is to recognise when it’s happening and how it’s making you feel. Is there a pattern? Are you more likely to do it at a certain time of the day or during a specific activity?  

If so, try to manage and plan your time, refocusing your attention on another task. For instance, if you tend to overthink on your commute, you could listen to a podcast, or if it’s when you’re cooking dinner, practice mindfulness to stay in the present moment. Use your five senses to notice things you can smell, see, hear, feel and touch.  

  1. Be kind to yourself

Often, overthinking involves dwelling on past mistakes, reliving something unpleasant or worrying that you’ve done the wrong thing. Instead of being so hard on yourself, try to show yourself compassion. Remember that you’re only human and everyone makes mistakes. Accept what you can’t change, use the experience as an opportunity for growth, forgive yourself and move on.

  1. Challenge negative thoughts

It’s important to remember that our thoughts aren’t facts. When we fall into a negative thinking style, it can help to challenge our thoughts or reframe them by looking at new ways of thinking about the thing that’s bothering us. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the thought hypothetical? Worrying about things that might never happen is exhausting and usually not helpful.
  • Is your interpretation of the situation accurate? If you presented the facts and evidence to a judge, what would they say?
  • Examine the thought from a friend’s perspective - would they agree with you?

  1. Try talking therapy  

If you feel unable to break free from overthinking and it’s interfering with your life, you may want to consider talking therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) will help you learn how to change your thinking and behaviour, for example learning how to let hypothetical worries go, or addressing beliefs that rumination is a useful activity. At ieso, we offer typed CBT, which is a text-based service that can be accessed online. Our service is flexible, confidential and free for some NHS patients. Sign up to see if you’re eligible.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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