It’s been a while since your friend got back to you. You’ve seen that they’ve read your text, and your message has been double blue ticked for hours now – so why haven’t they responded? Are they angry at you, maybe? Perhaps it was that offhand remark you made a few days ago – you thought you noticed them react strangely to it. Or maybe something awful has happened to them, and that’s why they haven’t been on their phone? You decide to call them just to be safe – but maybe that will just push them further away…
If this kind of thought pattern sounds familiar to you, you might have more than a little bit of experience in overthinking. Overthinking can feel unavoidable – your mind jumping on stray topics and focusing on them with an inexhaustible energy, running through probabilities and possibilities until you’re imagining whole situations that would never exist.
Overthinking and anxiety
Understandably, this kind of extreme overthinking can very easily lead to anxiety. Finding yourself unable to stop playing imagined situations over and over again can lead to trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating on the situations you’re actually in, which in turn can cause irritability, more stress and anxiety.
Obsessing over situations both actual and hypothetical can also make you less likely to meet up with people, or go to events which you’ve been worrying and overthinking about. If you’re reading too much into your friends’ response times, for instance, and thinking about how long they’re taking, you might be reticent to see them, incorrectly thinking they’re in a bad mood with you, or that you’ve somehow offended them.
Overthinking can also cause lots of problems in romantic relationships – you might begin to ‘read the mind’ of your partner, incorrectly interpreting their words to mean something totally different and darker than how they intended them. Overthinking can cause you to become codependent, needing reassurance from your partner about problems that don’t even exist. This can cause you anxiety as you begin to stress unnecessarily, but it can also cause friction in the relationship, as your partner may feel unfairly scrutinised for thoughts they’re not even having.
Why do we overthink?
Overthinking normally happens in the absence of other stimulation, or distractions – when your mind is idle, it becomes much more eager to obsess about topics you wouldn’t be considering if you were doing something engaging. This is why we often find ourselves overthinking most noticeably at night, when we can’t fall asleep. This kind of excessive rumination is a result of your mind going over your life experiences, trying to problem-solve, but getting stuck.
Whilst overthinking can itself cause anxiety, anxiety can also be a big factor in causing you to overthink. If you’re anxious about a situation you’re more likely to turn it over and over in your mind. Similarly, anger can cause you to obsess about a conversation you had, playing it over in your mind like a broken record as you struggle to think about what the best comeback you could have said was.
The way many people start to overthink is in the guise of ‘preparing’ for a situation. This is a totally normal (and helpful) exercise if you’re worried about something, or if there is a complex situation or task which it will help to have run through in your mind before. It’s when this preparation turns obsessive, though, that we may find ourselves in the unhelpful, and overthinking, phase – when all of our useful preparatory thinking has been done and we’re now just flat-out worrying about the situation for no good reason, again and again.
How can I stop overthinking?
It can seem impossible to stop overthinking when you’ve worked yourself into a spiral of worry – as the thoughts go around and around your head, it can very quickly feel like the experience will go on forever.
But there are some practical steps you can take when you’re overthinking to help you get out of it in the moment – and also some ways you can guard yourself against spiralling in the future.
Find a distraction
While it can be difficult to get on with anything when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your mind, distracting yourself with another activity is one of the most effective ways to get yourself out of a mental rut or a thought spiral when you find yourself in one.
Try to calm yourself down – and distract yourself – by taking part in one of your favourite hobbies (or taking up a new one), doing some exercise, going on a walk, cooking, reading – the list of things that can help to bring your mind back to itself goes on. You might be surprised at just how quickly you’ve forgotten what you were worrying about.
Breathe and practice mindfulness
It might sound like the oldest trick in the book, but taking deep breaths and focusing on them really can help you when you’re spiralling and unable to get your thoughts under control.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and improve sleep, and alongside those more obvious benefits, it can also help to bring you back to the present moment when you’re panicking and beginning to overthink.
Focusing on your breath going in and out of your lungs, on the sensation of the air on your skin, and generally just taking a few moments out of your day to focus on being present in the moment, can help to centre you and distract you from whatever is troubling you.
Be kind to yourself and practice self-care
When you’re unable to stop dwelling on something that’s worrying you, it can seem like you’re the worst person in the world, or you can feel stupid for stressing so much about something so small. Practicing a bit of self-love can really help here.
Don’t necessarily seek to fight your feelings of anxiety – but rather try to accept that whatever they are, they are true for you right now. Try to accept yourself as you are.
From self-soothing kits and personal crisis plans to guided meditations and journaling, there are plenty of therapy techniques you can add to your emotional toolkit. Check out Self-care, our audio and video therapy library, if you need an extra bit of guidance.
If your overthinking is having a massive impact on your mental health – and the rest of your life – it could be time to seek support to help you get through it, and to develop new techniques and tools to manage your anxiety.
The right therapist for you will be able to help you through your condition using the techniques that work for you. Talking therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in particular can be really helpful for managing a tendency towards overthinking – you can learn new tools to help you arrest a negative spiral before it overwhelms you.
If you’ve not done it before, seeking help from a therapist can be a little daunting the first time around – but it can be a life-changing experience that will help you enormously in the long run. Find out more about how you can get started with My Online Therapy.