Overthinking: When Your Mind Won’t Turn Off

May 1, 2017

by Nicole LaChance, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Overthinking. The irony in writing about this topic is that I kept overthinking it. What direction should I take? What tips should I offer? Where can I find the best research? What if my post doesn’t hold up against the others?

Overthinking, along with its siblings perfectionism and anxiety, is common in gifted kids. Psychology Today attributes this in part to overexcitabilities and the mind not being able to ever really turn off. Gifted kids also tend to have lots of channels in their brains, meaning more information to mull over and think about, easily leading to overthinking.

As a chronic overthinker, I wanted to explore the reasons behind overthinking, how it can hurt and what we can do to rein it in.

Why do we overthink?

Why does this happen in the first place? Why do our brains run wild? In an article published in Scientific American Mind entitled “Why We Worry,” science writer Victoria Stern did a deep dive into the causes behind chronic overthinking. In summary: it’s all about control.

“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,” said Stern. “Instead their thought pattern hinders cognitive processing and also causes overstimulation of emotion- and fear-processing areas in the brain.”

Overthinking and worrying trick our brains into believing that we are preparing for any situation, that we can handle any outcome, positive or negative. In reality, while this may work in the short-term, it ultimately harms us.

Dr. Michael Stein, a psychologist based in Denver, attributes worry and overthinking to a 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.

The Problem of Overthinking

In addition to driving us bonkers, overthinking has negative effects on our mental and physical health.

A study from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology noted that overthinking can cause us to dwell on our mistakes and shortcomings, increasing the risk of mental health problems.  This can often cause the overthinker to fall into a viscous cycle of ruminating more and more while their mental health is declining.

Unsurprisingly, overthinking can also lead to emotional distress. To self-treat that distress, some overthinkiners resort to unhealthy coping strategies, like alcohol, food or addictive substances. It can also lead to a negative mood, anger and irritability. Overthinking can have physical effects, as well. Studies have linked overthinking to poor sleep quality, since the mind often won’t turn off even for sleep. It can also lead to an increased heart rate and other physical symptoms of stress.

How Do We Stop?

If only I knew! Breaking the habit of overthinking is difficult, but here are some strategies you can try.

  • Take Action
    If you are a chronic overthinker, you probably have a tendency to get stuck in the “analysis” phase of a situation. Taking an initial step to solve the problem, even if it’s small, can help bust the overthinking cycle. For example, if you are overthinking about applying to college, start drafting an essay or working on your resume or even filling out a practice application. The act of doing something can get you out of your thoughts.
  • Mindfulness
    Mindfulness takes practice, but has many benefits, especially for overthinkers. This meditation practice emphasizes focusing on the present moment, not the future or the past, which can help us disconnect from worry. Mindfulness has known to be beneficial for the gifted in calming intensities. Try bookending your practice with a quick calming yoga routine.
  • Busy Yourself
    Sometimes simply redirecting your attention can do the trick to calm a busy mind. Absorb yourself in a hobby, whether that be exercise, crafting or playing with your family. Or get some household chores done to engage your attention elsewhere. Even getting lost in a book or movie (especially if it’s theme is disconnected from your worries) can help.
  • Rename Your Thoughts
    Rename your thoughts with what they really are: self-doubt, anxiety, fear. This may help you to realize how much you are exaggerating your negative thoughts and bring your thinking down a level to really focus on the actual problem at hand.

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This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop: Overthinking. Please click the image below to keep on hopping!