Getting Overthinking Under Control: Identifying the Problem


I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened. Mark Twain

Evidently, Twain did a lot of overthinking. He’s certainly not alone. Most of us do it at least some of the time.

Overthinking is defined as putting “too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful.” My favourite definition is this one from the Urban Dictionary where overthinking is defined as “the art of creating problems that weren’t even there.”

Overthinking comes in a few different shades. Overthinking the past is called rumination and is strongly connected with depression.

Then there’s overthinking the future. We call that worry. Psychologist Gwendoline Smith describes worry as “negative, catastrophic predictions about the future.” Not surprisingly, worry is linked to anxiety.

As we will see, worry is more about imagination than reality.

Worrying about the future robs the joy of the present.

To be clear, worry is not the same as concern.

When someone is concerned, they are aware of potential problems or situations that could arise. Concern prompts them to do something, to take some kind of action to avoid or minimise foreseeable problems.

Take health as an example. Concern about health motivates a person to eat nutritional foods, engage in beneficial exercise, and get regular medical checkups. Those actions help to decrease the likelihood of facing serious illness down the track.

Worrying about health, on the other hand, can send a person on a negative downward spiral of “catastrophic predictions.” That just incites anxiety. A person in the grip of fear about what could happen may put off taking appropriate action, like getting a suspicious lump or unusual symptom checked out.

Concern addresses problems; worry creates problems.

What causes worry?

Nobody is born an overthinker. Rather, it’s a learned behaviour. Children can learn to worry by observing how others around them respond to stressful events. Or they can develop the tendency to worry from exposure to an unstable or unpredictable environment. Not surprisingly, the behaviours acquired in childhood become the habits of adulthood.

The good news is this: if overthinking is a behaviour that has been learned, then it can be unlearned.

That’s not to say it’s easy to unlearn a behaviour like worrying. It might be a hard habit to break, but it is a habit nonetheless and habits, even entrenched ones, are not carved in stone.

The problem isn’t the problem; our thinking is the problem.

Most of us come to the realization sooner or later that life doesn’t always stick to the script. Things change and stuff happens. That’s reality. In psychological terms, these events and disruptions to the normal flow of life are called triggers.

Despite how it seems, though, it’s not the trigger in itself that causes worry; it’s how we interpret the trigger. When we assign a trigger a negative meaning, we begin to fret and stress and worry. Unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts race through our minds and we start imagining all kinds of undesirable outcomes.

In turn, unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts create unpleasant feelings. Thoughts such as I won’t be able to cope… this is a disaster… I can’t stand this… and I’m such a loser makes us feel sad, angry, frustrated, embarrassed, jealous, rejected, annoyed, or anxious.

Those distressing emotions then produce responses in our bodies and behaviour. We might experience things like a racing heart, disrupted sleep, or digestive problems (we’ve all experienced that knot or churning in our stomach). We may feel dizzy, breathless, nauseous, or weak in the legs. We might start avoiding certain people or places. Or we try to soothe our feelings with food or alcohol.

As we will see, it is important to understand that those feelings and responses are a result of our negative interpretation of the event, of how we are thinking, not of the event in itself.

The Worry Cycle

To summarize, the worry cycle consists of a trigger – some event, problem, or interaction – which produces a thought or thoughts. These thoughts produce emotions, which in turn produce some kind of action or behaviour.

It’s important to note that the cycle can run on repeat. While behaviour is the result of thoughts and feelings about a trigger, it is not the end of the line. Behaviour can and does influence our future reality and produce more triggers.

For example, if we persist in the behaviour of excessive comfort eating, we will face the future reality of health problems, which in turn initiates a whole new cycle of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

If we want to get overthinking under control and stop the worry cycle, we must first accept reality – what is actually happening. If we can do anything to improve a situation, then do so. However, what cannot be changed must be accepted. What we can change, though, is ourselves and that involves changing our thinking.

As with many things, awareness is the first step to changing our thinking. We can’t change something we are not aware of. First, we need to identify the types of thinking that are unhelpful and unrealistic. Here’s a list of some of them:

  • Overgeneralisation – one negative event is seen as a pattern of never-ending failure, that all future attempts will end similarly, so why bother?
  • All-or-nothing and black-or-white thinking – this often involves the words always/never and nobody/everybody as in this always happens to me and nobody ever listens to me. Also included is this mindset: if it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure. And this one: if I can’t give 100%, I won’t even try. (I cringe when I recall how often I’ve said that in the past, often preceded by I’m an all-or-nothing kinda girl.)
  • Minimisation – we play down the things that have gone well for us or that we did well.  
  • Magnification – the opposite of minimisation. This is worst-case scenario thinking or blowing things way out of proportion.
  • Jumping to conclusions – negative interpretations that have no basis in fact. This includes forecasting grim outcomes as well as assuming we know what others are thinking.
  • Negative mental filter – the Isn’t it awful! mindset. It’s the opposite of seeing things through ‘rose-coloured glasses.’
  • Labelling – applying negative labels like failure, idiot, and useless to ourselves and to others.
  • Personalisation – assuming blame for things that are outside our control or that are not our fault.  
  • “What if” thinking – this is one of the most potent worry-causers of them all. It shows up as a negative downward spiral of calamitous thoughts: what if this happens…and then what if that happens…and then…and then... It’s a perfect storm in a teacup.

There are other types of unhelpful and unrealistic thinking, also known as thought distortions, but you get the general idea.

What is the difference between distorted thought patterns and balanced thought patterns? Facts! Actual evidence! Psychologists call thought distortions “irrational” because there is little or no basis in reality.

Now that we are aware of some irrational or distorted thought patterns, the next step is to identify which ones we use in our own thinking.

The following exercise, called a thought record, is as helpful as it is revealing. Try it.

1. Over the next week, take note of what is worrying you. It helps to write it down – on your phone, on a piece of paper, or in a journal. What is the trigger? Is it an event, a situation, a problem, or an interaction? Write down just the facts.

2. Then jot down what you are feeling – emotionally and in your body. Even though thoughts precede feelings, it is sometimes easier to identify feelings first. Also, it takes practice for some people to learn to separate their thoughts from their feelings.

3. Next, write down the automatic, negative thoughts you had about the trigger. Be honest. Don’t judge your thoughts. It is important to identify what you actually think, not what you think you should be thinking.

4. Make a note of how you behaved. What did you do? What did you avoid or stop doing?

There are a few more steps in the thought record exercise, which we will tackle in Part 2 of this subject.

For now, though, just record honestly what is happening (the trigger), what you think about it (your interpretation), how you feel about it (emotions and physical sensations), and what you did or didn’t do (your behaviour).

See you in Part 2: Get Overthinking Under Control: Getting Off the Worry-Go-Round!

Picture and diagram by me using Canva



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