• Overthinking is a common element of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression

  • We may overthink to protect ourselves against painful feelings or having to make difficult decisions

  • If you are struggling with overthinking, find a therapist here 

In the modern world, we are almost constantly bombarded by visual and audio stimuli from a wide variety of sources, offered choice on a vast scale and provided with the opportunity to access anything at any time.

This energetic, alive and sometimes overwhelming world can make the experience of overthinking more common. In moments where we find thoughts difficult to tolerate, a relatively innocuous or unimportant event can send us spiralling into a panic, where we simply cannot stop thinking or, more accurately, cannot think clearly.

The stream of thoughts we experience can feel limitless in their growth and diversity, from one thing to another in a matter of seconds. Managing to settle the mind enough to think clearly and accurately can feel very difficult.

This article aims to look at understanding and managing overthinking, considering why we may overthink; investigate what gets lost in overthinking and its use as a mechanism of defence; briefly explore the links between anxiety and overthinking; and, explore the benefits of psychotherapy.

Why might we overthink?

Overthinking can be both alluring and tiring. We may feel we it offers us the chance to solve a problem, think our way out of something difficult or achieve radical change. Whilst this is not untrue, the process can also be exhausting and difficult to escape.

The reasons behind overthinking will differ for each of us individually and will depend upon our internal availability for certain thought patterns, feelings or ideas. This said, there are certainly some commonalities to be considered. The below list, whilst not exhaustive, provides an idea of some of the reasons for overthinking:

  • Fearing the situation is uncontrollable

The more out of control we consider something to be, the more we might try to think of every conceivable outcome to try and regain some control. However, this can feel difficult to escape from, and can promote an escalation of overthinking.

  • The panic of indecision

Fear of making the wrong decision can be crippling, leading to what can feel like an infinitely tiring and difficult quagmire to negotiate. Struggling to come to a decision, can add to the sense that there is no control over difficult thoughts or feelings.

  • Worrying we may fail 

The fear of failure is never far away and in every outcome, there is inevitably a loss as well as a gain.

  • Catastrophizing

An exaggeration of our worries can often lead to the idea of catastrophe at every corner, adding to the cycle of overthinking.

  • Intellectualizing

Rationally talking through something difficult, provides the opportunity to avoid the difficult feelings involved.

What gets lost in overthinking

The paradox of overthinking is that, rather than lead to actual thought, it prevents it. A swarm of ideas, suggestions or notions overwhelms the capacity for genuine and meaningful thought. This leads to something being lost, not considered or all together dismissed. By providing a million and one suggestions, the salient points get swept away in a tide of confusion.

Overthinking as a mechanism of defence

It is helpful to consider the process of overthinking as an internal mechanism of defence. What do I mean by a mechanism of defence? An unconscious psychological mechanism which operates to reduce anxiety occurring from experiences or stimuli that might be harmful or unacceptable.

Considering the above definition, we can see how an influx of thoughts might be used to distract us from something difficult or ward off or protect against painful thoughts. Overthinking therefore blocks important or meaningful ideas, but it is done under the guise of sheltering us from reaching a realisation that might be difficult.

The link between overthinking and anxiety

Given what has been written above, it is not difficult to see how one might make the link between anxiety and overthinking. The more thinking we do, the more anxious we might become, the less answers or solutions overthinking provides, the more we may try and think ourselves out of something difficult. This frustrating and unhelpful cycle can feel very unsettling and difficult to avoid. In this way, we can see how anxiety promotes overthinking, adds to the sense of it feeling pervasive and damaging.

Overthinking difficult or upsetting thoughts is an anxious, and simultaneously, almost addictive experience. Choosing to locate and think about those things for which we cannot answer, or find upsetting is rather common. Perhaps it is easier to do this, than to provide ourselves with reassurance or care. This seems to sum up the both the rewarding and difficult aspects of overthinking quite well.

How psychotherapy can help with overthinking

Feeling as though you are filled with a never-ending stream of thoughts and ideas can be a tiring experience, as can finding a balance between the need for thoughts, feelings and ideas, and possessing clarity, understanding and a sense of feeling settled.

Psychotherapy can offer you the chance to think in-depth about your patterns of overthinking and allow you to sift through what feels significant and what is perhaps masking your feelings or experiences.

Psychotherapy provides the chance for equal weight to be given to all ideas, thoughts and feelings, and values that there is meaning and importance to be found in all that is experienced, thought and said. This creates a space where overthinking can be examined and discussed carefully and thoughtfully, allowing you the chance to live a life that feels more real, meaningful and connected.

We all have the capacity to overthink, get lost in thoughts and find it difficult to calm our minds. Overthinking is not wholly negative, nor is it something which can necessarily be known in the moment it is happening. It has protective qualities to it, that to some extent are necessary. However, when it occurs to excess, it can be a tiring, difficult and frustrating experience. Learning to identify it when it happens allows us the ability to moderate it, and to learn from it.

Joshua Miles is a verified welldoing.org integrative therapist in EC2A

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Joshua Miles

Challenging your thoughts: are they helpful?

How do depression and anxiety affect concentration?

Anxiety: when does normal emotion become a problem?

How do stop overthinking