Overthinking is not in itself a medical term, but research shows the habit can have real impacts on our well-being. Oftentimes, overthinking involves focusing on the negative — rehashing the past, dwelling on bad experiences or worrying about the future.
Ashley Carroll, a psychologist with Parkland Memorial Hospital, says when we ruminate on a certain thoughts, it can snowball into bigger, more extreme negative thinking. Carroll says overthinking becomes a problem when it starts to affect everyday life.
“When it becomes destructive to our life or really impairs our daily functioning, so for example, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night because you can’t turn these thoughts off, that’s impacting your daily functioning,” Carroll said. “If it’s affecting your appetite, if you’re so lost in your thoughts you’re starting to isolate from other people…”
Carroll says ruminating on the worst possible scenarios and outcomes can be a misguided form of self-protection.
“For some people, it can be kind of like a defense mechanism,” she said. “‘So I’m going to automatically assume that everyone is unworthy to be trusted, so that way I won’t get close to anyone, so I’m protecting myself.'”
Overthinking can also affect physical health, Carroll says. Some of her patients who deal with negative thoughts and anxiety have also experienced headaches, body aches and stomach problems, she said. Overthinking is also often associated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and borderline personality disorder.
To break the habit, Carroll says a good first step is to take note of what triggers your overthinking. It might stem from a past trauma, or something in your life that’s currently a source of stress. Once you identify those triggers, Carroll says you can start finding ways to overcome them.
“Whenever patients kind of get in that cycle of ruminating, I always encourage controlled breathing exercises,” she says. “It helps them shift their focus to their breathing and calming down their central nervous system. And then, [activities] like journaling really helps them express and process the thoughts that are in their head. So any type of mindfulness activities where you’re really focused on present moment can keep you out of your thoughts about the past or about the future.”