If you rehash past conversations, dwell on your choices or get trapped in a tunnel of “what if” scenarios, there’s a pretty good chance you’re an overthinker.
This widespread rumination and over-obsessing has become somewhat of an epidemic. One study found that 73% of adults between the ages of 25 and 35 overthink, as do 52% of 45- to 55-year-olds.
Interestingly, research has found that many overthinkers believe they’re actually doing themselves a favour by cycling through their thoughts. But the truth of the matter is that overthinking is a dangerous game that can have a lot of negative consequences on our well-being.
As David Spiegel, the director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford Health Care, puts it, “There are times when the worry about the problem is a lot worse than the problem itself.”
Here’s what happens to your body when you overthink:
You’re less likely to take action
Overthinking creates so many options, choices and scenarios that you end up unable to make a decision — a concept called analysis paralysis.
“You could get stuck in potential consequences that may not even happen, just worrying about certain outcomes, and that can paralyse us or freeze us from taking an action,” said Rajita Sinha, the director of the Yale Stress Center.
If you don’t try things, you don’t fail, which may be a potential concern ― but you also don’t succeed, she added. When you do finally move forward with a decision, you might wind up making the wrong one because you got so mixed up by all the competing thoughts.
“Your gut feeling or instinct gets overridden because you have so much other input … and you maybe end up not making the choices that are right for you in that moment,” said Laura Price, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
You’re less creative
Another study discovered that when certain parts of your brain and cognitive processes are quiet, you’re more creative. Overthinking — which can lead to a “mental rut,” as the study notes — can essentially cause you to get stuck and run out of ideas or new solutions. While some overthinking can lead to fresh, new ideas, it can also backfire and create mental roadblocks that make it challenging to think outside the box.
And a study from Stanford came to the same conclusion. While hooked up to magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs), participants were asked to draw a series of images — some easy to illustrate, some difficult. The more difficult the images were to draw, the more the participants had to think, and the less creative their drawings were. On the flip side, the less thought involved, the more creative the drawings were.
In short, too much thinking seems to put a cap on creativity.
Your energy levels might drop
It takes a lot of mental energy to overthink. Your brain is generating so many different thoughts and scenarios that aren’t really going toward anything productive.
“Mental energy without any sort of physical outlet absolutely can make it fatiguing and make it feel like you’re exhausted because you spent so much time in your own head,” Price said.
Spiegel added that when we overthink and stress ourselves out, our bodies produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Over time, that constant release of cortisol can be depleting and cause burnout.
“It’s like running your car in the wrong gear. Your motor’s running but you’re not getting very far,” Spiegel said.
Your sleep may take a hit
Lots of overthinkers struggle with falling asleep, shuffling through thoughts rather than shutting down and getting some shut-eye.
Your body needs to get into a state of calm in order to sleep — your heart rate needs to go down, as does your blood pressure and breathing. Overanalysing can be arousing, especially when the thoughts are more anxious. This can pull you out of the soothing state your body needs to be in for sleep, according to Spiegel.
And once your sleep starts suffering, it’s easy to get stuck in a nasty whirlwind of exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
“If you don’t sleep as well, you have less energy, you get less exercise, then you sleep even worse,” Spiegel said.
Your appetite might change
Overthinking can have a profound impact on people’s appetites. For some, it can suppress appetite, and for others, it can boost it — which is more common.
Spiegel calls this “worry eating,” and said people do it because it can be distracting or even soothing. Many people tend to go for the tastiest and unhealthiest things when they’re stressed, Spiegel said, noting there’s a reason high-fat, sugary foods are called “comfort foods.”
Additionally, cortisol — that stress hormone we talked about earlier — increases your appetite along with your motivation to eat, according to Harvard University.
Here’s how to control your tendency to overthink
The first step is to notice that you’re overthinking and become aware of what’s going on. According to Sinha, one way to think about it is if you have more than three potential, or “what if,” scenarios, you’re thinking about it too much.
Next, you want to find a way to distract yourself and get into your physical body to free up your cognitive systems (think going for a jog or trying yoga). Price practices diaphragmatic breathing, or deep belly breathing, with her patients. This helps lower your heart rate, slow your breathing and get in touch with your body — which, in turn, clears your head.
She also recommended using a worry log: 20 minutes before bed, write down a list of everything you’re worrying about or have to do.
“The process of writing it down — not typing, but actually writing — has a processing effect to your brain to help get it out of that spin cycle,” Price said.
Talking to a therapist, friend or loved one can also give you a fresh perspective and realise that something that seems terrible or complex really isn’t so complicated after all.
Lastly, mindfulness or meditation can also help you reset and declutter your mind, according to Spiegel, though this will likely take a bit of practice and patience.
“Don’t fight the problem — let it flow through you like watching the storm pass by,” he said.