Understanding and managing overthinking

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, living and often overwhelming world can make the experience of overthinking more common. In the moments where we find thoughts difficult to tolerate, it can feel as though 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 overthinking and how we might understand and manage it, consider 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 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 exhaustive 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 choice or 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.
  • Catastrophising - an exaggeration of our worries can often lead to the idea of catastrophe at every corner, adding to the cycle of overthinking.
  • Intellectualising - rationally talking through something difficult provides the opportunity to avoid the difficult feelings involved, and extend the process of overthinking.

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 overwhelm the capacity for genuine and meaningful thought. This leads to something being lost, not considered, or altogether 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 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 fewer answers or solutions overthinking provides, and 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, adding 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 both the rewarding and difficult aspects of overthinking quite well.

How psychotherapy can help

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, discussed and considered carefully and thoughtfully, allowing you the chance to live a life that feels more real, meaningful, and connected.

In closing...

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 are, to some extent, 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.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend

Written by Joshua Miles BACP Accredited Psychotherapist

Joshua is an experienced & accredited psychotherapist who deeply understands the importance of the difficulties caused by overthinking, and the impact this can have upon our mental health. He has a special interest in working with musicians & those in the creative fields. He works with adults of all ages & is based in Shoreditch, East London.… Read more

Written by Joshua Miles BACP Accredited Psychotherapist

Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals.