I thought about writing a blog post about overthinking. Then I thought more about it and wondered if I would have enough ideas for an entire post. But then I thought, many people, including myself, suffer the ill-effects of thinking too much. I started to ponder how ruminating contributes to anxiety, depression and avoidance of action. Then I started to question whether this was definitely the best topic to write on. As you may have guessed, I ended up making the decision that this blog post might be a good idea after all.
Certain situations make overthinking much more tempting. We often know, deep down, we have to do something, but we continue to think about how much we do not want to do it. Simple chores such as cleaning the bathroom come to mind, but so do more complex ones like studying for an exam or researching elder care options for a parent. If we can acknowledge for ourselves that the tasks may not be especially appealing, but we know they ultimately must be done, we can reclaim some of the energy that overthinking threatens to drain from us. Moving more quickly to action can also free up mental energy needed for the more difficult decisions we might face.
Overthinkers become masters of the negative “what ifs”. Imagination is a gift, but it can turn against us when we create scenarios that start with “what if” and end with something of dreadful proportions. As a student, it might be “What if I get a bad grade in this class?” or as an employee, “What if I fail to meet expectations and my job is in jeopardy?” Or even as a parent, “What if my kids never move out of the basement?” Not only do we drain ourselves of precious energy, anticipating things that may never happen, we also reduce our abilities to handle difficulties when we actually encounter them. More than likely, the challenges we face will be different than our “what if” scenarios anyway, similar to preparing for a multiple choice test and showing up on exam day to find essay questions instead. Our imaginations are perfectly capable of creating good visions when we let them. Letting ourselves visualize our goals allows us to actually work toward the positive and fulfill the dreams we have for ourselves.
Overthinking issues beyond our control can be one of the most frustrating ways to spend our valuable time. Perhaps you awaken a bit early, and start running through that laundry list of worries that are beyond our ability to directly change. Maybe you are concerned about your teenager’s group of friends and the questionable influence they might have. Turning that thought over and over again in your mind causes anxiety and reinforces a sense of helplessness. Instead, try and structure your thinking in order to reduce the negative impact of these thoughts. First, recognize the concern comes from an understandable and worthy intent —loving and wanting the best for your teen. Next, let yourself see what you want for your teen — a positive and healthy group of friends. Then ask yourself what steps you can actually take to try and get there — talk to your teen and express your views, listen to and acknowledge their feelings, and encourage them to get involved in beneficial activities where they can meet potential friends. As a result, hopefully instead of recycling worried thoughts, you now have things to think about that are worthy of your energy and can give you a more positive focus.
It is not easy to avoid the pitfalls of overthinking. Just as we do not go out and complete a marathon the first time we run, we will not limit unproductive thinking without practice. We have to focus more on what is within our control and try to achieve a better balance between thought and action. Better mental fitness will not eliminate unpleasant tasks or life’s unpredictable challenges, but hopefully it will help us conserve energy we can use to enjoy life’s unlimited gifts.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.