Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/27/2022
Overthinking is a time-suck, but over time it can also become a major issue for your mental health. When you spend periods of time focused on the wrong things, it can lead to a lot more than it’s worth.
And everybody knows, there are plenty of reasons to overthink. Your boss may have seemed "off," your partner may have been quiet. You haven’t heard from that one buddy in a while. These are normal concerns from time to time for people who care.
Once overthinking becomes a pattern, however, your daily life can be interrupted, as every thought might cause you to fall into the trap of anxiety.
The fact is, overthinking leads to mental health declines if not addressed. Getting in control of it is crucial.
Luckily, the solutions are fairly simple — once you understand the problem.
Overthinking, excessive worry — these are symptoms of a mood disorder you’ve likely heard of (and maybe even felt symptoms of in the past): anxiety.
Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term for a group of mood disorders most often characterized by panic, unease and worry.
Anxiety sufferers might experience symptoms in a range of severity, from full-blown panic attacks to a more tolerable, irritable unease.
Furthermore, a person with milder anxiety may still occasionally experience severe symptoms.
Anxiety disorders are generally diagnosed after a pattern has emerged — you should see noticeable symptoms of anxiety affecting your ability to function for a pattern of weeks before it qualifies as a sign of disorder.
Symptoms generally include a variety of psychological and physical signs — you may experience restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating or muscle tension, for instance.
People with anxiety may often experience another symptom: overthinking.
Overthinking is one of the many ways we characterize excessive worry. It can be called negative thinking, or intrusive thoughts or rumination.
But the key element of overthinking is that it takes up your time, you struggle to control it and you might experience other symptoms as a result of these uncontrolled patterns of thought.
Overthinking isn’t limited to anxiety. It can be a result of depression and other mood disorders, as well.
It can cause you to make assumptions — you might assume that another person has a negative view of you or that they’re in a bad mood. You might misunderstand benign comments to have negative implications, or assume the worst from messages like, “we need to talk.”
Again, some of this is normal for everyone, even the people who don’t suffer from overthinking. The key difference is whether it affects your ability to function in professional, social and other situations.
Overthinking can also be triggered and worsened by heightened stress.
This is sometimes referred to as cognitive distortion — when your ability to see things as they are is distorted by a mood disorder like anxiety, and you begin filtering your reasoning through emotion, rather than logical filters.
Over time, if left unchecked, these patterns can damage your relationships, your professional development and your physical and mental health.
The reality is there’s a serious correlation between negative thoughts and things like generalized anxiety disorder. One can increase your risk of the other, and visa versa.
Okay, you get why overthinking has some serious implications for your mental health. So, what do you do about overthinking before it causes your worry to turn into mental illness?
There’s no one answer to this question. Luckily, the many answers may all be considered “correct” in some cases, especially when combined.
The first thing you need to understand is that these intrusive thoughts and ruminations are something that you do have control over.
They aren’t reality, but rather, a result of your brain’s tendencies to worry. As a result, you take agency over them.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by simply learning to replace rumination with something called “positive ideation.”
Studies show this can be an effective defense against those negative thought spirals we experience.
You might replace your “what could go wrong?” fears with “what could the benefit be?” when considering an upcoming presentation.
You might remind yourself to stop obsessing over what happens if you get a “no” to a raise request, and choose to focus on what could be great about getting a “yes” instead.
This strategy is the center of something called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
CBT is a framework for rewiring your anxious brain to avoid those pitfalls of worry by replacing them with healthier responses.
CBT is regularly used in the treatment of a variety of mood disorders including depression, (regardless of age), gender or any other metric.
The most important thing to do in your fight against overthinking is to speak to a mental health professional.
As treatment options go, CBT is great, but you’re more likely to succeed when it’s coached as a technique with the assistance of a professional.
But mental health professionals have other tools to help you manage rumination. They’ll also be able to give you a diagnosis, which may be for generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, but may also land in the realm of clinical depression or major depression.
In any of these cases, a healthcare professional might also recommend and prescribe antidepressants.
Antidepressants balance neurotransmitters in your brain. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly known as SSRIs, do this by balancing the serum serotonin levels to help your brain regulate your moods.
While they’re called antidepressants, most offer benefits in the treatment of anxiety, as well.
Furthermore, therapeutic techniques like psychotherapy may also benefit you in the fight against these thoughts.
A healthcare provider may additionally be able to make tailored recommendations of physical health changes that might help your moods — diet and exercise changes can benefit your mental health, and have been shown to be as effective as medication in some cases.
If you’re not sure what to do next, we can tell you this for sure: don’t overthink it. (Sorry, we had to.)
If you've experienced the fallout of destructive thought patterns, the brain drain of filling your day with worry time or are simply convinced that you have a habit of overthinking things in a way that’s negatively impacting your life, it's time to get help.
We get it — there are things that could go wrong. But put aside your catastrophic predictions for a second. Remember that the only wrong decision you can make is to not seek help at all.
Your mental habits can create a vicious cycle. Start simple, with options like telepsychiatry and . There are resources to help you stop your mind from overthinking, and put it to work enjoying your life experiences.