Is Overthinking Toxic Thinking?
Over thinking over extended periods of time essentially creates neural networks of anxiety in the brain, making it into a bad habit, thereby subjecting the brain and body to long periods of stress.
Do you find yourself overthinking and overanalyzing every situation or something someone said? Perhaps you find yourself getting more and more angry and upset the more you think about it….You just keep replaying scenarios over and over again, whether you are thinking about something that just happened, about to happen or something that happened in the past.You think about all possible outcomes and scenarios, constantly ask yourself "what if…", and ruminate on what should have happened, what could have happened or what will happen. (Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash)
Why are we so good at holding on? Why do we do this even though we know it's not healthy?
When we overthink something we are trying to process and understand it, especially if what has happened is out of the norm, hurtful, or painful. It is like hearing an odd noise in the house while we are reading a book in bed—the sound is out of place and is, as a result, all the more jarring. These kinds of experiences go against the brain's natural optimum bias, because our brains are designed to anticipate and hope for the best. Negative experiences are actually quite shocking, and we need to think about them more to regain a sense of equilibrium through understanding the experience and achieving closure. This is particularly true for people who are more emotional, sensitive and in touch with feelings.
We also tend to overthink something if we have not gotten closure, or if we have a victim mentality and do not want to take responsibility for what we have said or done—we just keep trying to justify and reason away our behavior. Indeed, a key part of generating an explanation for an event is the assignment of blame. Yet this often backfires on us. When we try make sense of a negative situation through blaming others rather than looking at ourselves, we cannot find true closure. The "blame game" is a never-ending toxic loop that forces us to overthink the words and actions of others. Taking responsibility, on the other hand forces us to act and resolve the situation; taking responsibility is more painful, so you want to end that pain quicker.
In many cases, overthinking is a result of the assumptions we make about another person's behavior, based on non-verbal cues like body language or tone, without getting clarification. And, the more we think about these assumptions and how they make us feel, the more it will influence our future words, behaviors, attitudes, and social interactions—we create toxic cycle that holds us back from improving our social interactions. Over thinking over extended periods of time essentially creates neural networks of anxiety in the brain, making it into a bad habit, thereby subjecting the brain and body to long periods of stress. This, in turn, impacts our mental and physical health, potentially decreasing our life span, which is why it is so important to constantly be aware of and tune in to how we are feeling and what we are thinking.
It is incredibly important to differentiate between overthinking and deep thinking. Deep thinking is analyzing information for the purpose of learning and moving forward, building your brain, reaching solutions and understanding difficult concepts. Sometimes, this means that you will need to think deeply about an issue you are facing in order to overcome it, but this is different from worrying about the problem. As I discuss on this week's podcast, deep thinking is really like a "mental autopsy"; it's very deliberate, controlled, intentional, systematic, and rational. It is not emotionally-driven, chaotic, illogical, assumptive, and it is not driven by a sense of victimization. Deep thinking looks for a solution and closure, whereas overthinking is chaotic, with no solution or end in sight. I talk more about the importance and benefits of deep thinking in my book Think, Learn, Succeed.
So How Can We Tell When We Go from Deep Thinking into Toxic Overthinking?
1. Inability to focus.
When you find your mind hopping from one thought to another, and are unable to concentrate properly, this can actually be a sign that you are stressed out from overthinking. For example, say you have to deal with a difficult family member, and are worried about what this person will say or do at your next gathering. You fret over this person's behavior for the several days, are unable to focus at work or at home, and keep hopping from one imagined scenario to another. Soon, you feel sick from the stress, have an upset stomach every time you eat, and can't fall asleep at night because a thousand negative thoughts pop into your head as you switch off the lights. Overthinking essentially taxes your ability to think deeply about any one thing, impeding your ability to examine and understand information.
2. Feelings of discomfort and anxiety.
Overthinking can put your brain and body into negative stress, which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression and fear, and may even cause panic attacks. In fact, ruminating on negative thoughts is one of the biggest predictors of mental ill-health, and is incredibly toxic for the brain and body, so it really is so important to become aware of what we think, how we feel and how we choose to react.
What Can You Do to Make Sure You Don't Overthink/Overanalyze Situations?
1. Practice deep thinking.
When it comes to mental health, few people focus on the importance of thinking deeply for improving cognitive health. In my book Think, Learn, Succeed, I talk about how to build your brain correctly so as to improve memory and mental health. When we think deeply we build our brains in a healthy way, increasing our cognitive resilience and mental flexibility, which improves how we deal with difficult situations. We will also be taking advantage of the process of neurogenesis, which in essence is using the new baby nerve cells that our brain creates on a daily basis, to build new neural networks, and from new behaviors. When we do not use these nerve cells and build memory correctly, on the other hand, we can build toxic structures into our brains, which can lead to negative thinking habits, feelings of anxiety and even psychotic breaks. Deep thinking, therefore, involves the deliberate and intentional process of asking, answering and discussing information to get meaning, develop understanding and take action steps. This helps the brain develop and grow in a healthy way.
2. Become aware of your emotions, thoughts and reactions.
Sometimes we may not even be aware we are overthinking, but our bodies will be aware, especially if our overthinking is causing toxic stress. In order to prevent toxic mindsets and habits developing as a result of overthinking we need to learn to stop the toxic pattern before it becomes an issue; we need to learn to tune into our bodies, thoughts, and attitudes all the time. It is also important that you find out what is making you overthink by analyzing your thinking and emotions so you can deal with the cause. Ask yourself why you feel stressed about something, what is happening, how can you change the situation and how your mindset is affecting your ability to deal with the situation. Also, be sure to ask yourself if you are acting like a victim, and try see what was said or done from a different perspective. You just may realize you are overreacting, or not understanding something.Write down your thoughts; this can bring clarity to the situation at hand.
My new app Switch, is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic stress, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits like overthinking in my book Switch On Your Brain.
3. Breathe, think, then act.
It is always important to think and react in a deliberate, not impulsive, manner. Make it a habit to examine your thoughts and reactions, and practice thinking before you speak and act. Try keeping a journal to log your reactions over a period of 7 days. Self-regulation is vital to preventing and overcoming negative habits like overthinking.
4. Ask questions and make a plan.
If you find yourself overthinking a situation or problem, take the time to ask the other person for more clarification before making assumptions, which will lead to overthinking. Ask them what they mean, why they said what they said or did what they did. Be sure to calm down before angrily or reactively snapping back. Be patient. Asking for more information will definitely help avoid misunderstandings that come as a result of miscommunication.
It is also important to make a plan of action. Choose to spend a specific amount of time thinking deeply about what has passed, then choose to forgive or apologize. If we spend too much time ruminating on the problem we can get caught up in the emotions associated with the toxic thinking pattern, which can lead to emotional burnout, mental fatigue, and increased anxiety. When dealing with a situation, or life in general, it is best to spend a limited amount of time of defining what the issue is, and focus more on a plan of action to improve the situation.
5. Think about what you can learn from the situation.
Rather than worrying about a particular situation, think about how you can learn from the situation. Be intentional about learning from your experiences, as opposed to just reacting to them. When you find yourself overthinking something, take a few minutes to think about the situation, asking yourself why it happened like it did, talking about the it with yourself or a loved one, and thinking about how you can improve the situation to get an outcome you desire. Be intentional about your learning process: make sure you have a plan in place for next time things go wrong, and how you can avoid overthinking in the future.
6. Choose to stop being over-sensitive.
It is so important that you do not overthink situations, assuming that people have said or acted in a certain way because they were trying to antagonize you and victimize yourself. Choose to stop and think about the situation in a rational way, and do not let your emotions get the best of you. Examine how you see yourself, writing this down, and think of ways you can give people the benefit of the doubt rather than just assuming they are acting or speaking in a certain way.