Yes, overthinking is a genuine mental health issue.
We are often told not to “overthink” a challenge or problematic situation. Maybe you are wondering whether a certain romantic interest is the right person for you. Or you have a big report due at work and you keep rewriting it. Or your first baby is on the way and the thought that you may not be ready to be a parent is keeping you up at night.
These types of situations are quite common. Sooner or later we tend to arrive at a decision or come to peace with a new role that we have been given in life.
Other incidents of overthinking can be more challenging to overcome and may be a sign of deeper issues. Overthinking can be a sign of issues with anxiety or depression — or it may lead to these issues if not appropriately addressed.
The problem is more common than many realize. There is even an entire podcast, Stop Overthinking, for “overthinkers, people pleasers, and perfectionists.” It is hosted by Kristen Odegaard, a certified life coach.
“To some degree we all overthink and overanalyze,” Odegaard said in a recent episode (#28), “and this is because there is just so much information in the world.” She recommends that everyone “be cautious as to what you let into your mind. Just as you have limits on who gets into your house or into your car or into your office, you can create limits and boundaries for yourself on how much of that information you’re being exposed to on a daily basis.”
Odegaard cites a study that in the US, the average person is exposed to 74 gigabytes of information each day. She explains that in every moment our brains constantly have to process and decide what to do with that huge amount of incoming data.
It’s no wonder then that many of us have problems using that information to make important (and even not-so-important) decisions. Her advice is to first “give yourself some grace that most people are dealing with this in the world today.”
How to identify overthinking
In her podcast, Odegaard suggests a simple but effective way to identify whether your thinking is productive or has become overthinking: Look at the amount of time that you spend thinking about a situation. If you are spending a large amount of time thinking about a relatively minor issue, then you may be overthinking.
Another way to identify overthinking is to look at the results of your thought process: Overthinking tends to be unproductive, leaving us with no genuine solutions to a problem.
There are many strategies for dealing with overthinking. While not all of them will work for every person, here are four that might help you break your cycle of overthinking.
Get out of your head
Rather than continuing to replay the same problem over and over in your mind, try focusing on something outside of yourself. For instance, take a walk around your block and say hello to your neighbors. Take care of the dishes in your sink or that closet you’ve been meaning to clean out. Visit a bookstore and explore a section that you never browse. If you are homebound, watch aor something else that can pull you out of your head. I had a priest friend who found it helpful to watch nature documentaries when life became overwhelming.
After taking a healthy break from your problem, you may be able to approach it with a more hopeful mindset or from a fresh angle.
Identify solutions / Visualize a positive outcome
Instead of letting your imagination run wild, write down the specific problems or situation you are worried about, followed by some possible solutions. Try to apply those solutions to your situation and visualize positive outcomes, focusing on those. Once you have your thoughts down on paper, you hopefully won’t feel the need to keep rehashing them anymore.
Look at the things that are good in your life
Fear is the emotion that most drives overthinking. Instead of worrying, why not take some time to identify what is positive in your life, then celebrate and give thanks for what you have been given?
We all have things we can be grateful for. Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing when she was 19 months old, but she kept her focus not on the things that had been taken from her, but on the gifts she had been given. “So much has been given me I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied,” she once said.
When we start from a place of gratitude, it is easier to face our present circumstances with calmness and a certainty that things will work out for our ultimate good.
Recognize that you are not alone
When you are facing a crisis or difficulty, always reach out for help. This can often be difficult as we can be afraid to share our problems and worries. If you are worried about confiding in your friends or loved ones or you feel isolated, there are innumerable hotlines that you can call for help. This is especially important when you cannot break out of your cycle of overthinking or when you find your mental state spiraling out of control.
In less dramatic circumstances, take note of the friends, family members, neighbors, members of your church community, etc. with whom you feel comfortable speaking. Very often the problems we face have simple solutions that we did not consider.
Most importantly, we can turn to God for help. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories featuring people with seemingly overwhelming problems who are saved by their faith in God. It is full of words of wisdom and comfort meant to help us understand that He has a plan for us. Pope Benedict XVI teaches, “The word of God draws each of us into a conversation with the Lord.” So not only do we learn from the stories of faith recounted in the Bible, we also find God actually addressing himself to us in our own situations, including those we are overthinking.
Psalm 23 in particular reassures us the God is a good shepherd leading us to “green pastures.” “Indeed,” the Psalm reminds us:
… goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for endless days.”
Please feel free to add your suggestions and comments below.