Why Overthinking is Harmful

We can all overthink and we do it more if we’re concerned, worried, stressed or anxious.  As human’s, it’s natural for us to think things through to try to find solutions or resolve stress.  Overthinking, however, is where we ruminate and think too much which can quickly become problematic and difficult to control.

Overthinking can be –

  • Thinking about everything you don’t have control over which creates stronger feelings of not being in control
  • Going through the same thought over and over again which creates unnecessary stress and anxiety
  • Ruminating about the past and worrying about the future
  • Being overly concerned with what others may think of you
  • Being unable to stop thinking or worrying
  • Reliving past embarrassing moments or mistakes
  • Thinking about what might ‘really be happening’ for example thinking that friends don’t really like us or that there are certain possible signs we may be about to lose our jobs.
  • Thinking about situations where you cannot predict the outcome
  • Focusing excessively on ‘What if’s’.

Why it’s so unhelpful – The Overthinking Vicious Cycle.

Describing overthinking as being unhelpful for many is a huge understatement as it causes great stress and distress, affects sleep and mood and can lead to anxiety, depression, substance misuse (alcohol and drugs), self-harm and binge eating.

Overthinking will activate our threat system which creates feelings of anxiety.  This releases cortisol (the stress hormone) and often adrenaline into the body as the mind and body feels under threat.  Our thoughts then quickly descends into distorted and negative thinking patterns which creatwa a stronger feeling of not feeling in control and threat which makes us more anxious where we then try to think our way out of it but have more distorted thoughts.  And so the cycle continues and declines.

Overthinking has a very real physical affect on the brain.  It increases activity in the amygdala which is responsible to anxiety and dealing with threat.  The greater this part of the mind is activated, the more active it becomes which means that overthinking can easily create ongoing increased anxiety.  Also, our sleep can be significantly affected.  When we try to sleep, we have time and space which is where overthinking can be problematic as the production of cortisol and distortion of our thoughts stop us sleeping which give further time and space to overthink.

People who suffer with anxiety and low mood are more likely to overthink in an attempt to make sense of their world.  This leads to further anxiety and low mood as it sparks our threat system into action and distorts our thoughts negatively.

What it’s not

It’s important to note what overthinking isn’t as we can sometimes decide that overthinking is helpful to help with life problems.  Overthinking not functional problem-solving and it’s not helpful or realistic self-reflection.  When we’re thinking about a problem functionally, we look at helpful options and resources where overthinking often means we focus on barriers and ruminate on what could go wrong.  Self-reflection often means we consider ourselves, past or recent behaviours to learn from to build on what went well and alter what we felt wasn’t helpful.  These are purposeful and useful.

Why being aware of why you overthink can help

Self-awareness is key to growth and the reduction of dysfunctional and unhelpful behaviours.  Being aware of when we are overthinking can help us to alter or manage the associated behaviour.  For example, if I feel a sense of low self-worth, I may overthink conversations I’ve had in the day through fear that the people I’ve been in contact with will think I’m stupid or bad in some way.  If I’ve been mistreated by others, I may overthink this to question why this happened and what I think is wrong with me.  In this case, where there has been abuse and bullying, overthinking exacerbates the negative feelings we have towards ourselves and can contribute to significantly increasing a distorted sense of self and can create anxiety and low mood.

Being self-aware means we can challenge our thinking patterns to have more realistic thoughts and to challenge some of the distorted beliefs we may have created about ourselves based on how others have treated us.

In our next article, we look at key methods and strategies to reduce or stop overthinking and in the meantime, feel free to make comments or ask any questions. I will always reply.


Best wishes, Duncan


Special thanks for research, content and images go to our new Digital Media Assistant – Ethan Quinney



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Morin, A (2020). 10 Signs You’re Overthinking [online]. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2020/04/20/10-signs-youre-overthinking-and-what-to-do-about-it/?sh=30f43fbb2bb8 [Accessed 02 Dec 2021].

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