It may not come as a surprise that an estimated 73 percent of adults aged 25 to 35 years overthink. This period of life comes with so many key choice points about our partnerships, careers, families, and friendships. And in 2023, there is also so much happening on a collective level that warrants our worry: a climate in peril, a coordinated assault on our reproductive rights, and racial injustice and violence, to name just a few things.
Most of the advice we get about overthinking is targeting how to stop it. But as a therapist, I’ve found that our internal experiences tend to rage on if we just try to get rid of them rather than pay attention to and understand them—a subject I recently discussed on an episode of The Well+Good Podcast.
While overthinking is clearly very common, it can also be distressing and prevent us from feeling ease within ourselves and about our life choices. Let’s examine how we can identify when it’s happening, what it might be attempting to help us do, and how it might be getting in the way of us living with less worry.
What is overthinking really about?
There are many reasons why people tend to overthink. It may be a coping mechanism that you learned in childhood, when the world around you felt too overwhelming; you went up in your head to try to find refuge and distraction from the chaos. Overthinking may have also helped you achieve success, if you spent a lot of time thinking through obstacles and how to overcome them. Or it may have been the strategy you used to stay safe, as you cautiously calculated how to travel the least risky path; after all, our brains have evolved to worry as a mechanism to help keep us safe.
No matter the cause, overthinking is a function of worry. You may overthink something you said because you’re worried about being disliked. You may overthink about a work project before submitting it because you’re worried it won’t be good enough. This often manifests as excessive rumination: constant thoughts or questions that are hard to silence, moving through your mind at a fast pace.
Though persistent, overthinking typically has a good intention; it maintains the underlying belief that if we think harder or longer on something, we will eventually find the perfect solution that will bring us to peace.
Overthinking can help us avoid certain difficult experiences by making us believe that we can think our way out of a problem or nervous system state.
For this reason, one way I view overthinking is as a prevention or avoidance tactic, meaning that the thoughts keep us from being aware of other parts of our experience. Overthinking can help us avoid certain difficult experiences by making us believe that we can think our way out of a problem or nervous system state. Below are a few different ways that overthinking can manifest as avoidance, and how to identify them in action.
How overthinking often works as an avoidance tactic
Overthinking prevents body awareness
When we are in our heads, we are often not feeling what’s happening in our bodies. For example, if I am excessively wondering about if my partner is cheating on me, this rumination might actually be helping me to avoid the heart palpitations I am experiencing, the fear of being rejected, or the pain of being betrayed.
Sometimes, by trying to find an answer in our minds, we actually bypass the truth that exists in our bodies. In this way, overthinking can be a method for avoidance of inner feelings and fears.
Overthinking prevents us from feeling out of control
If we believe that we can think our way into an answer, we may also believe that we are capable of finding a solution and fixing the problem—even if that’s not actually feasible. Trying to have control over an outcome can be an attempt to stop the anxiety we are experiencing around it. For example, we might have a sick parent and spend countless hours researching their condition to avoid feeling the sadness or fear about them being sick.
Overthinking prevents us from feeling imperfect
When we are concerned about our ability to “get it right,” we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about it. We want to be sure to analyze every angle and anticipate unforeseen pitfalls in order to protect ourselves from rejection or the feelings associated with “getting it wrong.”
Many over-thinking perfectionists tend to be procrastinators because of the extensive analysis process they engage in to avoid their imperfectness. When we are procrastinating by overthinking, we are not really avoiding a task or an activity; we are avoiding the emotional experience of potentially failing at the activity.
Overthinking prevents us from being in conflict
Sometimes when we are deliberating for a long period of time, we are storing our distress instead of expressing it. We do this because we are afraid of the conflict, break-up, or discord that it might create when the truth is out of our bodies and in the world. We accept internal discord in exchange for external “peace” (or lack of real talk). In this case, it can be helpful to ask yourself: How do I feel about making this trade-off?
Wondering how to address these contributing factors to overthinking without just outright suppressing those thoughts? Listen to the full podcast episode here for my additional insights.
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