As an introvert with social anxiety disorder, I overthink like it’s my job.
I think about stuff, I think about why I’m thinking about it, and I think about why I think about why I’m thinking about it. (Have a headache yet? Me too).
Although it’s easy to make light of, in all actuality overthinking is not a lighthearted subject. The overthinker’s biggest obstacle is the ability to make decisions, and it’s far more damaging than people give it credit for.
The Function of Fear
At the root of our overthinking is one simple factor: social fear.
I’m afraid of ordering the wrong pizza toppings at dinner tonight because it’ll be another whole week before I eat junk food again– so I overthink it.
I’m afraid of checking out the wrong books at the library because they might be boring and I’ll have to drive all the way back (like all ten minutes) to get new ones– so I overthink it.
And on a more serious level, I’m afraid that choosing the wrong Master’s degree will lead to financial trouble and choosing the wrong career will lead to regret– so I overthink it.
Ultimately, overthinking stems from the fear of making the wrong decision.
This can be devastating, not because I’m a pizza-craving basket case who’s getting hangrier by the minute, but because overthinking can lead to a paralysis of fear that prevents a decision from ever being made at all.
One way or the other, I will be eating pizza tonight. But if I don’t find a way to eliminate my destructive downward spiral of overthinking, those decisions that actually matter may remain “in limbo” for the rest of my life.
Do you find yourself doing this too?
Fortunately, I’ve found some strategies that you and I both can implement right now to put a stop to our dangerous overthinking tendencies.
The “Big Picture” Mindset
Overthinking causes us to “zoom in” on each decision so that we can analyze our options from every angle and consider all of the potential outcomes.
Sometimes this is a great thing; overthinkers tend to display an exceptional attention to detail and a meticulous work ethic. No stone goes unturned when we’re searching for solutions to a problem.
But our tendency to overthink convinces us that we need to devote this level of attention to every decision, when the reality is that not all of them are worthy of this much consideration.
(After all, if it deserved that much thought it would be regular thinking and not overthinking, right?)
As a result, we spend our time dwelling on things that aren’t really that important instead of focusing on things that truly deserve our attention or, better yet, actually enjoying ourselves.
To put a stop to this unproductive cycle and reclaim our time and mental energy, we must be intentional about realizing when we’re overthinking.
Once we’re able to identify the pattern our thoughts are taking, we can work on “zooming out” and considering each decision, opportunity, and problem on a more realistic scale.
Just Do Something
A book I read several years ago called Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung1 addresses the dangerous habit of not making any decision at all due to fear of making the wrong decision. He argues that many of the decisions we spend so much time agonizing over aren’t going to have as big of an impact as we think they will, and we’re better off just making a choice.
When we recognize that we’re beginning to overthink something, one way to “zoom out” is to give yourself a time limit for making the decision.
Choose your time limit based on the seriousness of the situation. For example, I’m going to give myself a time limit of 10 minutes for choosing my pizza toppings, but I’m going to set a time limit of two weeks for making a decision about which Master’s program to enroll in (or whether or not to enroll at all).
The amount of time, money, and life-change that will accompany a decision are the keys to deciding how long you should take to finalize your choice. (Pizza = not much time spent eating, doesn’t cost much, won’t change the circumstances of my life / Grad school = 2+ years, very expensive, and has the potential to change my life circumstances).
Putting a time limit on your decision is not intended to increase your anxiety about which choice to make; a time limit is intended to ensure that you do make a decision in the end.
(Here’s a guide if you’re having problems overthinking in social settings.)
Take a Time Out
Another strategy to immediately stop overthinking is to take a break.
Have you ever put on a pair of glasses that belong to someone else?
If your vision is already normal, putting on a pair of glasses will cause everything to become blurry and out of focus. The glasses are overkill; while they bring things just close enough to be clear for the person they belong to, they bring things too close to be clear for you.
When we’re “zoomed in” on a problem or decision, we often become too close to the situation to be able to see it clearly. Taking a break gives us a chance to “reset” so that we’re able to see it in focus when we return.
When you take a break, it needs to be something that’s going to effectively distract you. Moving to a new location only to continue overthinking is not going to be helpful for you.
Take a walk, a nap, go grocery shopping, call your grandma, or read a book; your break can be whatever you want it to be as long as it’s going to take your focus off the decision for a little while.
Focus on the Present
The third way you can stop the cycle of overthinking is by shifting your focus to the “here and now.”
Overthinking causes us to analyze the impact a decision could have many years down the road, involving a lot of “what-ifs” and circumstances that we can’t possibly know yet.
Unless one of your options has obvious negative implications for your well-being in the future, consider what is best for you right now.
Relieving yourself of the pressure of trying to predict the future based on the potential impact of one decision will help you to immediately stop overthinking and, instead, begin focusing on the present.
Overthinking is a dangerous and unproductive thought pattern, but when you learn how to identify its presence you can begin to implement alternative thought processes instead. This will significantly reduce your stress levels and improve your quality of life by allowing you to spend less time agonizing over decisions and more time living your life.
How has overthinking impacted your life? Share in the comments below!
- DeYoung, Kevin. 2009. Just do something: A liberating approach to finding god’s will. Moody Publishers.