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What is overthinking and why do we do it?

Overthinking is when you think about something for a longer period of time than is required. When making a choice or analysing a situation, we all need to think things through, but when we can’t come to a sensible conclusion after examining all of the possibilities, we start to overthink. When we have several competing choices to pick from, we tend to overthink key decisions in general in attempt to explore all scenarios and possible solutions. This is where sleep disturbances, symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, lower quality mental health in general and poor problem solving skills can come into play. When a person suffers from perfectionism and wants everything to be flawless, they are often prone to overthinking.

Here are some reasons overthinking can lead to negative thoughts:

  • Thinking excessively about something without finding a solution, can make you feel horrible since you’ll feel hopeless and powerless
  • Secondly, you might feel guilty if you aren’t confident in your solution because you could feel so exhausted by just imagining all of the different scenarios playing out that you then might lack the drive to put it into action. This can add to your feelings of helplessness
  • Thirdly, when we’re in a positive or negative emotional state, we have an inclination to extend it. Therefore when we’re happy, we tend to do more things that make us happy, and when we’re sad, we perceive everything in a negative light. This means that if your overthinking leads to negative emotions, you will most likely interpret neutral things as negative

How to unhook from repetitive thinking patterns?

An evidence based method is the ABCDE model, developed by Albert Ellis, an American psychologist and psychotherapist. It works as shown below:

A – activated event: Write down or talk through the event that is bothering you whether it is from the past, present or future. This will help you identify your triggers. For example, your partner left without saying goodbye to you as he normally does every other day without fail.

B – Write down or talk through your beliefs about this event. This can also include your thoughts, perspectives and the meaning you attach to these events. Example continued – my partner did not say goodbye to me this morning so I believe he is angry at me, could be falling out of love with me, is sick of being around me too much and doesn’t care about me.

C – consequences: Then write down or talk through the emotions the event evoked within you, your behaviours and the physical sensations in your body that it caused. This helps you identify the way you responded to this event. Example continued – this made me sad, feel rejected, feel guilty incase I did anything wrong and it made me overthink about our last 24 hours together.

D – dispute: This is where you challenge your beliefs that were irrational. You can do this by asking a number of open ended questions such as where did this belief come from? Example continued – Were these beliefs based on evidence or is it something I have just told myself, what verbal and non-verbal cues led me to believe this, did I seek clarification on whether my perception on the situation was correct or not? Are my thoughts just based on what I was feeling at the time?

E- effect: In this section write down or talk through a summary of your balanced view on the subject after disputing this belief with yourself. Example continued – my partner did not hug me goodbye this morning but that does not mean he was angry at me he could have just been rushing to work. If something was wrong he would have used open communication to tell me so we could resolve it like he always does, and the last few days together have been really great.

It’s critical to understand that overthinking isn’t an issue in and of itself. It’s the inability to solve the difficulty and the danger lies in the narrative you tell yourself, which might not be founded on reality. You’re probably bright and capable of looking at a topic from all sides if you’re an over-thinker. The focus should not be on how to suppress overthinking, but rather on how to tackle it front on and hone in on why you’re overthinking in the first place. If you are overthinking then the chances of the dilemma being quite complex are high. Do you need to change the way you approach the problem? Broaden your understanding of the topic to fully comprehend what you’re up against? Seek a second opinion from a professional with lived experience? Learn better problem-solving skills? Practice other cognitive diffusion methods? The answer will be different for everyone, so remember to practice some self-compassion while you are engaging in a trial and error process along your journey.

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