Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/16/2022
Anxiety is a mental disorder with a sense of irony. If you suffer from anxiety, you already know this. Anxious people worry about worrying. They get nervous about being nervous. And they keep themselves up late, thinking, “Why do I overthink everything?”
Overthinking sucks — and what it sucks is time.
From the hours spent obsessing over whether a friend “seemed” upset at you to the days wasted worrying about hypothetical problems, it can sap collective years from your life and reduce the quality of the ones you’re here for.
Whether you’re tired of overthinking your overthinking problem or just wanting to think productively about how to think with more intention, it’s a good sign that you’re here to learn.
We can help you learn more about the effects of overthinking, especially if your end goal is to learn how to defeat this brain drain symptom of anxiety.
But before we jump ahead to solutions for the habit of overthinking, let’s look at the problem itself and start with a simple definition. After all, there’s no point in overthinking it.
Overthinking is a way of describing a wild and uncontrollable series of thoughts that cause us distress. People have used many phrases and words to describe overthinking over the years.
You might have heard it called rumination, spiraling, hyperfixation, obsessing or something else and, to a certain extent, these terms can be interchangeable depending on who you’re talking to.
Most of us only have one mind, after all, so it can be hard to describe the sensation of having too many thoughts in your head and feeling overwhelmed by them — especially if it’s all you’ve ever known.
Thinking too much doesn’t necessarily indicate an anxiety disorder, though.
Overthinking can be a cultural response to collective distress, social upheaval — anything that causes some anxiety.
When you find yourself doing it about anything and everything, though, chances are that it’s a sign of a mental health disorder like anxiety.
How do you describe symptoms of something that’s not really a disorder? Well, let the experts try.
One review of literature from 2016 characterized overthinking as a reflection of ruminative, anxious and intrusive thoughts that can cause or contribute to distress, fatigue, hopelessness, and other symptoms of anxiety or a mood disorder like depression.
A person who is negatively impacted by extreme overthinking may experience social isolation, withdrawal, depressed mood, lack of interest in things they used to enjoy or in responsibilities, memory loss, poor concentration, sleep problems, headaches, impaired function and loss of appetite.
It’s important to acknowledge that these symptoms of depression and other disorders are associated with — not caused by — an overthinking habit.
They may be other passengers on a busload of symptoms — not the driver.
Other associated symptoms can sometimes include bodily pains, fever, chest pains and dizziness, often associated with panic or panic attacks.
So what causes overthinking? Why do we overthink things? Well, the primary causes of overthinking are depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mood disorders, which can list overthinking as a symptom.
Overthinking is a result of how your brain processes information and ways of thinking through the skewed lenses of these mood disorders, and it’s fair to say that a person who is struggling with an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, or with post-traumatic stress disorder, processes information differently.
They may also struggle with intrusive thoughts, fears of death and, well, anxiety.
As you probably understand by now, anxiety and overthinking are like peanut butter and jelly: they’re often found together.
Anxiety is one of the main contributors to intrusive thinking patterns — along with depression and PTSD — but it’s also the cause of the most intense overthinking type: panic.
Panic-like symptoms are often found in association with overthinking. This happens across cultures in studies, no matter whether you’re looking at Cambodian refugees to European citizens.
Generally speaking, the treatment for overthinking is mental health care. If you’re burdened by thinking too much, intrusive thoughts or mental fatigue from fears and worries, get help.
Consulting a healthcare provider or mental health professional is likely the best first thing you can do for your own long-term care and wellbeing because depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are difficult to treat without guided support.
One of the most important early steps we can take is to abandon the idea of therapy as taboo or a sign of weakness. Stigma against treatment doesn’t help in anxiety treatment — it just makes more people suffer quietly.
Once you’re talking to a healthcare provider, they may have one or more treatment modalities to suggest.
Medication might also be able to aid in the same end goal, albeit through a very different means.
Currently, antidepressants are considered one of the safest and most effective treatments for anxiety, too.
These medications help regulate the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain, which are believed at least partly to play a role in preventing those super low emotional lows, and the extremes of anxiety and panic.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves — first you have to find a therapy provider.
If you’ve made it to the end of this page with elevated stress levels because you’re still not sure what to do next in your therapy journey, we’re pretty sure you’re overthinking it.
Let’s focus on a positive outcome instead.
Overthinking how to do therapy misses the point, which is to get started as soon as possible. Therapy can be an elimination game for some people, and the longer you seek treatment, the more treatment options you’ll have access to over time.
That means getting to the solution faster than if you start next week, or next year.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider our online therapy platform, where you can explore your therapy options. It makes it easy to see what’s out there if you don’t feel a connection with your first professional.
Therapy isn’t about perfect: it’s about practice. And mental health is about growth and improvement over time. The sooner you start the clock, the sooner you can start seeing results.
Hit start today.