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Many people struggle with repetitive thoughts racing through their head, beginning with the phrase, “what if…”.
What if I can’t handle all of this? What If I fail? What if I’m not enough?
Whatever follows the “what if” statement generally involves the following factors:
- An uncertain situation
- A perceived catastrophic outcome
- Perception of personal inadequacy
For example, if you’re uncertain whether you’ll be able to pay the bills this month due to a shortage of work, your mind may go on overdrive, dwelling on the worst-case scenario. You imagine losing everything.
You then beat yourself up with thoughts of being worthless. Focused on these thoughts, you cannot sleep, making it more challenging to take action due to mental fatigue and feeling overwhelmed.
Overthinking is different from critical thinking. Overthinking is based on fear, whereas critical thinking is based on curiosity. The former is closed whereas the latter is open.
In our time of increasing uncertainty, anxious thoughts about the future are a common form of overthinking. On the mild end, overthinking consists of occasional worrying. On the severe end, it consists of debilitating anxiety.
According to research, roughly a third of people suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. As a counselor, this is one of the most common issues I see people struggling with, so if you can relate to this issue, you are not alone.
In this article, I use the word overthinking instead of anxiety to separate it from the diagnostic realm. Many people experience forms of worrying that do not necessarily become an anxiety disorder. High functioning anxiety is another non-diagnostic term that has been used for this issue.
Like persons with anxiety disorders, many people who regularly engage in overthinking are high functioning, intelligent, and successful in their fields. They can outwardly appear to have everything together while bottling up increasing levels of stress.
What Causes Overthinking?
As someone with an academic background, I value thinking. As I entered the counseling field, I noticed how too much thinking is part of the problem for many people. Rather than getting you closer to your goal, overthinking can cause procrastination, anxiety, and other health problems caused by stress.
Since overthinking is counterproductive, what is its purpose? What causes overthinking?
Overthinking is caused by the brain’s need to create a sense of order and certainty when faced with uncertainty. Its inability to gain certainty in uncertain situations results in a fear response, provoking further thinking to resolve this discrepancy.
For example, uncertainty regarding the meaning of one’s physical health symptoms can result in overthinking. You may turn to google, checking the meaning of your symptoms, leading to further uncertainty when told it could range from a minor infection to symptoms of a specific kind of cancer. This can then spiral you into a panic, worrying about worst-case scenarios, imagining you’re not going to survive.
Thinking can spiral into overthinking, which can spiral into panic, magnifying the physical symptoms and creating further symptoms resulting from the increased stress.
As things start to feel overwhelming, it is tempting to double down on problem-solving. But, unfortunately, since thinking likely got you into this situation, more thinking is not the way out.
Since this kind of thinking is generally focused on things outside of your control, it only gives you the illusion of control. Worrying feels productive but only digs you deeper into the anxiety pit.
Is Overthinking an Addiction?
Recently, I discovered how overthinking is a form of addiction.
As an addiction counselor, I understand addiction as the continued use of substances or addictive behaviors despite adverse consequences. The addiction creates an illusion of control while leading to the loss of control over one’s situation.
Consider how overthinking does the same thing. Many people continue to worry about a situation, despite the negative consequences of this worrying. Worrying can make you feel like you are productive when in reality, it takes away from your ability to take action on things within your control.
This way of conceptualizing overthinking goes deeper than just surface-level similarity.
According to Judson Brewer MD PhD in his new book Unwinding Anxiety, worrying is a form of addiction. Like playing a slot machine, it is unproductive in the long-term, but worrying sometimes results in perceived random payoffs, keeping you hooked.
For example, perhaps you are worried about not getting a promotion at work, and then you get the promotion. Although your worrying did not necessarily cause the promotion, they become associated in your mind.
This is how persons with a gambling addiction develop superstitions or theories regarding patterns. When a random reward is presented, our brains try to determine the cause of this reward. This is an ancient survival mechanism that helped us find patterns in nature.
Random rewards trick the brain into perceiving patterns where none exist. Although the superstitious behaviors have no connection to the actual outcome, they give an illusion of control.
There are random moments where things outside of your control happen to work in your favor when worrying. This reinforces the worry pattern since your brain begins to associate the worrying and the outcome falsely.
Over time, you become psychologically dependent on worrying, believing it is the only thing holding everything together. Although worrying can have some short-term benefits if it spurs a necessary action—as discussed in my article here—its long-term effects are generally unhelpful.
Mary Schmich illustrates this when she states:
“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Beyond not being helpful, this type of worrying can be detrimental to your health, according to WebMD:
“Chronic worrying can affect your daily life so much that it may interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep, and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, cigarette smoking, or using alcohol and drugs.”
Although many people think of addiction in terms of drugs or alcohol, behavioral addiction often goes unnoticed.
Consider how your relationship to your phone might resemble a gambling addiction. You are bombarded with randomly rewarding notifications. Hearing the buzz, you’re compelled to check, uncertain of the potential reward waiting for you. If you’re interested in seeing if you’re addicted to your phone, I created a self-assessment quiz in my article here.
If the compulsion to check your phone is driven by fear rather than a potential reward, the same addictive process is at work. This form of checking is like worrying. It makes you feel busy and productive while taking away your ability to focus on what matters most.
Applying the concept of behavioral addiction to worrying, Judson Brewer classifies worrying as a “mental behavior,” even if it does not lead to physical action such as checking your phone.
For example, many people find themselves living in their head on Sunday afternoons, worrying about all the work they need to do on Monday morning. Unfortunately, spending time and energy on this mental behavior may not involve doing actual work. In fact, it likely takes away from your ability to do the actual work since it can lead to loss of sleep and mental fatigue.
Overthinking is like running on the mental treadmill. It keeps you busy with the endless pursuit of control over the uncontrollable. But, like gambling superstitions, it is a futile attempt to gain a sense of certainty and predictability where it does not exist. More thinking merely puts your mental treadmill on high speed, expending the energy that could be applied to more worthwhile endeavors.
Signs of Addiction to Overthinking
Here are a few signs you may be addicted to overthinking:
You mentally over-prepare to avoid difficult emotions.
Although thoughtful attention to detail and preparation is helpful, overthinking involves repeatedly resorting to the problem-solving mindset to suppress underlying emotions. Like an addiction, the rational mind becomes the drug, providing temporary relief at a long-term cost to the emotional mind. As described in Dr. Gabor Maté’s book, When The Body Says No, this can result in various forms of physical illness.
You continually focus on the way things “should” be.
Constantly focusing on the way things “should” be can be a mentally rigid way of not accepting the way things are in reality. Although it is helpful to maintain critical thinking and push for change when things are unjust, or systems are broken, overly focusing on the “shoulds” often becomes counterproductive. This attempt to gain a sense of order often amplifies the sense of disorder, creating a sense of helplessness. This can diminish one’s ability to take action on aspects of the issue directly within one’s control.
You spend a lot of time living in the future or the past.
Worrying about the future or dwelling on the past can be forms of overthinking that keep you from living in the present. Although it is helpful to plan for the future and learn from the past, overthinking about these areas can be like driving without looking at the road directly ahead of you. Fixating on the GPS (future planning) or the rear-view mirror (past dwelling) makes it challenging to engage in safe and effective driving.
You are driven by the thought of not being enough.
Constantly thinking about yourself in comparison to others makes you feel isolated. This way of operating fuels an inner voice of shame, telling you you’re not good enough. Although it can be helpful to strive for progress in one’s life, it is counterproductive when heavily fueled by social comparison. When coming from a place of not being enough, your mind will only race faster as you progress, often resulting in self-sabotage due to the underlying sense of being unworthy or unable to handle success.
You lose touch with your underlying values.
Overthinking can often come from being overly preoccupied with what is expected of you. Rather than acting for the purpose of self-care or to maintain alignment with your values, you often worry about others and worry about doing enough to satisfy their expectations. Although helping others can be based on genuinely valuing compassion, losing touch with this value can lead to constantly doing things for others, neglecting self-care, and worrying about what other people think. As a result, you become hyper-focused on the goal but lose touch with your “why”.
You constantly find yourself in analysis paralysis.
Although analysis can be helpful, it becomes a form of overthinking when it takes away from your ability to act. Analysis paralysis is a form of perfectionism fueled by a sense of insecurity regarding one’s abilities or one’s underlying sense of being an imposter. This process results in procrastination. On the surface, procrastination often looks like laziness, but this is often far from reality. An unwillingness to take action is usually based on fear, and overthinking is an unhelpful attempt to gain a sense of certainty.
If you find yourself engaging in ineffective attempts to gain a sense of control by overthinking, it can be helpful to take a step back and notice when this is happening. In these moments, noticing how these mental habits are unrewarding allows you to break the illusion of control. Immediately recognizing this, you can shift your focus to something directly within your control, noticing the reward value of this alternative behavior.
If you want to learn more about breaking worry habits, I highly recommend the new book Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer MD PhD. In the book, he lays out a practical step-by-step approach to rewiring your brain’s reward circuitry to address habitual worrying.