Overthinking: Why Is It Harmful?

To avoid overthinking, it's not necessary to stop thinking, but to change the content. We'll teach you some useful strategies here.
Overthinking: Why Is It Harmful?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Turning an issue over means taking it apart, analyzing it, thinking of alternatives, and tying it off with a solution. Even though it’s apparently simple, this process can lead to what’s known as overthinking.

As its name suggests, this is about going over the issue endlessly and ruminating over a situation to the point that what we could have had under control and looked at with some clarity, but it’s instead become an endless loop. Let’s take a look at how to deactivate it.

What does overthinking refer to?

Overthinking is a type of thinking that becomes ruminating, repeating itself over and over again, whereby the search for a solution ends up becoming a problem. This flow of thoughts becomes a situation that’s difficult to control for those who experience it and therefore affects their well-being and self-esteem.

Overthinking often leads us to think about future situations that may never happen. We become over-worried, and our anxiety is triggered. It may start with a specific concern, but it often ends up tying together many issues and situations.

Let’s take a look at an example: Ana thinks “I have to have the presentation ready on time because if I don’t, my boss will call me out just like the other time. However, she might also tell me that the presentation is OK, but that I should have worked more on it…”.

In this mental tailspin, meeting the goal of delivering a job on time ends up taking a back seat. In addition, what was once possible (finishing the presentation) is going to be done at a very high cost – perhaps without the efficiency or quality with which it would have been done to begin with, since Ana is now stressed.

Learning to stop overthinking on time allows us to use our thinking to our advantage and take control instead of distorting facts and reality. When we don’t take control, this escalation of thoughts paralyzes and overwhelms us.

Sobrepensamiento en el trabajo.
At work, overthinking is very likely to appear and hinder our actions aimed at a task.

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The consequences of overthinking

Without a doubt, overthinking causes physical and mental exhaustion, since it leads us to a dynamic that goes hand-in-hand with emotion and behavior. That is to say, negative thinking (for example, failure in a certain situation) leads to sadness and discomfort. Then, it can lead to behaviors of the same nature. This dynamic then becomes cyclical and reinforces what we believed at the beginning.

Among the main consequences, we can find the following.

  • Overthinking affects the perception of the problem, since it doesn’t solve it, but magnifies it.
  • It increases anxiety and nervousness.
  • We experience negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness) around the issue.
  • It lowers our self-esteem, as it leads us to feel incapable, overcome by the situation, and vulnerable.
  • Overthinking prevents us from connecting with the present and enjoying it.
  • It leads us to miss opportunities for improvement and growth since it paralyzes us and leaves us in a state of inaction.
  • It makes it difficult to make decisions.

The great disadvantage of overthinking is that it’s at the base of many other major mental health problems, such as anxiety disorder and depression.

You may also like to read this article: What Do Philosophers Do and Why Are They Important?

How to avoid overthinking?

Some of the actions that can help us to interrupt the loop of thoughts are the following:

  1. Practice relaxation and meditation mindfulness to breathing techniques. Even if it is only 30 minutes a day, physical exercise also releases stress.
  2. Try to understand what’s behind the thoughts: Are you afraid of what they may say? Do you have a fear of being ridiculed? At the bottom of those thoughts are often ideas about ourselves that we learned from earlier experiences, but that can be challenged and changed.
  3. Learn to identify when the thoughts arise. By doing so, we can recognize that anxiety is about to appear, and we will implement measures to avoid it. So, instead of spending all day hovering over the issue, we can decide to deal with it and then move on to another plan. For example, we can go for a walk instead.
  4. Ask for advice. We often arrive at these emotions after thinking again about the same thing over and over. So when you start to feel overwhelmed, you can ask someone what they would do in your situation or how they would resolve it.
  5. Imagine what you would say to someone else. Related to the previous point, try to project what conversation you/d have with someone who poses the same problem. What advice would you give them?
  6. Replace one type of thinking with another. When you think you can’t do it or when you find yourself invalidating yourself, have a list of pleasant and triumphant memories at hand.
Amigas hablan sobre el sobrepensamiento.
Talking to another person to give some perspective to the issue is important, since sometimes we don’t understand what’s happening to us.

Thoughts are not reality

It’s important to remember that whatever we think is not reality or what’s going to happen. They’re just ideas, interpretations, and projections of what we think we can do or what could happen.

It’s necessary to separate the one who thinks from their thoughts. We are not what we think, but we will end up becoming that if we don’t seek a solution to overthinking.

Overthinking leaves us prisoners of the mind and of hypothetical scenarios. Thus, far from preparing ourselves for the situation and finding resources and peace of mind, we become burdened with fear and anguish. That’s why we must learn to get out of this loop and switch to a reflective mode of thinking instead.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Jara, Victoria (2012). Desarrollo del pensamiento y teorías cognitivas para enseñar a pensar y producir conocimientos. Sophia, Colección de Filosofía de la Educación, (12),53-66.[fecha de Consulta 14 de Abril de 2022]. ISSN: 1390-3861. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=441846101004
  • León, F. (2014). Sobre el pensamiento reflexivo, también llamado pensamiento crítico. Propósitos y Representaciones, 2 (1), 161-214. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.20511/pyr2014.v2n1.56
  • Valencia Ortiz, Andrómeda Ivette , & Hernández-Martínez, Allan , & Rocha Sánchez, Tania Esmeralda , & García Cruz, Rubén (2017). Pensamiento rumiativo y depression entre estudiantes universitarios: Repensando el impacto del género. Revista Interamericana de Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 51(3),406-416.[fecha de Consulta 15 de Abril de 2022]. ISSN: 0034-9690. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=28455448011

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.