Why do I overthink everything?

Why do I overthink everything?

Reviewed by:
Brenda Camacho, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
February 28, 2024
In this article

Thinking is a fact of life. But if your thoughts become stuck in a loop of worry and negativity, you may be overthinking.

Telling yourself that you’re not prepared enough for an upcoming test or imagining all the things that could go wrong during your family reunion can feel necessary to overcome difficult or stressful circumstances. However, overthinking can make these situations more difficult by draining you of time and energy, and in certain cases, it may even be an indicator of mental health conditions.

If you’ve ever found yourself second-guessing your decisions, obsessing over worst-case scenarios, or meditating on all the things you could have done differently, this article is for you. Read on to learn more about the signs and causes of overthinking and tips to overcome it.

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What exactly is overthinking?

Overthinking, sometimes called rumination, is the process of repetitive negative thinking. While repeated and even prolonged thoughts about yourself and the circumstances of life are common, overthinking is different. You might find yourself unable to stop replaying upsetting thoughts about your past or future. Sometimes rumination can become so overwhelmed you can’t concentrate on anything else.

Perhaps you can’t stop fixating on all the things that could go wrong at a dinner party you’re hosting, or you can’t seem to stop worrying about an upcoming appointment. If these thoughts begin to disrupt your life, you may be overthinking.  

Many people will experience overthinking at some point in their life. Nearly 73% of 25 to 35-year-olds and 52% of 45 to 55-year-olds experienced overthinking in their day-to-day lives, according to a  study by sociologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. The study consisted of interviews with 1,300 people from different walks of life. Researchers asked participants about their jobs, relationships, medical experiences, and, of course, how they thought. What's surprising is that while many people tend to overthink, it decreases significantly with age. Only 20% of participants over 60 were classified as overthinkers.

Here are more signs of what overthinking and rumination look like.

Signs of overthinking

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fixation on worst-case scenarios
  • Focusing on negative thoughts  
  • Thinking intrusive thoughts
  • Missing deadlines
  • Needing reassurance from others
  • Second guessing yourself
  • Struggling to make decisions

Is overthinking a mental illness?

Overthinking itself is not a mental health condition but a response to negative emotions. Research suggests  that rumination plays a powerful role as a risk factor for depression and anxiety. That means if you tend to overthink and get caught up in negative thoughts, it can significantly increase your chances of developing these conditions. You may have experienced this in the past: When you spend a lot of time rehashing bad memories, this ends up leading to more negative thoughts and a cynical outlook.

Overthinking can also trigger or extend a depressive episode. Likewise, depression can extend periods of rumination. If you notice a correlation between patterns of overthinking and depression, they may be contributing to each other.  

If you think your negative thoughts are related to depression and want to learn more, check out: What does depression feel like?

What causes overthinking?

One thing that can make people more likely to engage in a habit of overthinking is experiencing stress. Some theories suggest that when we go through stressful events in life, we might end up ruminating not only about those specific events, but also about various aspects of our lives. In other words, stress can trigger rumination about different things that bother us.

Types of overthinking

Overthinking can come in many different forms and cause cognitive distortions. Below are some of the most common.

  • All-or-nothing thinking is when you can only see the extremes of a situation—something can only be a success or total failure.
  • Catastrophizing happens when you can only see the worst-case scenario. It leads you to believe the worst is inevitable, causing distress and often painting an unrealistically negative world picture.
  • Generalizing is when you base your outlook on a single event in the past. For example, perhaps you failed one big test in your freshman year of college. That failure makes you believe that you will fail every test you take, despite the fact that you’ve aced a majority of the tests you’ve taken in your lifetime.
  • Perfectionism, or setting high expectations too high for yourself, can become destructive—especially when you’re overly critical of yourself. Having impossible standards can lead you to obsess over perceived flaws or mistakes. That can make you even more self-critical so you end up overanalyzing past actions or outcomes.

How do I stop overthinking?

There’s no single method to stop overthinking. If you want to take control of your thinking patterns, get started with some of these psychiatrist-backed tips below.

Break your routines

If you’re in the habit of ruminating, one way to stop overthinking is to replace it with a new healthier habit.  You can start by becoming more aware of how overthinking pops up in daily life. Maybe it starts when you get overwhelmed after seeing a particular family member or before your weekly meeting with your boss. Plan a new routine for the next time you encounter whatever is triggering the spiraling thoughts. Maybe you go for a run after seeing your family member or make an itemized agenda for the meeting with your boss.  

Experiment with reframing  

If your overthinking tends to fall into the catastrophizing or all-or-nothing line of thought, reframing can be especially helpful. This technique involves practicing a shift in perspective when it comes to negative thoughts. It's about looking at those thoughts from different angles, through a more positive lens.  

You can start by identifying patterns of overthinking and the underlying beliefs driving them. Next, question these beliefs by asking yourself if they're true and think about other ways to understand them.

For instance, if you find yourself catastrophizing about an upcoming dinner party and all the things that could go wrong—like how you could burn the lasagna or how your guests won’t have anything to talk about—try reframing it by considering potential positive outcomes. Like how your lasagna is always a big hit with your family and your friends are sure to love it too, or how your guests will likely have a lot to talk about since they have so much in common.

Instead of fixating on the worst-case scenario, focus on any actionable steps you can take to prepare for the event—like making sure you have all the ingredients for the lasagna or thinking of conversation starters for your guests. Over time, this process can help loosen the grip that overthinking has over your life.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness has been shown to be a useful strategy in combating overthinking. Rumination can encourage hopelessness—thoughts like, I can’t do anything right, Why did I do that, I should have never tried—and mindfulness helps to challenge that.

When you get stuck thinking about one thing, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings without judging yourself—just observe them as passing mental events. Then focus on deep breathing to anchor yourself in the present moment. With consistent practice, mindfulness can help develop greater awareness of your thought patterns. You’ll become less reactive to them, which can help you manage overthinking.

Start therapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can provide you with a safe place to voice your thoughts and explore why you overthink. When you work with a therapist, they can help you understand what makes you overthink, and address the root cause.

Therapy can also teach you new communication skills, which can help with the loneliness and insecurity that often accompany overthinking. With time, these skills will help you build better relationships and make handling tough situations easier.

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Try an acceptance-based approach  

In this strategy, you learn to tolerate uncomfortable or distressing feelings, including overthinking. It might seem strange, but accepting your thoughts, rather than trying to change them, can make overthinking happen less often.  

An acceptance-based approach teaches you ways to be mindful and kind to yourself instead of avoiding problems, which is what overthinking can usually lead to. For example, if you’re stressed about an upcoming meeting with your boss, you can try recognizing that there are certain things beyond your control. Instead of worrying about those things, focus on preparing for your meeting. Remind yourself that you’ve done your best and no matter what happens, you’ll deal with it professionally.

Overthinking too much? When to get help

If you’re unsure if you should see a psychiatrist, the following may be a sign to turn to a professional:

  • You’re missing deadlines because of overthink has led to procrastination.
  • Overthinking has kept you from social events.
  • You feel out of control of your thoughts.
  • You feel like you need someone to talk to.

Talking to a mental health provider can help you work through what you’re feeling. And they can diagnose any mental health conditions you might have and come up with a treatment plan that’s tailored for you.

At Talkiatry, we treat conditions anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, and more with a combination of medication and therapy. We’re a national psychiatrist practice providing 100% virtual care.

Ready to get started? Take a quick online assessment and get matched with a psychiatrist.

FAQs about overthinking

Still have more questions? Here's what else to know about why we overthink things.

What is overthinking a symptom of?

Overthinking can be a symptom of depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and PTSD. It’s also a common response to increased stress levels. If overthinking leads to a cycle of indecision and inaction, it may be a symptom of something else.

What does it mean if you overthink everything?

It’s common to overthink. One study found that as many as 73% of 25 to 35-year-olds and 52% of 45 to 55-year-olds experience it. If rumination becomes disruptive to your life, though, it may be an indicator of underlying mental health conditions, like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or social anxiety.

What causes overthinking?

There isn’t just one reason behind overthinking and there can be a few different reasons behind it. Depression, negative thinking patterns, and difficulty in problem-solving are all common causes.

How do I stop overthinking as much?

Meditation, practicing mindfulness, and self-care can help control overthinking. If destructive thought patterns continue, though, you may benefit from speaking to a psychiatrist (like Talkiatry), psychologist, or other mental health professional.  

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.

While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.

Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.

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