Have you ever experienced repeatedly thinking about possible negative consequences of an action you haven’t done? How about being unproductive because of the countless thoughts running through your head? If you have, don’t worry because you’re not alone. I have experienced them, too.
I remember when I had to do an impromptu speech for class, and I kept thinking of what might possibly go wrong – such as not knowing what to say, not being familiar with the given topic, or experiencing mental block in the middle of the speech.
Overthinking can get exhausting, so to better deal with it, I had a chat with Dr. Raymond John S. Naguit, founder and national chairperson of the Youth for Mental Health Coalition, Inc.
What is overthinking?
Dr. Naguit describes overthinking as a phenomenon wherein we tend to get ahead of an action or an event before we do or experience it. Rumination is rooted in overthinking about the past, while anxiety involves overthinking about the future. Sadness, guilt and anxiety are normal and valid, but when these emotions hinder our growth and development, then we may have to consider a formal diagnosis.
Dr. Naguit explains that though overthinking in itself is not a clinical disorder, it can be a symptom of a mental disorder. He cited some signs when we’ve fallen into the pit of overthinking:
When we don’t live in the present moment
Overthinking takes away our focus on the here and now because we are too busy projecting into the future or digging into the past. I’ve noticed this in myself. Sometimes, I don’t even notice how my food tastes like because I keep thinking about the things I need to do. Scenarios like this make me question why I overthink since it prevents me from enjoying the little things.
When it affects our work
Though thinking can help us mentally organize our to-do list, it becomes a concern when it keeps us from doing the very things we think about.
When it affects our relationships
Overthinking about what people will think or how they will respond to our actions may keep us from taking risks and forming healthy relationships.
When it causes deviant behavior
Dr. Naguit states that this is when we become “overly cautious about doing a certain action or going to a certain place.” This can sometimes contribute to the stress that we experience, which may lead to mental disorders which, Dr. Naguit assures, is not an immediate effect of overthinking.
But if negative thoughts are repetitive, Dr. Naguit points out that it is possible to develop an anxiety disorder from overthinking. If we no longer have control over our emotions, feelings, or thoughts, it is best to seek the help of a professional.
Why do we overthink?
Dr. Naguit explains that overthinking is sometimes due to the “many stimuli that we’re faced with.” An example is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has given rise to health risks, political issues, and economic concerns. Too much stimuli can be overwhelming because they exceed our capacity to cope with different stress points. This can contribute to overthinking since we find it difficult to banish these thoughts.
Dr. Naguit says it is normal for us to sometimes overthink, especially if we have many concerns or tasks. He adds that our reactions to a current situation are sometimes a result of previous experiences. Someone who had been bullied in school may approach going to school with caution and anxiety.
To manage overthinking, Dr. Naguit suggests the following steps:
Express our feelings.
Whether we’re experiencing heavy feelings or bothersome thoughts, we need to release them. Dr. Naguit suggests exorcising emotions on paper; some have “worry journals” that house their thoughts. We can also share our concerns, no matter how irrational, with trusted friends. Sometimes it just takes somebody to tell us that everything will be okay to make us feel better.
Divert our attention.
Dr. Naguit states there are times when we simply cannot control what goes into our minds. However, we can look for a positive diversion. We can try exposing ourselves to another source of stimulus – such as making art, watching television, or exercising.
Understand our sphere of influence.
How do we differentiate the things we can control from those we cannot? Dr. Naguit advises to map out our sphere of influence. For example, instead of stressing over the number of COVID-19 cases every day, it is better to focus on wearing our masks and washing our hands because these are the things we can control. Doing so will not make us feel so helpless and will give us a sense of agency.
Mindfulness is the concept of being aware of the present moment. Because overthinking – or anxiety – is sometimes caused by our fears for the future, the idea is “to reorient [our] attention back to the present moment,” says Dr. Naguit. Mindfulness-based practices like meditation and mindful eating are deliberate and help maximize our five senses to “reorient [ourselves] to the present moment or to the current environment.”
Dr. Naguit adds that part of mindfulness is accepting that we cannot control our thoughts. Thoughts will inevitably enter our minds, and the more we try to control them or shield them, the more stressed we get. He advises to simply recognize and acknowledge our thoughts, and allow them to flow. Then take deep breaths and one by one, let them go.
Physically release our stress.
Some psychologists recommend using stress balls as a means for physical release. Dr. Naguit adds that one of the things he teaches is “progressive muscle relaxation,” wherein patients “cyclically flex and relax [their] muscles.”
Get enough rest and sleep.
Rest is also an important part of mental health intervention. Dr. Naguit explains that when we don’t get enough sleep, we become irritable and tend to conflate things, which then make us overthink. Interventions for physical wellness also contribute to our mental well-being.
When we are doing something, it is best to have our full attention on the task at hand so we can perform our best. However, there are times when certain thoughts pop-up in our minds– and this is perfectly normal. You don’t have to overthink overthinking!
Overthinking is definitely something I can live without. And that impromptu speech I mentioned in the beginning— the one I’d been so worried about? It turned out fine! I knew just what to say about the topic and I finished the speech without a problem.
We don’t have to worry so much or about things because often, they turn out fine in the end. If not, then that’s fine, too. We’ll just learn from the experience and improve ourselves.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health condition, know that there are people whom you can talk to. Get in touch with them through these numbers:
National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline
UP Diliman Psychosocial Services – Free Online Counseling
Philippine Mental Health Association – Free Online Counseling
PMHA Facebook Messenger
Philippine Psychiatric Association – Free Online Counseling