- Going around in circles in your mind, or “mental rut”, gets you stuck in those circles of thought.
- Overthinking also backfires in other ways, as it keeps you in a constant state of stress.
- Know the signs of overthinking, and ways to fight it.
Overthinking affects the young and the old alike, studies have shown. There was a phase in my teenage son’s life when he was obsessed with one thought: “what will happen to us 4 billion years from now?”
He was just 7 years old then. At the dinner table in our Dubai apartment, the conversation started something like this:
Tobit: “I’ve been thinking…4 billion years from now, the Earth will be destroyed, because of the rise in temperature which will heat the surface enough to melt it. All life will be gone.”
His mum said: “Whatever will be, will be. Don't worry about it. Besides it’s still 4 billion years away.”
Tobit: "I'm just thinking... what will happen to us?”
That was probably the effect of watching an overdose of end-of-days videos on a young, impressionable mind.
He was troubled with that thought for days on end, watching YouTube videos on the topic, almost like an obsession.
It was easy to see he was consumed with the thought - but luckily, that phase passed without any consequence.
When you constantly focus on, or worry about, the same thought — like running around in circles in your mind — you could be overthinking.
Also, there’s a high probability that you overthink things if you constantly go over previous conversations.
This constant ruminating and excessive obsession has taken on the characteristics of an “epidemic”, according to a University of Michigan research, which found 52 per cent of people between the ages of 45 and 55 and 73 per cent of adults between the ages of 25 and 35 "overthink".
Interestingly, the study shows many people who overthink, in turn think they are helping themselves — by going over their thoughts on auto-play mode.
Why it’s not helpful
Thinking is a natural function of the brain, part of the process known as cognition, which is how we know and understand things.
Overthinking, on the other hand, is a response to stress, or a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychotherapists say the reality is that overthinking is an anxious tendency, not a mental health issue per se. But overanalysing is like a “tunnel” that can lead to detrimental effects on our wellbeing.
“There are many ways we tend to overthink, such as rehashing the past — replaying the same scenario over and over in our head. Worrying is another form, in which we obsess over what the future might bring,” Jenny Maenpaa, 37, a New York-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist, wrote for CNBC’s Make It. “I can empathise. When I was younger, overthinking decreased my quality of life.”
More to it, overthinking is often a byproduct of anxiety or depression, says Natacha Duke, a registered psychotherapist with Cleveland Clinic Canada’s Executive Health program.
In reality, overthinking piles up stress. How? When you dwell on the unpleasant, remember the past, and worry about the future, a fear-driven paralysis kicks in, stunts your innate problem-solving capacity, and prevents you from preparing your next move.
Reasons why overthinking can make you feel tired:
- Energy consumption: Thinking requires your brain to use a significant amount of energy. Your brain is responsible for controlling your body's functions, processing sensory information, and making decisions. All of these tasks need energy.
- Stress and anxiety: When you're thinking, you may be focused on a particular problem or issue that is causing you stress or anxiety. This can make you feel mentally exhausted, as your brain is constantly working to find a solution, or resolution.
- Restlessness: If you're not getting enough rest or sleep, your brain may not have enough energy to handle extended periods of thinking. Sleep deprivation can make it more challenging to concentrate and focus, leading to mental exhaustion.
- Multitasking: Trying to think about multiple things at once can be mentally taxing. Your brain may feel overwhelmed, leading to feelings of fatigue.
Signs of overthinking
These are the signs you may be overthinking: constant worry, difficulty making decisions, rumination, difficulty sleeping, physical tension, procrastination and “perfectionism”.
If you notice any of these signs, it may be time to pause and move on to more productive endeavours.
Intrusive, anxious thoughts
In a 2015 study titled “Thinking too much: A systematic review of a common idiom of distress”, authors reviewed 138 publications from 1979 to 2014.
After examining the descriptive epidemiology of “thinking too much” idiom, the researchers including Emily E. Haroz, of the Center for Applied Mental Health Research Group, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, compared them to psychiatric “constructs” (a tool used to facilitate understanding of human behaviour).
What they found: Within and across different cultures, “thinking too much” idioms typically refer to ruminative, intrusive, and anxious thoughts. The result tends to lead to a range of perceived complications, physical and mental illnesses, or even death.
“These idioms appear to have variable overlap with common psychiatric constructs, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder),” said the researchers led by Bonnie N. Kaiser of the Department of Anthropology and Department of Epidemiology, Emory University, in Atlanta.
A relatively newer case study on “The Effect of Overthinking on Mental Health” was published in the May 2022 edition of the Review of Applied Management and Social Sciences. The study, involving of 150 respondents, used a “correlation matrix” which shows that mental health is strongly correlated with rumination and worry. As rumination and worry increase, mental health is affected.
• While this may not seem like much in comparison to the body's total energy consumption — in the hundreds of calories each day — it is substantial given that the brain only accounts for roughly 2% of the body's weight.
Is overthinking a mental health condition?
No, overthinking isn't a recognised mental health condition, but it can be a symptom of depression or anxiety.
According to a 2016 study, overthinking is commonly associated with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is characterised by the tendency to worry excessively about several things.
How physical exercise boosts your brain: 2 studies
A 2018 research demonstrated how leg exercises have direct correlation with brain health. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, showed that limiting leg activity decreased the number of neural stem cells by 70 per cent compared to a controlled group of mice, which were allowed to use their legs.
Moreover, the researchers found that restricting exercise lowered the amount of oxygen in the body, which created an “anaerobic” environment and negatively affects metabolism.
A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease definitively shows how exercise affects the brain. Researchers at University of Texas Southwestern found that when older adults with mild memory loss followed an exercise program for a year, the blood flow to their brains increased.
In the study, there were 48 participants — 29 in the stretching group and 19 in the aerobic exercise group – who completed a full year of training and returned for follow-up tests. Among the 48 study participants, those who performed aerobic exercise (19) showed decreased stiffness of blood vessels in their neck and increased overall blood flow to the brain.
Changes to blood flow could precede changes to cognition, researchers say. A larger two-year study, called Risk Reduction for Alzheimer’s Disease (rrAD), is underway to further investigate the link between exercise and cognition.
• Exercise while you can, when you can, just don't overdo it.
• Dont worry, be happy.