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What Causes Overthinking? Therapists & Psychologists Break Down This Bad Habit

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There's thinking, and then there's overthinking. And while it's not a bad thing to be critical, analytical, and generally inquisitive in your thoughts, the latter of these can be a slippery slope into a negative mental health space. So exactly what causes overthinking and how can you tell you're doing it? Experts suggest a few main reasons you could find yourself spiraling, and they're more common than you might think.

First, it might be helpful to examine the difference between healthy thinking and overthinking. Both are normal and can be healthy or unhealthy, but as Los Angeles-based therapist Danielle Syslo explains, there's an important distinction between the two. "It’s perfectly normal to reflect and analyze information before making important decisions," she says. "This can be a very useful skill in making choices that are beneficial to our goals and well-being." Overthinking, on the other hand, is characteristically unproductive, and what's worse, it can lead to rumination or obsessive thinking.

Two of the primary things that cause overthinking are stress and anxiety, which just so happen to be common effects of social distancing, says Syslo. That said, it's understandable that you might find yourself overthinking more than usual lately. "Higher than normal levels of stress and anxiety are an appropriate response to the coronavirus pandemic," says Syslo. "Anxiety is typically a response to fear — a fear of what might come. Its primitive purpose is to keep us alerted to dangers that pose a threat to our survival. Right now, illness, death, financial distress, and the uncertainty of it all, pose a threat to our survival."

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Trauma is another potential cause of overthinking, says Syslo. "Overthinking can happen to anyone, but those who have experienced trauma can be especially vulnerable," she explains. "Neuroscience tells us that trauma, like childhood abuse or neglect for example, can actually alter the development of the brain to become stuck in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. In other words, our flight-fight-or-freeze response stays on high alert, scanning for any possible danger — whether real or perceived. In this state, we may experience obsessive or intrusive thoughts."

Those who have perfectionist or obsessive tendencies, as well as those who struggle to gain control — even in the midst of a chaotic, uncontrollable situation like the current pandemic — could also find themselves spiraling fast. "When people are perfectionists they can ruminate about mistakes they made or may make," shares Dr. Paulette Sherman, psychologist, author of The Gremlin: 10 Tools to Shush that Negative Voice in Your Head, and host of The Love Psychologist podcast. "People afraid of judgment worry about the things they said in a social gathering or things they did on a date or at work. Anxious people may focus on future worries about things they can’t control like whether they’ll get sick or die. Someone with low self-esteem may ruminate on whether people like them or whether their partner will leave them."

Still not sure if that describes you? Syslo offers some intel that could clear things up: "Paying attention to not only the content of your thoughts, but any physical sensations or behaviors that accompany these thoughts, can alert us to when we might be overthinking. For example, maybe you notice that most of your thoughts are negative, centering around self-judgement, criticism, or dread about the future. As a result, do you notice yourself feeling stressed out, exhausted, anxious, or depressed? Are you more indecisive? Are you procrastinating more?"

Think you may be overthinking? While both Syslo and Sherman recommend finding a trusted mental health professional to get to the bottom of this behavior (and Sherman's aforementioned book also offers tools to recognize negative thought patterns), there are a few things you can try on your own. The first is staying in the present, which you can do with the help of grounding exercises that encourage focusing on your senses and surroundings.

"One example that I often use with clients is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise," says Syslo. "When you begin to feel disconnected or experience sensations of anxiety or panic, stop and take a few slow, deep breaths. Name five things in your environment that you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste."

Additionally, just having awareness of your overthinking triggers can help. "For example, maybe I begin to notice that continually refreshing the news sends me into obsessive worry about the pandemic," Syslo explains. "I still want to stay informed, so I might choose to cut back on how much time I spend consuming information. I might give myself 30 minutes in the morning and 30 in the evening to update myself, then the rest of my time is used to focus on other things."