Is Overthinking One of My Anxiety Symptoms?

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. However, if you find yourself stuck in the kind of overthinking that feels painful and unproductive, you may be experiencing anxiety symptoms. That’s why we’re talking with Dr. Jane Rubin to learn more about overthinking and anxiety.

How Would You Define Overthinking?

Overthinking is what’s often called “rumination” in clinical psychology. When you ruminate, you go over and over the same thoughts in a way that feels compulsive and unhelpful. The thoughts people ruminate about are almost always negative thoughts. No one suffers from thinking a lot about the wonderful vacation she’s going to take. But people do suffer a lot from continually thinking about bad things that happened in the past or worrying about bad things that are going to happen in the future.

When Does Overthinking Become a Problem?

I think it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of being able to appreciate the good things in your life. People who ruminate tend to become so focused on the bad things that have happened or might happen that they can’t experience anything else. And, unfortunately, even if people solve the problem about which they’ve been ruminating, they experience only momentary relief before they begin to ruminate about something else.

How Does Overthinking Develop?

This symptom can develop in many different ways, but, more often than not, it’s the result of difficult relationships with early caregivers. Some people ruminate because they grew up in households where they were always told that they were inadequate. As a result, they’re very preoccupied with discovering what they’re doing wrong and how they could do better.

Even worse, they can’t stop reviewing everything they’ve done and pronouncing harsh judgment on themselves. Their negative self-judgments undermines confidence in their own ability to make good decisions and their constant rumination deprives them of the ability to enjoy their lives.

Other people who experience overthinking grew up with parents who were warm and supportive, but whose parenting was compromised in some way. Perhaps their parents were depressed or had a chronic illness. Often, children who grow up in these situations become very sensitive to ways in which they feel their actions might harm their parents. They might have been told that they couldn’t make any noise while their parent was resting or feel that showing too much enthusiasm makes their depressed parent feel bad.

These people often overthink even the most seemingly insignificant behaviors. They worry that they said something offensive in an email or paid too little attention to a friend. All of us worry about these kinds of things from time to time, but people who ruminate become so preoccupied with them that their ability to enjoy their lives is compromised.

For both kinds of people, rumination is one of the anxiety symptoms that fits a kind of generalized anxiety. It causes them to be preoccupied with potential disasters. They imagine that they’re going to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or that lose their job. This kind of overthinking makes it difficult to feel hopeful about their future.

Can You Break Down Overthinkers Into Categories?

I don’t know if people who overthink things can be broken down into categories. I do think that the overthinking itself tends to fall into two broad classifications.

Some people are more preoccupied with the past. They continually review everything they think they’ve done wrong. In addition, they can’t let go of their guilt or shame about past events.

Other people primarily ruminate about the future. They’re constantly worrying that some disaster is going to befall them.

Still, many people, of course, ruminate about both the past and the future. They believe that their past sins doom them to a catastrophic future.

What Would You Recommend to Those Who Overthink?

Most of the advice about dealing with anxiety symptoms like rumination comes from cognitive-behavioral therapy. This advice includes:

  • Learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones
  • Using mindfulness techniques to recognize that your thoughts are just thoughts and don’t reflect reality
  • Learning how to calming and soothe yourself when you’re anxious

This advice is good as far as it goes. But, in my experience, it usually doesn’t solve the problem of overthinking. Most people try to replace their negative thoughts with positive ones but are unable to do it consistently. They also know that their thoughts aren’t reflective of reality, but that doesn’t stop them from having those thoughts. People are always saying to me, “I know it’s irrational, but I can’t stop thinking about…” some terrible thing that they think is going to happen to them.

In my practice, I’ve found that it’s actually a relief for people to realize that they’re not being irrational, that their seemingly irrational thoughts and feelings have a meaning rooted in their actual experience. It can seem counterintuitive, but coming to understand how you came to have the particular anxieties you have is the first step towards gaining the self-acceptance that allows you to let go of overthinking.

Click here to learn more about anxiety treatment with Dr. Jane Rubin.

Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety symptoms. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.