Everyone Overthinks — This Simple Trick Will Get You Out of Your Head

Overthinking has real, long-term consequences for our health.

woman overthinking
Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty Images

Cartoons love the occasional cautionary, real-world tale. The Simpsons has an episode dedicated to the perils of childhood obesity and another one on smoking. (I suppose the entirety of Homer Simpson is a warning against alcoholism.) One didactic episode of the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe offers an affirming, musical lesson not on how to deal with more common topics like peer pressure or drugs but rather overthinking and worry.

In the episode, intrusive thoughts appear in the form of glowing white butterflies. Perhaps you face a whole swarm of butterflies at once, or only one gets in your face but takes all your attention. The characters contemplate losing themselves among the cloud of wings: “All these little things seem to matter so much that they confuse me, and I might lose me.”

And then, a lilting refrain that gently flutters along: “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Kids — and adults — don’t always find the tools necessary for dealing with the bombarding cacophony of one’s thoughts, so a strategy in the form of a sweet little song can help us through the dark.

Overthinking has real, long-term consequences for our health. Those who grapple with spending too much time in their heads know just how much easier daily living is when their inner monologue settles down even a little. Overthinking can even make us doubt our ability to do something we’ve done a thousand times.

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The art of getting in your head

The way these butterflies gather, so to speak, can be defined within three broad categories of overthinking, according to clinical psychiatry professor Emanuel Maidenberg at the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine.

Rumination, Maidenberg says, primarily focuses on replaying past events and analyzing interactions. Worry makes us fixate on the future, overpreparing to minimize uncertainty even to the point of diminishing returns. The third type of overthinking has an “obsessional quality.” While rumination can be marked by obsessive, repetitive thoughts, Maidenberg distinguishes obsessional overthinking by an unshakeable, irrational doubt.

“I can know something, but I always have a doubt whether it's true or not,” Maidenberg describes to Inverse. Maybe you clearly remember turning off the oven or unplugging the hair dryer before leaving home, but unless you see a picture from that day right before you left, that stark fear you forgot may persist. That dread could crop up moments after you leave home, even if you’d said out loud to yourself, “I definitely turned off the oven.”

Obsessional thinking, Maidenberg says, is the hardest form of overthinking to deal with because it makes you your own worst enemy. You can’t trust any of your own thoughts because each one casts a long shadow of a doubt.

“No amount of rational, factual information satisfies that worry,” Maidenberg says. “I can for a second think that I understand it, and yet, very quickly, I lose the capacity to see it in a rational way.” Some of the most common irrational, obsessional fears deal with contamination and making mistakes. These thoughts may also appear circular, creating catastrophic scenarios no matter how you deal with hypotheticals.

Overthinking, over years

Overthinking is a primary fount of distress in our daily lives. While everyone gets in their own head to a degree, clinically severe cases can mess with immune system responses, the gut, sleep, and eating patterns, and more. If rumination or worry steals our attention every second of the day, relationships and other priorities may suffer.

Distressing thoughts and patterns occur to everyone, so this process isn’t a mental illness in itself. It can, though, be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder or depression. Dwelling on a memory for more than six months is one benchmark; another is whether these thoughts actually get in the way of everyday behavior.

Modes of relief

Some common impulses are to distract yourself from this onslaught of thought or try to focus on the positive, or not think about the distressing issue at all — “which is the most unhelpful suggestion,” Maidenberg says. These tactics may work momentarily, perhaps even shaking a bad mood, but they’re just band-aids.

Maidenberg frames one remedy as “learning to observe [thoughts] without being engaged with the process of thinking itself.” A sensory experience, typically breathing, may act as an anchor as you let the distressing thoughts announce themselves. The point is they’re not verboten, and they won’t hurt you. All you do in response, according to Maidenberg, is breathe. He says this is simpler than formal meditation, which may seek to remove all thought but involves the same principle of a tether to breath.

“This is the fundamental skill that can be very effective when applied to unwanted, intrusive thoughts,” he says. However, the challenge is that it requires practice. He recommends at least 10 minutes of practice every day, usually first thing in the morning.

But with practice, Maidenberg says this exercise can provide “enough distance from one’s thoughts to not be affected by an emotional content, which in turn leads [to] a decrease in frequency and stickiness of worry or rumination.”

Talking to a friend, he says, could serve as an emotional bulwark but nothing more. Especially for those dealing with obsessional thinking, talking to others becomes an opportunity to shoot down every rational thought your pal offers as consolation. The overthinking has successfully proven to themselves that there’s no antidote, and the friend feels frustrated. For ruminators, talking about their thoughts can actually reinforce the process.

If an uncomfortable thought comes along, let it land, look at it, and watch as it floats away. Breathing all the while, you’ll see that while the thought comes and goes, you’re still there. As the song ends: “It was just a thought, we can watch them go by from here.”

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