Along with anxiety disorders, insomnia and general day-to-day stress, another word that makes its appearance often in regular conversations around mental health is overthinking. While it is important to exercise critical thinking marked by precision and patience, it can sometimes spiral out of hand, leaving us overwhelmed. However, how does one differentiate between a real threat to your well-being and a situation which is simply leading to pointless, exhausting mental loops? How do we decide what is a normal, acceptable level or intensity of thoughts, and after which point do we need to consciously address them?
What Makes us Overthink?
According to Dr Sameer Malhotra, Director and Head of Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, overthinking refers to either increase in the number of thoughts or fixation of a particular thought in the mind which is deemed worthy of attention if it is marked by the following:
Intrusive, irresistible, unwanted chain of thoughts
Inability to focus on the task at hand
Neglect of important roles/responsibilities
Disturbed mood and behaviour
Significant changes in energy levels
Disturbed quality of confidence
Disturbed overall quality of life
Feeling emotionally drained, depressed and frustrated
Sometimes, intrusive unpleasant recurrent thoughts can also be linked to low levels of the neurochemical serotonin in the brain, adds the doctor.
Kamna Chhibber, Head of Department, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi, explains it further:
“Having thoughts is normal. Overthinking involves thinking excessively, without being able to control the thought process which begins to impact a person's moods, making them excessively worried, pensive, irritable or sad.”
Now that we know what overthinking is, it brings us to the next important concern - how to reign it in and feel easy and light again without the burden of endless mental spirals?
How to STOP Overthinking?
Even though people with perfectionist or obsessive traits are more likely to overthink, at some point or the other, we have all been guilty of it. Who wouldn’t have the story of at least one night of sleeplessness when they were up struggling with a problem or stressor? It is indeed a problem more common than we realise. However, on the brighter side, it can be addressed and solved as well with a little effort and mindfulness.
“It is important to become aware of the contexts overthinking happens in. If it is related to specific situations or relationships, then taking a problem-solving approach to work through them and identifying potential solutions can be helpful. If it is happening generically in relation to the smallest of things which become triggers, then consciously giving yourself reminders to steer yourself away from the thoughts, while bringing into focus the here and now and orienting yourself to the surroundings, can be helpful.”Kamna Chibber
It is, thus, important to identify your own individual markers, triggers and specific situations or people who might be triggering certain thought patterns. Once you have identified them, you will be better equipped to tackle them.
“The more we try to suppress a thought, the more it comes up like a spring. In such a scenario, use of distraction techniques can help. Engagement in some constructive work or hobby would leave less scope for such unnecessary thoughts. Try to make a ‘to do’ list and follow an activity schedule.”Dr Sameer Malhotra
Support Systems, Professional Help and Self-Help Tools to Conquer Overthinking
Both experts provide tools to address overthinking, along with stressing the importance of those around you, or sometimes even professional help.
“It is important to try and seek support in such situations, specifically if it happens repeatedly, by connecting to friends and family and gaining perspective through their intervention. If, however, these keep persisting and also disrupt functioning, then it would be helpful to connect with an expert,” says Kamna Chhibber.
Along with and other than timely psychiatric intervention, Dr Malhotra lists down some changes that can be made to one’s lifestyle and thoughts to address overthinking:
Engaging in a healthy lifestyle, constructive hobbies and regular exercises
Following an action-oriented approach
Effective time management
(Rosheena Zehra is a published author and media professional. You can find out more about her work here.)