Most people understand what it’s like to experience both overthinking and anxiety. Overthinking occurs when you worry about a thought or decision to the extent that you feel frozen, unproductive, and unable to make a decision about what to do or how to move forward. Anxiety is the body’s internalized response to stress. It often occurs as a direct result of your thoughts and is characterized by things like increased heart rate, sweating, and a general sense of unease.
If you’ve ever laid awake at night, struggling to sleep because you can’t stop cycling through anxious thoughts and worries, you’re probably familiar with overthinking. It’s normal to get in your head about acute stressful situations sometimes. But chronic overthinking can interfere with your daily life, keeping you dwelling on what-ifs and ramping up your anxiety. In turn, anxiety can also increase your tendency to overthink.
As a psychiatrist in private practice, Dr. Zacharias works with people regularly who struggle with both overthinking and anxiety. Understanding the relationship between anxiety and overthinking, as well as the impacts of overthinking in your life, can help you cope with your experiences and seek treatment when necessary.
Understanding what anxiety and overthinking are and how they compare can help you better navigate your own experiences. Let’s dive into what anxiety and overthinking look like individually, as well as the similarities and differences between the two.
Anxiety is an umbrella term characterized by a persistent sense of dread about the future. It often looks like excessive, perseverating worries about big or small everyday situations. If you struggle with anxiety, you might worry constantly about things like relationships, health, or finances. You also may worry constantly about smaller things, like having to talk to strangers in public.
If you experience anxiety, you might notice that the subject of your worries changes constantly. When you’re chronically anxious, your nervous system is in constant fight-flight-freeze mode, and you are on high alert. This means that everything starts to become scary, and you’re in a constant state of general unease and fear.
While anxiety as a stand-alone emotion is not considered a mental health disorder, there are many types of anxiety disorders. These include things like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, phobias, and panic disorder.
Symptoms of anxiety or an anxiety disorder can include:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 19% of adults and 30% of adolescents experience at least one anxiety disorder every year. Many more adults and teens experience undiagnosed and untreated daily anxiety.
Overthinking is the tendency to dwell or perseverate on negative thoughts, memories, or worries about the future. It often looks like playing out a thought or problem in your brain on a repetitive loop without doing anything about it. Overthinking can be a symptom of anxiety or an anxiety disorder, and it also usually causes even more anxiety and distress in your life.
One hallmark of overthinking is the feeling of paralysis that accompanies it. If you’re faced with a specific problem to solve or big decision to make, it makes sense for you to think about it for a long time. You may weigh the pros and cons, assess the issue from all angles, and make a decision after careful consideration. In such cases, overthinking can be incredibly beneficial.
On the contrary, overthinking usually feels very unproductive to someone struggling with it. You might feel stuck, unable to make even small decisions. The issue at hand remains unresolved, no matter how much you think about it. This is also known as decision paralysis, where too much input and worry causes your logical brain to shut down.
Signs you might be overthinking can include:
While overthinking looks different from person to person, it’s a problem when you start to feel frozen with overwhelm and indecision.
Overthinking and anxiety can be a vicious cycle. Anxiety can increase your chances of overthinking, and overthinking can fuel more anxious thoughts. The more you focus on negative situations, bad memories, and scary potential outcomes, the more likely you are to develop chronic anxiety. And if you already deal with chronic anxiety or an anxiety disorder, it’s likely that overthinking is a symptom you experience.
The impacts of anxiety and overthinking can be far-reaching. You may struggle to cope with everyday life events, including working, maintaining relationships, and getting enough sleep. Here are some of the physical, mental and emotional impacts of overthinking and anxiety:
While anxiety and overthinking can stem from different root causes, they’re often deeply connected. If anxiety and overthinking are interfering with your life, finding ways to regulate your nervous system and retrain your brain can help.
If you struggle with overthinking anxiety, you’re not broken. And it’s not your fault. Our brains are wired to form patterns around whichever ways of thinking we engage in most. In other words: the more you experience anxiety and overthinking, the more quickly your brain jumps to looping anxious thoughts.
The good news is, you can retrain your brain to feel calmer, more grounded, and more logical. Here are three ways to limit overthinking anxiety and start feeling better.
You might assume that writing about your problems or worries will make them worse. But actually, having an external container for your negative thoughts can help stop them from repeating endlessly in your head. Try “brain dump” journaling. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and get all your uncensored worries out onto paper. Don’t try to filter anything; just write whatever comes to mind.
This exercise typically leads to a calmer nervous system. However, sometimes it can bring up additional distressing thoughts or feelings in the short term. It can be a good idea to give yourself extra time at the end to ground yourself by doing some deep breathing, going for a brisk walk, or calling a loved one.
Moving your body can help get your brain out of a negative thought loop. It can be anything that is accessible to you in the moment. Think: solo dance party in your car, 5 jumping jacks at your desk, or a quick stretch in the grocery store line. And if you have time to head to the gym or go for a quick walk or jog around the neighborhood? Great.
Moving your body in whatever way feels good to you helps you distract your brain from its current obsessions, reconnect with the present moment, and refocus on something different. The more you practice interrupting your worries, the easier it will get.
Therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, helps you acknowledge and challenge your negative thoughts. You’ll also learn to develop coping skills to help you navigate the problems you’re facing.
Depending on your situation and your brain chemistry, medication can also be useful. For some, a combination of medication and therapy may help lower the impacts of anxiety and overthinking.
Overthinking and anxiety can greatly reduce your quality of life and overall sense of well-being. Chronic stress caused by overthinking can be debilitating and lead to issues like increased anxiety, depression, insomnia, and physical symptoms. It can also make you feel frozen and unable to make decisions or take action.
When your thoughts cause you significant distress and interfere with your ability to function on a regular basis, working with a psychiatrist can help. Ask yourself: “are my thought patterns helpful? Do I feel confident about taking a step in the right direction? Or do my thoughts keep me feeling powerless, confused, and paralyzed?” These questions can help you decide whether seeking mental health support is the right choice for you.
If you struggle with violent intrusive thoughts, including thoughts about self-harm or harming others, seek care from a doctor or therapist immediately.
If you find yourself paralyzed by indecision because of anxiety or overthinking, you don’t need to cope alone. Dr. Zacharias is here to help you understand and treat the root causes of your overthinking anxiety. Together, you’ll come up with ways to ground your nervous system, learn skills for retraining your brain, and uncover long-term solutions to end the cycle of overthinking anxiety.
Curious about how psychiatric support can improve your situation? Get in touch for a free consultation to see whether Dr. Zacharias is a good fit for you. Let’s help you start a better life.
Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff