By Harry Petsanis and Donna McCance
Overthinking happens when you allow yourself to worry, dwell, and think excessively about things you can’t control now and in the future, as well as ruminating about past events (thinking about things over and over again).
Overthinking is a learned behavior that is a result of life experiences such as conditioning and trauma. Overthinking can lead to stress, self-doubt, increased anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
What Overthinking Looks Like
Does This Sound Familiar?
Overthinking can be a mentally exhausting, self-damaging behavior. Staying awake at night, rethinking things that happened during the day, questioning yourself and interactions, people's responses, your actions and reactions, rehashing conversations, reliving your mistakes, wondering if you make the right decisions or did the right thing, worrying about what might happen as a result, thinking about the past, and coming up with “what if’s” for every scenario that pops into your head.
Overthinking also includes making negative assumptions and reading into what people said, imagining things in your mind. Then you begin to feel apprehensive and distressed, thinking about all the different situations, and by the time you’re done, you’ve created “mountains out of molehills.” You begin to feel over-anxious, fearful beyond a normal, healthy level, and you allow your thoughts and emotions to disable you from normal functioning.
Overthinking and Conditioning
How Did This Happen?
Overthinking is not an instinctive behavior. It’s a behavior based on conditioning and control. It’s something that has been ingrained in us as a goal to get us as far away from our instincts as possible. If we relied on and trusted our instincts, we would naturally react to many situations. But that reaction is often contrary to the reaction that many people want us to have because it’s not aligned with their agendas.
We’ve been taught to question our instincts, not speak until spoken to, and told what to do from the first time we have a cognitive thought. If we do speak our minds and say what we feel, and it doesn’t match with the people who control us, we are suppressed or admonished. This teaches us to doubt everything, to the point where we believe that everything we think and feel is wrong, unless it aligns with the people who have conditioned us. This causes us to overthink, overanalyze, and question every single thought, word, choice, decision, and action in our lives.
A good example of the root of overthinking is our early learning experiences. No child wants to raise their hand to seek permission to use the bathroom. No child wants to be told when they can and cannot eat, dependent upon a clock instead of their internal hunger. A child instinctively knows when to use the bathroom. They instinctively know when they’re hungry. They instinctively know most things. But when a child’s ability to use the bathroom and eat when they’re hungry does not align with the school and the educators agenda, they are forced to comply. The child immediately learns that suppression is part of their conditioning, which causes them to overthink to the point of where they no longer ask for permission to do something that’s instinctive and natural to them because they already know the answer will be “no.”
Once an adult or authority figure gets a child to question themselves, they can then get the child to align with their self-serving purposes versus aligning with their own instincts. This conditioning ends up bleeding into every aspect of our lives, causing us to overthink to the point where we live a lifetime making decisions not based on what’s best for us, but based on what’s best for someone else.
Another form of conditioning and control is when adults get children to think the things they love are "dumb," causing them to question their choices. This causes children to either suppress their love for things, or lie about the things they love and do them in secrecy. The minute an adult can get a child to think that what they love the most is "stupid," then they will start questioning everything they do in life, with no self-confidence whatsoever. When adults over question everything a child does, it teaches the child to over question everything they do. This causes self-doubt and diminishes self-confidence before it has a chance to develop. Over questioning and overthinking lead to a lack of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth
What To Do About Overthinking
Because overthinking is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. Because overthinking is a conditioned behavior, it can be unconditioned. Understanding the flawed foundation of overthinking will help you to make changes so that you can develop mental strength and take back control of your life with a new mindset.
You can change your life from constantly feeling restless and irritable, worrying, being on edge, obsessing, being indecisive, depressed, anxious, losing sleep and feeling mentally unwell to living a life of healthy reflection, productive problem solving, action, balance, and taking back control of yourself. The choice is completely up to you. You can live a life of constantly dwelling on negative thoughts about things you have no control over, or develop insight so you can change your life for the better though a new mindset.
Steps Toward Stopping Overthinking
Recognize overthinking for what it is. Familiarize yourself with it and how it came to be. Read our blogs on Authenticity (October 25, 2021) and Self-Confidence (November 1, 2021) for insight on how you can find your true self and develop self-confidence.
Immediately acknowledge when you are doing it, pause, and then stop yourself. Say to yourself, “I’m starting to overthink this.”
Journaling: Write down what you perceive the problem to be. This helps you to stay focused. Write down just the facts, not assumptions or what you’re “thinking.” Then write down your “feelings'' about it separately. Compare the notes to recognize where you are complicating things with your assumptions and thoughts.
Ask yourself, “Is this really a problem or a manifestation of my overthinking? Acknowledge it when you recognize it’s your imagination getting carried away, then stop the thoughts. If it's something from the past, leave it there and push it out of your thoughts.
If you find that there is a problem, focus on a resolution and develop a plan to solve it, rather than obsess over what happened. Once you’ve done that, put it away, shut the door, and replace your thoughts with something pleasant.
Another healthy strategy is to practice mindfulness, clearing your mind and being fully in the present moment of where you are and what you are doing, not thinking about other things. It’s a way to bring calm and peace to your mind. There are many sites online that you can research to help you understand mindfulness and practice it.
As you continue to go through these steps regularly, you will begin to develop a new, healthy way of thinking that will eliminate your old, unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Welcome to the new you, free from overthinking!
Anxiety is a normal, instinctive reaction to being in what we perceive to be a fearful situation. It’s part of our human nature to protect ourselves. However, when anxiety becomes excessive to the point where it is negatively interfering with your daily living, quality of life, and affecting your mental health, it’s important to seek help from medical professionals.
About the Authors
Harry Petsanis is a mindset and accountability coach, philosopher of human nature, consultant, and lifelong fitness and nutrition expert. He is a writer and author, with two published books: “The Truth is A Lie” and “The Logical Path To Life.” His book “The Truth is A Lie” was nominated by the 2019 Author Academy Awards in the "best self help" book category. Harry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He has an intense passion for psychology and the human condition.
Click here to order Harry Petsanis’s books.
Donna McCance, M.Ed. is a business administrator, licensed teacher and principal/vice principal with over 20 years experience teaching in elementary education and educational leadership. She has a Masters in Education, Masters in Human Services Management, Bachelors in Business Administration and Associates in Business Administration.