Whether you’re starting out on a new career path, undertaking a big project, or tackling some other challenge, having a plan can be a good thing. You may think through potential obstacles and opportunities, as well as the steps and resources you’ll need to get the job done.
But there’s a line between thorough planning and overthinking. When we slip into the latter, it can immobilize us, also known as “analysis paralysis.”
As human beings, we have an ability to predict, within reason, what might happen. And that may give us a feeling of control, says Nate Page, a psychologist and counselor at Carleton College. “It’s very easy to latch onto that and then maybe slide into overthinking,” he says. “And I think it can be difficult to determine the line in the sand of when it is helpful, when it’s productive, and then when it starts to not be.”
Recognizing the signs
Page says overthinking usually falls into two categories: dwelling on the past, which is usually called rumination, or about the future, which is usually just referred to as worrying. When fears from the past or concerns about the future crop up, they can hold you back from accomplishing what you want or need to do But, they can also have detrimental effects on your mental and physical well-being. Stress from worry can have wide-ranging physical effects. A study published in October 2019 in Nature suggests that excessive activity in the brain is linked to shorter life spans.
One sign that you’ve slipped from garden-variety worry or rumination into analysis paralysis or overthinking is how you feel. “You might find that you’re more exhausted and you don’t have time to think about other things that are important,” says psychologist Rebecca Skolnick, cofounder of MindWellNYC, a private counseling practice. “Sometimes overthinking can lead to trouble sleeping.”
If your feelings or concerns are interfering with your sleep, your daily functioning, or your ability to focus on work or school, it’s time to act. Here are some steps you can try:
1. Set aside time to worry
As part of the cognitive behavioral therapy she practices, Skolnick will sometimes encourage her clients to schedule time to worry. That allows them to devote time where they can focus on their concerns, observing them or writing them down. Such a practice may offer relief from the effort of trying to quiet them. The practice can help you be able to “redirect your attention and focus on whatever it is you need to focus on,” she says.
2. Examine your predictions
Giving yourself the time and space to identify your worries can also help you examine the predictions you’re making, Skolnick says. “Often, worry thoughts are predictions that something’s going to happen,” she says. When you define exactly what it is that’s bothering you, it’s possible to more easily look at the best- and worst-case scenarios and how you would handle them. “You’re taking a step back and evaluating yourself rather than just going with the thoughts,” she says.
3. Get comfortable with discomfort
Page tends to have an emotion-focused perspective on the matter. “I’m more curious about what is going on underneath the thoughts. And at least in my experience, when it comes to rumination or worrying about the future, usually we’re trying to protect ourselves from vulnerability,” he says. In many cases, people stuck in analysis or overthinking are trying to avoid unpleasant feelings. But that’s a false sense of control.
Instead, he encourages people to strengthen their ability to manage uncomfortable situations. “I encourage people to, for example, take improv classes because that’s one of the best things to be able to practice stepping into the vulnerability, letting go of the prediction, the control, the worrying,” he says. He has seen a number of people shift from being able to tolerate uncomfortable situations to actually enjoying them.
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in the quicksand of overthinking knows that it’s often an exercise in treading the same ground over and over again. That’s not helpful, and acknowledging it can be a good first step to changing those thoughts, says psychologist Annie Varvaryan.
If you find yourself stuck in worry, redirect your thoughts. What would be a helpful step for you to take to help calm your concerns? Can you find a way to calm the concerns you have? “By really redirecting yourself back to something that’s going to be actually helpful, you’re still going to feel like you’re in control of it,” she says. “But you’re going to do something that’s going to be more productive and more effective for you moving forward rather than just something that’s eating up your time.”
Free writing and journaling can be powerful tools and create some “distance” from your thoughts, Skolnick says. “It gives you a chance to take a step back and look at what you’re thinking about instead of just kind of going through it in your mind,” she says. A 2017 study published in Psychophysiology found that expressive writing reduced error-related negativity in people with anxiety.
6. Phone a friend
Finding a sounding board can help too. Identify trusted mentors, friends, or colleagues who can act as accountability partners, Varvaryan suggests. “Having an accountability person that we can run these things by—somebody that we trust—can really help us put things into perspective,” she says. Use your support system to help you identify when you’re stuck in this type of thinking and give you feedback that can help calm you or redirect your thinking, she says.
Chronic worry and overthinking are also correlated with depression and anxiety, Page says. If these issues are not addressed, they can grow more severe. So, if chronic worry and overthinking are getting in the way of your ability to function, it’s a good idea to speak to a physician or mental-health-care practitioner.