How Overthinking Can Cause Negative Thoughts to Spiral Out of Control

Are you an overthinker? If you are, you know how quickly your thoughts can spiral out of control. 

Overthinking can grab hold of us before we recognize it. This is why it's essential to recognize the process of our thoughts, and how they contribute to the way we feel and behave. 

What it means to be an "overthinker"

Overthinking is the act of mentalizing excessively and compulsively about a person, event, or situation. Someone that overthinks tends to think in extremes or absolutes, which can lead to several negative emotions. For example: if you fail an exam, your thoughts quickly turn into "I'm a complete failure – I will never succeed in life." One negative thought spirals into another one. So at what point does it get out of control?

Automatic thoughts

It's hard to identify what that one thought was that started the spiral most of the time. They happen so quickly; they're known as automatic thoughts. These automatic thoughts "pop up" in your head; you don't have to do anything to make them happen; they just happen. But once you start to pay attention to your triggers or what caused the thought to appear in the first place, you'll be able to catch it before it gets out of control. 

Think about it this way: Negative thoughts are "appealing" to the mind. Naturally, we pay more attention to the worst-case scenarios, or potential threats, much more often than positive ones. Why? It's our mind's way of protecting ourselves. So once we give a negative thought the attention it's craving, we get caught. Our minds become confined in an ongoing process of "figuring it out."

Let's say you have plans to meet up with a friend for lunch. They're ten minutes late. They haven't texted or called. You reach out to them again, but no reply. As you're sitting there waiting, you might find yourself thinking:

  • “What if they’re ditching me”? 
  • "They're so inconsiderate."
  • "This stuff always happens to me."
  • "Well, I don't blame him for not showing up. Nobody wants to hang out with me."

As time goes on, you find yourself caught in a spiral of unrealistic, negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios. 

How does overthinking influence emotions?

Overthinking causes feelings of anxiety, depression, amongst other negative emotions. Negative thoughts heighten these emotions. For example, if your thoughts about your friend continue, you may start to feel:

  • Physically anxious-heart rate increasing, tightness or chest pain, muscle tension, or light-headedness. 
  • Irritated 
  • Angry or resentful 
  • Bad about yourself 

Like negative thoughts, stress and anxiety don't necessarily respond to our efforts to control them. The more you try to push your anxiety away, the stronger it gets. If we take the lunch example into context, you might start feeling disappointed, angry, or irritated about your friend not showing up. 

Acting upon your emotion

These thoughts and feelings may also affect your behavior. For example: 

  • If you’re feeling irritated with your friend for ditching you, you might send him an angry text and criticize them for being flakey.
  • You may also decide to give him the cold shoulder next time you see them. 
  • You decide to stop hanging out with this person altogether. 
  • Or, you may even yell at a stranger for driving too slowly on your way home. 

Putting a stop to the downward spiral

If you notice yourself constantly getting stuck in these cycles of overthinking, consider working with a licensed therapist or counselor. Cognitive-Behavior Therapy is an evidence-based, practical approach for obsessive thinking, worry, and rumination. They can support you in managing your overthinking and letting go of any unhelpful, negative thinking patterns.