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3362 Big Pine Trail, Suite A, Champaign, Illinois 61822

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. 

We all have a natural tendency to procrastinate. But while some people can accomplish their work with ease, others struggle to stay on top of their ever-growing to-do lists. And at the end of the day,  procrastinating results in unnecessary stress and tension.

The good news is, procrastination is a habit that you can change. To get started in overcoming those daunting, easily-avoidable tasks, consider the following 7 tips: 

Identify negative or unhelpful thoughts. If calling yourself a "lazy procrastinator" or a "failure," your first effort should be to drop the labels. So when you notice any negative thoughts or beliefs about your ability to get something done, practice self-compassion instead. Turn a thought like "I'm never going to get this done" into "I'm doing the best I can right now.”

Think "I get to do this" rather than "I have to do this." If we feel forced or pushed to do something, it's much easier to put it off. Similar to challenging self-defeating or negative thinking patterns, try to reframe the task as an opportunity rather than a chore.

Example:” I don’t have to wash the dishes today; I get to wash the dishes today." With time and repetition, you'll naturally start to view the chore as an excuse to take a break from work or listen to your favorite playlist. 

Start small. Thinking about all of the things you need to do can quickly become overwhelming- leading to more procrastination. If you don't know where to start, break things down into smaller, individual steps and write them down. Remember to consider how long it would take you to complete each step and cross it off once you’re done. Even the smallest of steps can feel rewarding!  

 

Consider the Zeigarnik Effect. If thoughts about an unfinished project have kept you up at night, you’ve probably experienced a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect, or the natural tendency to remember incomplete tasks rather than the completed ones. The thoughts that constantly pop into your mind serve as reminders but also create mental tension. To put the Zeigarnik Effect to use, take the first step towards your goal, no matter how small. If you can begin focusing on something for just a few minutes, the brain's desire to complete it will take over. 

Discover your “peak times.” Tackle the most complicated tasks during your peak times. Everyone has different peak hours. Are you more productive in the mornings or the evenings? Figure out when you work and feel your best and tackle the most complicated tasks during those times. Not only will you improve your productivity, but you’ll save your energy for the things you want to do. 

Try a "power hour."  A power hour consists of putting away all distractions and working in parts of time (ex. 1 hour),  followed by short rest periods. Remember to balance focus time with relaxation for maximum efficiency.

Turn tedious tasks into appealing ones. Ask yourself, "How can I make this dreadful chore into something more enjoyable?" Whether you turn it into a competition with yourself or schedule time for a hobby afterward, there are various ways to trick your mind into believing something is more appealing than it is. Find what grabs your attention and utilize what strategy works best for you.

Breaking the procrastination habit isn't easy.

And while it might not be entirely avoidable, sometimes the most important thing you can do is get started.  Remember, every step you take is progress!

We all have long, tiring days where we feel more irritable and react too quickly. And while overreacting to minor inconveniences can appear as a personality trait to some, it's an entirely natural occurrence that we all experience. 

Although it's completely okay to feel your emotions and want to explode from time to time, it doesn't always feel great, nor does it help the situation. If you've been told that you're "too sensitive" or "overthink things," you know how intense and overwhelming it can be. But how do you know if your emotional response is appropriate or if you're overreacting?

Check out these 5 signs to get a better understanding:

  1. You’re stressed or anxious. The psychology of overreacting explains that people overreact to protect themselves against threats. When we perceive a "threat" to our wellbeing, the body activates the stress response. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to prepare you to either fight the potential threat or run away from it. Your heart starts racing, your body temperature increases, and you may even experience physical symptoms like stomach aches. While this response helps avoid a car accident, it can also cause you to overreact to an insult. 

  2. You didn’t sleep well. Sleep helps us restore our emotional brain circuits to prepare us for the next day. And without quality sleep, research shows that the vibrant centers of the brain are 60% more reactive. The brain finds it more challenging to put emotional experiences or triggers into context and produce appropriate, rational responses. 

  3. You’re hungry. Although it doesn't excuse unhealthy behaviors, hunger does play a role in the way we feel.  When you haven't eaten for a while, your blood sugar decreases, triggering the same stress hormones released when you're anxious, stressed, or sleep-deprived, which can cause aggression or other impulsive behaviors. 

  4. You were triggered. Everyone has their triggers, meaning we can all be overly sensitive to specific criticisms, fears, etc., based on our past experiences. What can seem like a minor insult to some can be a trigger that releases years' worth of pain for others. When this happens, we tend to have a more significant reaction than the moment deserves. Some people take these overwhelming emotions out on those around them, while others turn inwards. 

  5. You’re a highly sensitive person. Being an HSP has its pros and cons. You may be easily offended by those who don't mean any harm or misunderstand their intentions. Highly sensitive people become overwhelmed by tension, aggression, and conflict more than others. On the other hand, your sensitivity can be viewed as a natural strength. You're more likely to empathize with others, be deeply moved by beauty, and have a rich, complex inner life. 

Overreactions can also appear as:

  • Dissociation-or severe anxiety that separates you from the present moment
  • Perfectionism
  • Trouble accepting the current situation or circumstances
  • Difficulty recognizing other perspectives

These signs of overreacting don't mean your feelings aren't valid. However, you may benefit from finding ways to manage and express your feelings productively. Not only will it help you feel in control of your emotions, but it'll benefit your mental health in the long run.

If you experience any of these signs frequently or find that they disrupt your day-to-day functioning,  you may benefit from working with a mental health professional. CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a type of therapy that helps you recognize and understand the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

It’s no doubt that parenting comes with its challenges. And if you’re the parent of a teen, you may feel concerned, hurt, or surprised by some of their behaviors at times. While they push against the system in their search for independence, you're at your wit's end.  

The good news is, your teen goes through phases, and their behavior typically changes as they grow older. In the meantime, here 8 tips for dealing with a difficult teen:

 

  1. Keep your cool. If you feel like your teens have an "attitude" without cause, the first thing you need to do is stop and take a deep breath. The less reactive you are, the better you can use your judgment in handling the situation. In some cases, you may need to check your understanding. Sometimes teens can be disrespectful without the intention of being rude. 

  2. Be a role model. One of the most important things you can do is model the kind of behavior you want to see. Your teens are constantly observing you as a role model. So if you swear often but expect them not to, they'll have trouble understanding why it's not okay for them to do. On the other hand, if you want your teen to act respectfully towards you, you'll need to adopt the same attitude towards them. 

  3. Reframe your teen’s situation. Therapists often use the reframing technique as a way to interpret or view a problem differently. By shifting your perspective, you'll gain more insight into their actions, which is usually followed by acting or thinking about things differently. And here's the excellent news—when a parent responds in different ways, there is no choice for the teen but to act differently, too.

  4. Establish clear boundaries. It's no doubt that teens will test you at some point. And in a family where children have had it their way most of the time, or where there are few firm or inconsistent rules, disrespect in teens is almost inevitable. Inconsistency occurs when different rules are arbitrarily applied on different days without reason or when one parent is laxer while the other is strict. It's essential to set clear directions and boundaries-which requires some practice to master. If possible, discuss them with your teen beforehand.

  5. Avoid unnecessary arguments. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, stay calm and remember to focus on their behavior. Although it's not always easy, remember that you're better able to control your emotions than them as an adult. Anger can lead to saying things you regret later on and can unnecessarily escalate the situation. As an adult, remember that you have more control over your emotions. Put this advantage to good use!

  6. Listen. If and when a teen comes to you, recognize their efforts in trusting you. Pay attention and listen without commenting. Allow them to feel at ease disclosing with you. Before offering any feedback or opinion, ask them if they want to hear it. If not, that’s okay. Knowing that you’re there and willing to hear them out can mean more than the best advice.

  7. Don’t make it personal. In addition to keeping your cool, keep your focus on their behavior rather than who they are as a person. Focusing on their behavior makes it easier for everyone involved to stay calm and avoid getting overly emotional. 

  8. Take care of yourself. If you're constantly stressed or overwhelmed, your relationship with your teen will be evidence of that.  Remember that you're doing the best you can and devote some time to ensure you're staying healthy emotionally and physically.

 

Getting additional support 

If you feel that you could benefit from receiving additional support, consider working with a licensed mental health professional. Whether you decide to go alone or with your teen, working with a therapist can help you navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.

About Insight Therapy

Insight Therapy is a professional mental health private practice located in Champaign - Urbana. Insight Therapy offers individual therapy, couples counseling, family counseling, and professional mediation services to clients of all ages and issues.

Contact Information

Insight Therapy, LLC
3362 Big Pine Trail
Suite A
Champaign, Illinois 61822

Phone: (217) 383-0151
Fax: (217) 633-4555

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Practice Areas

Depression, Anxiety, Trauma, Addiction, Couples Counseling, Eating Disorders, Sexual Abuse Survivor, School Anxiety, Women's Issues, Relationship Issues, BiPolar Disorder, Personality Disorders, Family Issues, Couples Counseling, Mediation, and more!