How to Know When You’re Overthinking

Verywell / Laura Porter

Thinking about all the things you could have done differently, second-guessing every decision you make, and imagining all the worst-case scenarios in life can be exhausting. But, overthinking is a hard habit to break.

You might even convince yourself that thinking about something for a really long time is the key to developing the best solution, but that’s usually not the case.

In fact, the longer you think about something, the less time and energy you might have to take productive action.

Of course, everyone overthinks sometimes. Maybe you keep thinking about all the things that could go wrong when you give a presentation next week.

Maybe you’ve wasted countless hours trying to decide what to wear to that job interview and as a result, you didn’t spend any time preparing your answers.

Before you can put an end to overthinking, you have to recognize when you’re doing it. Here’s how to know when you’re overthinking.

You’re Not Solution-Focused

Overthinking is different from problem-solving. Overthinking is about dwelling on the problem, while problem-solving involves looking for a solution.

Imagine a storm is coming. Here’s the difference between overthinking and problem-solving:

  • Overthinking: “I wish the storm wouldn’t come. It’s going to be awful. I hope the house doesn’t get damaged. Why do these things always have to happen to me? I can’t handle this.”
  • Problem-solving: “I will go outside and pick up everything that might blow away. I’ll put sandbags against the garage door to prevent flooding. If we get a lot of rain I’ll go to the store to buy plywood so I can board up the windows.”

Problem-solving can lead to productive action. Overthinking, on the other hand, fuels uncomfortable emotions and doesn’t look for solutions.

You Experience Repetitive Thoughts

Ruminating—or rehashing the same things over and over again—isn’t helpful. But, when you’re overthinking, you might find yourself replaying a conversation in your head repeatedly or imagining something bad happening many times.

Dwelling on your problems, mistakes, and shortcomings, increases your risk of mental health problems, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

As your mental health declines, you are more likely you are to ruminate on your thoughts. It’s a repetitive cycle that can be tough to break.

Your Worrying Keeps You Up at Night

When you’re overthinking you might feel like your brain won’t shut off. When you try to sleep, you might even feel as though your brain is on overdrive as it replays scenarios in your head and causes you to imagine bad things happening.

Research confirms what you likely already know—rumination interferes with sleep. Overthinking makes it harder to fall asleep. 

Overthinking impairs the quality of your sleep too. So it’s harder to fall into a deep slumber when your brain is busy overthinking everything.

Difficulty falling asleep may contribute to more worrisome thoughts. For example, when you don’t fall asleep right away, you might imagine that you’ll be overtired the following day. That may cause you to feel anxious—which may make it even harder to fall asleep.

You Struggle to Make Decisions

You might try to convince yourself that thinking longer and harder helps you. After all, you’re looking at a problem from every possible angle.

But, overanalyzing and obsessing actually becomes a barrier. Research shows thinking too much makes it tough to make decisions.

If you’re indecisive about everything from what to eat for dinner to which hotel you should book, you might be overthinking things.

It's very likely that you are wasting a lot of time looking for second opinions and researching your options, when ultimately, those little choices might not matter so much.

You Second Guess Decisions

Overthinking sometimes involves beating yourself up for the decisions you already made.

You could waste a lot of time thinking your life would be better if you’d only taken that other job or not started a business. Or maybe you get upset with yourself for not seeing red flags sooner—because you believe they should have been obvious!

And while a little healthy self-reflection can help you learn from your mistakes, rehashing and second-guessing is a form of mental torture.

Overthinking can take a toll on your mood and may make it even more difficult to make decisions in the future.

What to Do About Overthinking

Research shows thinking less about a problem might actually be the key to developing better solutions. Studies show an “incubation period” may help you make the best decisions.

Distracting Yourself Can Help

Rather than sit and think about a problem for endless amounts of time, you can distract yourself for a bit.

Your brain may find better ways to work out a solution in the background while you’re distracted with another task—like working in the garden. Or, you might “sleep on it” and discover that your brain solves the problem for you while you’re sleeping.

A brief distraction can give you a break. And it may get your mind focused on something more productive. And, your brain might even develop a solution for you when you stop thinking about the problem.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

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A Word From Verywell

If you can’t break free from overthinking, consider getting professional help. Overthinking may be a symptom of a mental health issue, like depression or anxiety. On the flip side, it may also increase your susceptibility to developing mental health problems. 

A mental health professional may teach you skills that will help you stop obsessing, ruminating, and dwelling on things that aren’t helpful. They may also help you identify coping strategies that work for you, such as mindfulness or physical exercise.

If you feel like your brain is on overdrive, talk to your physician. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a therapist who can help you put an end to overthinking.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michl LC, McLaughlin KA, Shepherd K, Nolen-Hoeksema S. Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adultsJ Abnorm Psychol. 2013;122(2):339-352. doi:10.1037/a0031994

  2. Thomsen DK, Mehlsen MY, Christensen S, Zachariae R. Rumination—relationship with negative mood and sleep quality. Personality and Individual Differences. 2003;34(7):1293-1301. doi:10.1016/s0191-8869(02)00120-4 

  3. Strick M, Dijksterhuis A, van Baaren RB. Unconscious-Thought Effects Take Place Off-Line, Not On-LinePsychological Science. 2010;21(4):484-488. doi:10.1177/0956797610363555

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.