Why Do I Overthink All The Time
“Have you ever experienced one of those moments where you’re so lost in thought it feels like time has stopped? You may be experiencing what psychologists call “”mind-wandering,”” or mind-dwelling, which means dwelling on thoughts that have nothing to do with current reality. For example, if there was an emergency at work, you might find yourself thinking about how much money you’ve spent on groceries for the week; whereas before this situation would never have crossed your mind. Or perhaps you’re having trouble sleeping but can’t stop replaying the events of the day over and over again in your head. When you experience mind-wandering you’re not really paying attention to the world around you. If you become aware of these kinds of behaviors, they’ll start to diminish. But when you don’t notice them happening, they continue unchecked. This kind of behavior often occurs during creative tasks like solving complex puzzles or writing papers.
The good news is that we all tend to engage in some degree of mind-dwelling from time to time (thoughts just pop into our minds out of nowhere). In fact, studies show that up to 90 percent of people engage in mind-wandering at least once a day. Mind-dwelling isn’t necessarily bad — research suggests it actually helps us remember information better. However, when mind-dwelling becomes excessive or habitual, it can lead to further negative consequences. For instance, if you constantly dwell on mistakes you made last week, you’re less likely to perform well at work today. Similarly, if you continually replay negative experiences from your past, you’re more prone to feel depressed and anxious.
What Causes Your Thoughts To Wander?
It turns out that most of the things we think about every day happen because of something called cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is any tendency toward thinking patterns that aren’t based on facts. Cognitive biases cause us to make inaccurate assumptions, such as overestimating chances of success in situations, or making overly optimistic predictions. They also affect how we judge risks and rewards, and how we weigh evidence. Some examples of common cognitive biases include confirmation bias, anchoring effect, optimism bias, representativeness heuristic, availability heuristic, and gambler’s fallacy.
These biases come in many forms. One type of bias is referred to as a “”jump”” error. Jump errors occur when we jump to conclusions without enough evidence. For example, imagine that someone says they saw you driving by earlier today. Because you know you haven’t been near their house yet, you assume it must have been another person. Even though you’re wrong, jumping to this conclusion happens so quickly that you believe it without giving yourself time to check your assumptions. Another example of a jump error is assuming that people who commit crimes will eventually get caught simply because criminals usually end up being punished for their actions.
Another common form of cognitive bias is known as the illusion of control. We often attribute positive outcomes to external factors rather than internal ones, even when we have little influence over them. For example, even if you try to avoid going to restaurants you love because they always give you food poisoning, you still blame the restaurant. Also, if you’re sick and suffering through chemotherapy, you may mistakenly believe that its effectiveness depends on chance factors beyond your control. And finally, if you’re trying to lose weight and exercise regularly, you might think that losing weight requires luck, rather than taking responsibility for your own efforts.
Cognitive biases can play a role in how we perceive ourselves and others. For example, you probably already know that people tend to underestimate their ability when presented with challenging tasks. But did you realize that this underestimation is also related to gender? Women consistently perform worse than men on tests of spatial skills, reasoning, and memory, yet women themselves are unaware of this phenomenon. So although men underestimate their abilities, they’re aware of other people’s underestimations.
How Can You Stop Overthinking About Everything?
There are two main types of overthinking: rumination and catastrophizing. Ruminating refers to repetitively focusing on negative feelings and thoughts, while catastrophizing involves repeatedly worrying about future scenarios. These processes both contribute to negative moods, as well as physical illnesses and poor performance. Research shows that both types of overthinking involve similar brain regions, including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, salience network, default mode network, and precuneus. They also share connections between each other, as well as with the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex.
Ruminating focuses on negative emotions and memories, while catastrophizing tends to focus on possible negative outcomes. Both types of overthinking seem to be driven by uncertainty, leading researchers to suggest that they could be caused by the same underlying mechanisms, namely seeking reassurance and avoiding danger. Catastrophizing about negative scenarios seems to be particularly effective at helping individuals prepare for dangerous situations. People who worry excessively about potential threats may be able to use this strategy to help deal with potentially threatening situations.
Catastrophizers typically worry about different topics. For example, some catastrophize about family members dying unexpectedly while others obsessively predict natural disasters. Researchers have found that catastrophizing about certain topics can increase anxiety levels, whereas catastrophizing about multiple unrelated topics does not. Additionally, catastrophic thinkers tend to have higher self-esteem, lower depressive symptoms, and stronger problem-solving abilities.
If you tend towards either ruminative or catastrophic thinking, here are some suggestions to help reduce the frequency and intensity of your thoughts:
Examine Your Beliefs: Many experts agree that catastrophizing is a learned trait and therefore can be unlearned through practice. If you find yourself habitually worrying about negative scenarios, take note of the worst-case scenario you keep coming back to, then examine whether your beliefs about the likelihood of that event occurring are accurate. For example, people who catastrophize tend to see unlikely events as significantly more probable than those who don’t. By assessing your beliefs about the probability of various negative events, you can identify ways to improve your accuracy.
Become Aware Of Your Biases: Once you’ve identified some of your cognitive biases, you can develop strategies to help counteract them. For example, if you tend to catastrophize about family members dying unexpectedly, consider using mindfulness techniques to bring awareness to your thoughts instead of allowing them to run rampant. Mindfulness meditation apps like Headspace and Calm exist solely to provide users with tools to combat mind-wandering.
Practice Acceptance: There’s no reason to beat yourself up for engaging in cognitive biases. Instead, accept that they happen and refocus your energy on finding solutions.
Accept That Everyone Has Their Own Style: While everyone has unique cognitive styles, it doesn’t mean you should automatically assume yours is superior. As humans, we’re naturally wired to compare ourselves to others, especially when we’re unsure of why we behave a particular way. This comparison leads to negative comparisons, which can negatively impact your mood. Recognize that not everyone thinks the same way you do, and learn to appreciate differences among people.
Identify What Helps You Relax: Stressful states of mind are often associated with increased activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotional processing, such as the amygdala. Since stress tends to trigger catastrophic thinking, identifying relaxation activities that allow you to calm down may help you cope with stressful situations. Try yoga, breathing exercises, mediation, listening to music, reading, socializing, playing video games, visiting museums, exercising, and spending time outdoors.
When you’re stressed, it’s easy to fall victim to negative thoughts. But knowing about cognitive biases and practicing acceptance can help you overcome your tendencies and live happier lives.
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