We’ve all done it. We’ve woken up in the middle of the night, ruminating. Did I remember to send that email I said I would send? Do I need groceries right away or can I wait a couple of days? When can I get the kids in for their flu shots?
These questions are easy to answer, but they don’t feel that way. “Overthinking makes things feel bigger, more important, or more complicated than they really are,” said Marisa Menchola, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Banner Health in Tucson. “We waste time and energy and do not make better decisions or solve problems any better.”
Watch for these signs that you might be overthinking
Part of the problem with overthinking is that you get so caught up in your thoughts, you don’t realize that you’re overthinking. Dr. Menchola says to watch for:
- Spending too much time on a task. It shouldn’t take you 30 minutes to edit an email, or weeks to research a dog bed.
- Procrastinating. Overthinking makes the issue feel larger than it is, and you become overwhelmed.
- Feeling depleted. Overthinking takes up a lot of mental space.
- Reacting inappropriately. You’re overthinking whether you should cancel travel plans, for example, and you lash out if your partner asks if you can get the oil changed in the car.
Here’s when you’re more likely to overthink
Watch for certain factors that can tax your thought process.
You have big decisions to make. You’re more likely to overthink when you’re facing serious problems. For example, if you’re battling a health problem, you might have to decide which specialist to go to, whether to take medical leave, and whether to have surgery. That’s heavy stuff. You’re so overwhelmed, you can’t decide what to have for dinner.
Your routines are out of whack. “Situations that disrupt our routines and create uncertainty, like an illness in the family, a new pet, the loss of a job, or a promotion into a more demanding job, can also lead us to overthink,” Dr. Menchola says.
Routines can be comforting because your actions become automatic. When you don’t have to decide what to do, you free up mental space. When your routines are disrupted, you must make decisions about things you did not have to think about before. For example, the pandemic has forced us to rethink many routines: Do we come in to work or work remotely? Should we go to the grocery store? Do we keep visiting grandma on Sundays? Who will help the kids with their remote classes?
Try these tips to stop overthinking
Dr. Menchola said the key to reining in your overthinking is to ask questions—you don’t have to figure everything out yourself.
Who already knows how to do this? Search for your answers. For health information, look to professional medical organizations, federal/nongovernmental agencies, or support groups. For parenting advice, turn to experienced parents you trust. For work issues, connect with a colleague or mentor.
Am I learning anything new about this problem by still thinking about it? “If you keep thinking about a situation but you are not coming up with any new ideas or solutions, you are probably overthinking and it is time to stop,” Dr. Menchola said.
Who can I talk to? Check in with someone who knows you well. When you are stuck in an overthinking loop you don’t always see it. Ask, “Am I making this more complicated than it is?”
The link between overthinking and decision fatigue
Overthinking and decision fatigue can feed on each other. Overthinking makes everything feel important, leading to decision fatigue. And situations where we have to make lots of decisions can leave us stressed and fatigued, leading to overthinking. “Overthinking and decision fatigue can lead us into a loop of rumination and mental exhaustion,” Dr. Menchola said.
To manage decision fatigue, ask yourself two questions:
- Is this decision important?
- Is this decision urgent?
Important, urgent decisions need your dedicated time and energy. For example, you need to find home care for your mother, who is getting discharged from the hospital. “Very few decisions fall in this category,” Dr. Menchola said.
For important, non-urgent decisions, consider your options and allocate a set amount of time for research. For example, maybe you have a month to decide whether you will send your children to in-person classes. “Pick a few sources you will consult, pick a few people you will talk to, and set a deadline for when you will make a decision,” Dr. Menchola said.
If a decision is not important, but feels urgent, don’t spend your valuable mental resources on it. For example, suppose you are already late for your kids’ soccer practice and the coach calls to ask you to pick up snacks. Stop and ask yourself, “Does it really matter what I do in this situation?” Make a call and move on.
And those non-important, non-urgent decisions? “Let it go. Give yourself a break, let someone else take care of it, and delete it from your to-do list,” said Dr. Menchola.