In this article, I look at overthinking (and its cousin, anxiety) from an evolutionary perspective and offer some practical strategies that have helped me deal with them more effectively.
But first, it’s worth defining the term overthinking. I’m talking about repetitive, obsessive, non-productive thoughts that negatively affect your quality of life.
Overthinking is separate from what you might call deep thinking or critical thinking, both of which are productive, under your control, and do not negatively affect you. In fact, I highly recommend thinking both deeply and critically. As you will see, focused, intentional thinking is part of the antidote to overthinking.
The Anxious Ape
Overthinking is often associated with anxious thoughts. Indeed, a useful way to conceptualize overthinking is as one manifestation of anxiety.
But why do we have anxiety in the first place? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve?
Humans have existed on earth for about two million years. For ninety-nine percent of that time, we’ve had to contend with very different problems than those we deal with today.
Specifically, our brains have evolved to deal with immediate threats to our survival, not vague anxieties about the future. Our early human ancestors used to be absolutely certain about what they were afraid of, including but not limited to: predators, treacherous environments, and being unable to find food.
But this fear and anxiety served a useful purpose: Those who worried more about threats to their survival stayed alive longer than those who didn’t. We are the descendants of those anxious and vigilant Homo Sapiens.
In other words, anxiety isn’t a bug in our cognitive circuitry, it’s a feature of it.
(If you want to hear more on this topic, I recommend listening to the last 20 minutes or so of my podcast episode with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, “Rethinking Reality”).
Overthinking is a modern problem.
One of the many unintended consequences of our rapid ecological success as a species is that our brains haven’t had a chance to adapt to our new environment. We went from using stone tools to building civilizations in the span of about 70,000 years -- a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.
As a result, we’re no longer certain what to worry about. We are like the winner of an evolutionary lottery who doesn't quite know how to handle our windfall or navigate our luxurious yet unfamiliar new lifestyle.
Today, most of us aren’t facing immediate threats to our existence but rather vague anxieties about our relationships, our jobs, and the future.* In the absence of survival-based threats, our ancient problem-solving brain effectively “short-circuits” and goes into overthinking mode.
Our brains are still running the same “survival software” that helped keep us alive for millions of years. The downside is that this software works so well, it continues to look for problems even when there are none.
In order to maintain our mental and emotional health, we can no longer rely exclusively on that outdated survival software; we need to update it. Our modern world requires a different toolkit with different strategies. Below are a few such strategies to help you let go of repetitive, obsessive, non-productive thoughts that negatively affect your quality of life.
Strategy #1: Write down what’s bothering you.
I suspect a good portion of what we call overthinking is probably underthinking. Here’s what I mean: If you find yourself engaging in repetitive, obsessive, non-productive thoughts, it’s likely you haven’t precisely identified or fully unpacked what’s bothering you.
Often, overthinking is the result of a combination of issues that haven’t been fully analyzed.
Identify exactly what you’re overthinking about and write it down. This is also a good way to practice becoming the "observer"of your thoughts and increase awareness of the unconscious mental chatter that is often at the root of overthinking. This is a practice Eckhart Tolle talks about in his book, The Power of Now.
You may find, as I have, that simply clarifying your problems in this way is a massive help because it turns vague worries into concrete problems that you can act on -- a truly empowering feeling.
Strategy #2: Examine your worries with finer resolution.
Once you’ve clearly stated exactly what you’re worried/anxious/bothered/unsure about, deconstruct it into its component parts. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help with this process:
"What am I afraid of?"
The emotions at the root of overthinking are often fear-based, such as anxiety or insecurity.
"Why is this causing me to feel anxious/worried/afraid etc?"
Putting this into words can often help to relieve a good portion of your mental burden.
"What can do about it?"
If you can do something, do it! If you can’t, why worry?
"Will this matter a week/month/year from now?"
Applying a different time frame to your perceived problems can often help put things into perspective.
Strategy #3: Practice negative visualization
In a nutshell, here’s what you do. Let’s say you’re worried about some future event. Ask yourself these two important questions:
"What would be the worst possible outcome?"
"How would I deal with this situation if it happened?"
You might surprise yourself with how effective of a solution you come up with. Most situations are not catastrophic. Having a well thought-out back up plan will relieve a lot of your anxiety and need to overthink.
Even if there is no obvious practical solution, at the very least you can psychologically prepare for the situation. This lessens the “surprise factor” of unpleasant events, which is responsible for much of the mental anguish they inflict. It also gives you a sense of power and control, which are critical ingredients to feeling happy.
Strategy #4: Be aware of cognitive distortions.
After deconstructing your repetitive thoughts using the above questions, you might uncover some negative beliefs you have about yourself, the world, or your situation.
However, these beliefs are often cognitive distortions -- irrational ways of thinking that masquerade as logical but are actually distortions of reality.
When we are in a state of anxiety or depression, studies have shown that our ability to reason decreases significantly. Here are a few cognitive common cognitive distortions to be aware of:
FORTUNE TELLER ERROR
Predicting a negative outcome without realistically considering the actual odds of that outcome (i.e. "If I go to the party tonight, nobody will want to talk with me.")
Thinking in extremes (i.e. You are a total failure or a total success, not taking into account that life is not black and white)
Taking one example of something and applying it to all cases (i.e. You didn’t stick to your diet last week so you're probably not capable of making any lifestyle change). One does not follow the other.
For a full list of the different cognitive distortions that lead to this kind of maladaptive thinking, I recommend the book Feeling Good by David Burns. It’s about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a useful tool for dealing with all kinds of maladaptive thinking.
The main idea here is to run your negative beliefs through some these filters and you’ll start to gain some clarity on your situation and see where you may not be thinking clearly.
Strategy #5: Exercise.
Intense exercise can be an extremely effective tool for getting you out of your head and into your body. It’s hard to have obsessive thoughts when you’re gasping for breath. On my podcast, I asked Ryan Holiday how he deals with overthinking and this was one of his top strategies. You can listen to that episode here. (Bonus: this strategy also increases your overall health).
Strategy #6: Talk about your thoughts with someone you trust.
This can be used as an adjunct or a replacement to the first strategy I described above. If you are more verbally/socially inclined, this might be an effective option for you.
The feedback you receive from another person might offer the perspective shift you need to get out of your head. Clarifying your concerns with a significant other, friend, family member or therapist can help you realize where you might be getting stuck.
These aren’t quick fixes but they are good starting points when dealing with overthinking and, to some extent, anxiety.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or psychologist and I don’t play one on the internet. If you are dealing with clinical anxiety or other mental health issues, this advice should not be construed as a replacement for professional treatment. These are just strategies that have helped me.
P.S. I also recorded a podcast episode about this topic. You can listen to it here.
*Although there are many who still endure survival-related problems on a daily basis, most of us live in relative comfort compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. His Instagram account, ThinkGrowProsper, has amassed over 3 million followers. Along with his blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.