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Overthinking and Underperforming

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch June 12, 2023

Sometimes we can find ourselves stuck in unhelpful, thought patterns that lead us to feel overwhelmed. This can impact our mood and ultimately how we show up at work, in our relationships and in other areas of our lives.  Overthinking is an unhealthy habit in which the negative, critical, internal running commentary analyzes behaviors or words by others and concludes that the intent was negative. Overthinking also leads to “mind reading” in which someone believes they know what someone else is thinking.  Overthinking often has us making assumptions about what was meant by a comment or reading between the lines of an email or text.  Overthinking can also lead us to focus on the “what ifs” of situations instead of being in the present. This type of thinking can lead to lack of sleeping, indulging in unhealthy behaviors, chronic stress and the inability to make decisions.  Overthinking in our work can also leave us to underperform.

Overthinking can take the form of rumination, worry, and/or hypervigilance. The American Psychological Association defines rumination as the obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity. Worry, or catastrophic predictions, is future-focused thinking and focusing on the worst-case outcome. Hypervigilance is constantly assessing for potential danger, wondering when the next bad thing will happen.  Overthinking keeps us in a spiral of negative thoughts in which problem solving seems impossible.

When you fall into the overthinking trap, it can feel difficult to pull yourself out. However, there are strategies that can help you stop overthinking. Like any new positive behavior, they take time and practice.

  1. Awareness- You will first need to be aware of your overthinking. If you start replaying an event repeatedly, stop and say to yourself, “I am ruminating about this.” We can’t stop overthinking if we don’t have awareness of it.
  2. Label your Emotions- Take the time to label what you are feeling. This can make the situation less frightening. By saying, “I am feeling anxious about what will happen tomorrow. I know that this feeling will pass” you are giving yourself an opportunity to feel your emotion and reminding yourself that emotions don’t last forever.
  3. Cognitive Distortions - Check to see if you are engaging in any of the common thinking traps or cognitive distortions. These include mind-reading or fortune telling, overgeneralization, etc. Simply labeling the cognitive distortion can help pull you out. If you start to mind read, say to yourself: “You are mind reading again, remember you do not know what anyone else is thinking.”
  4. Schedule Worry Time- Give yourself a short amount of time to sit with your thoughts. Set a timer but don’t give yourself more than 15 or 20 minutes. Use this time to reflect on what you are worried about, see what you can learn from these thoughts. Once the timer goes off, go and do something else such a chore, a new task, call a friend, or take a quick walk. Remind yourself that you will have another time to reflect on these thoughts if they are still present.
  5. Challenge or Reframe your Thoughts- Our thoughts are not facts. When you find yourself focused on a negative thought, ask yourself, “Is this thought 100% true? Is there an alternate possibility?  Is this thought helpful and constructive? If you do find some factual evidence in your thoughts, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Acknowledge the negative aspects of a situation and then evaluate if there are other ways to think about it. Perhaps there are benefits or things you can change about it.
  6. Focus on Problem Solving- Dwelling on the problem is not helpful and gets us further from problem solving. Instead of asking why something happened, ask “Is there anything I can I do about it? Is there anything I can do about it right now?”
  7. Write it down- Putting our thoughts, worries and concerns on paper can be helpful to create distance and objectivity from negative thoughts.  Write down what is worrying you and tell yourself you will revisit this in 24 hours.  If it is still a concern, then you can go to problem solving.
  8. Expand your What Ifs- If you are stuck in a “what if” cycle, challenge yourself to expand your what ifs to include an “if then” statement. For example, “what if I get fired” turns into, “if I get fired, then I will…” and build concrete plans for these worse case scenarios.
  9. Practice Mindfulness- When we are focused on the present moment, we are not ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Utilize mindfulness techniques such as focusing on your five senses: what are five things I can see, what are four things I can feel, what are three things I can hear, what are two things I can smell and one thing I can taste?
  10. Have Self-Compassion- Treating yourself with kindness and compassion can soothe your body’s internal threat system and you will lead to a clearer mind with which to problem-solve. Try asking yourself, “what do I need right now?” When we show ourself compassion, we build our self-worth.
  11. Practice Gratitude- Expressing gratitude can help us focus our thoughts on something that is positive, going well or that is helpful. Be specific and about the things you are grateful for.  You can even feel gratitude for things within the situation you are overthinking.
  12. Engage in Healthy Distraction- Constantly avoiding our thoughts or emotions is not healthy, but engaging in healthy and strategic distraction can help us minimize overthinking. Exercise, engage in a conversation about something else, watch a show you love, or work on another project. Often when we can disrupt the overthinking, we can come back to it at another time with more clarity.
  13. Speak to a Professional- If you cannot seem to step outside of your overthinking and the rumination is interfering with aspects of your life, seek professional help. A mental health professional can help you determine why you are ruminating and how to address the issues at their core. You can reach out to OITE wellness or find a therapist to help you.

Overthinking can be distressing but if we are prepared with tools to challenge this habit, we can break the cycle. Having a daily routine that includes healthy meals, adequate sleep, daily exercise and social support, can help manage our stress levels which can ultimately decrease the frequency of overthinking.


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