Overthinking Is Killing You: Science Confirms You Need To Get Out Of Your Head

by Alexia LaFata

Do you find it incredibly difficult to make a decision, whether it's what you should have for breakfast, what kind of iPhone case to get, what to say in an e-mail or text message, or what college you should attend?

Do you spend hours looking up symptoms on Web MD and somehow end up diagnosing yourself with something like Cronkhite-Canada Syndrome?

Have you ever screen shotted series of conversations with crushes and spent hours picking apart the details (and by "details," I mean deciding if "Hey" is different from "Hi" is different from "What's up?") with a friend? Do you always try to find "hidden meanings" in situations or conversations?

Do social media platforms give you anxiety because you're constantly worrying about posting the perfect picture, analyzing your crush's cryptic song lyric statuses, taking way too much time figuring out what to tweet, or mulling over why someone just unfollowed you on Instagram?

You are a classic overthinker.

Most of us fall victim to some degree of overthinking: heavily weighing every single option before making a move, focusing on minute details of a situation and ignoring the big picture, or choking under pressure when doing something we already know we're good at.

Overthinking happens as we grow older and as our curious, child-like brains become jam-packed with rational, concrete knowledge. When we're young, our brains are at the peak of curiosity, making billions of connections every minute and soaking up information like a sponge.

It's important to encourage children's sense of curiosity with creative and imaginative environments, like art or music. As there's no right or wrong way to be creative, children are free to guess solutions and use their natural sense of wonderment without being reprimanded.

Sir Kenneth Robinson, author and international advisor on education, claims that children lose this drive to come to their own conclusions when they enter the formal education system.

In his Ted Talk, Robinson tells an anecdote of a little girl in a drawing lesson who took a chance in answering an unknown question and guessed something creatively:

She was 6 and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, 'What are you drawing?' And the girl said, 'I'm drawing a picture of God.' And the teacher said, 'But nobody knows what God looks like.' And the girl said, 'They will in a minute.'

At 6 years old, that little girl's curiosity is at its peak. She certainly doesn't know what God looks like, but she felt confident in her interpretation, even if it was incorrect.

Robinson argues that with its stigmatization of failure, concrete letter grades, and focus only on academic ability and the linear goal of getting a job, the education system frightens us out of making guesses and being "wrong" in life.

Original, child-like thoughts, like that girl's made-up version of God, become replaced by vast quantities of concrete knowledge that is correct or incorrect.

Because children learn to fear being wrong, they slowly stop offering their own out-of-the-box ideas. True, uninhibited creativity, says Robinson, becomes squashed.

This contributes to why we overthink. The early years of our lives are filled with so much learning, inside the classroom and out. We're constantly gathering information in formal as well as informal settings, such as our respective environments, our peers, and our parents. Of course, acquiring so much knowledge can be a great thing -- to a degree.

In his book "The Parody of Choice," Dr. Barry Schwartz says it's important for people to feel like they have choices when making decisions in life. And the only way we learn about the wide variety of choices we have is by obtaining knowledge and accumulating information.

Yet, if we have too much information at hand, Schwartz says, we become overwhelmed. When we become exposed to seemingly endless choices, our decision-making process is stunted and we can become debilitated.

So, if our education system provides us with an overload of information and has made us terrified of being wrong, and if throughout our lives we are constantly learning new perspectives and ideas from which we base decisions, overthinking seems kind of inevitable.

We always want to make the right choice, and we have way, way too many choices from which to choose.

Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D. says our brains are truly hardwired for overthinking. All of the memories, thoughts, and emotions stored in our brains are woven together in networks of connections.

This spiderweb of associations definitely increases our capacity to think, but it also makes us susceptible to overthinking.

She says,

When you are in a bad mood of some type — depressed, anxious, just altogether upset — your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. These thoughts may have nothing to do with the incident that put you into a bad mood in the first place, as when a poor job performance causes you to think about your aunt who died last year.

Overthinking, especially when our moods affect our thoughts, is detrimental to our normal functions.

A study from UC Santa Barbara suggests that thinking too much about a situation impedes our judgment and performance.

In a study, researchers observed the functions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which supports two kinds of long-term memory: explicit memory, where you actively recall information and consciously use sensory processes to perform tasks, and implicit memory, where you unconsciously rely on previous experiences to perform tasks.

When researchers disrupted the functions of parts of participants' prefrontal cortexes associated with explicit memory, they found that the decision-making process actually improved in accuracy.

Participants were shown kaleidoscopic images for one minute and given a break for one minute. They were then given memory tests with two different kaleidoscopic images and told to distinguish images they previously saw from the ones they were currently looking at.

The results? When conscious processes of explicit memory were disrupted in the prefrontal cortex, participants remembered images better. The decision-making process became more accurate when participants simply guessed and didn't actively think through their decision.

We will learn many things throughout our lives, but the key to managing all of our knowledge is -- so it seems -- to trust our gut. At the University of Chicago, Professor Sian Beilock studies athletes who mess up, or "choke" in big games, even after they've been practicing for years. How is it possible to choke on something that you've been perfecting for so long?

To answer this question, Beilock told the New York Times,

You cannot think your way through a routine, practiced action, like making a 3-foot putt [in golf]. Compare it to quickly shuffling down a flight of stairs. You could do that without thought. But if I asked you to do it, and at the same time think about how much you bend your knee each time or what part of your foot is touching the stair, you would probably fall on your face. That’s what happens when people choke. They try to think their way through the action.

All of this suggests that you should probably stop overthinking everything so much -- because you probably already know the answer.

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures/Inception