Do you ever find yourself at work, or maybe in the middle of an important lecture in class, and you can barely concentrate because your head is pounding? You aren't sick, you know you got enough sleep, you ate lunch, drank your water — all the things that might normally cause a headache are crossed off the list. Well, according to experts, if you happen to be the type to keep your mind on overdrive all the time, that might be the culprit behind some of your daily pain. Overthinking can cause headaches, among a whole host of other not-so-great side effects — but how, exactly can you tell if you're overthinking, and not just, you know, thinking?
According to Arizona-based psychologist Dr. Farrah Hauke, one simple, common sign of overthinking is the act of playing and replaying situations or scenarios over and over again in your mind — which can definitely take a big toll not just on your head and your overall well-being, Hauke says, but even your sleep schedule, too. "You are catastrophizing and using other 'thinking errors' that are not reality-based," she tells Elite Daily.
So what's actually happening on a physical level inside your head when you're overthinking that makes it feel so painful?
Dr. Rita Eichenstein, a neuropsychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Towers in Los Angeles, tells Elite Daily over email that overthinking is the result of too much left-hemisphere activity, which can cause some major disruptions in both your physical and emotional state. "Many cerebral people are too much in their head, resulting in blockage of their feelings and full integration of their life experiences," Dr. Eichenstein says. "They stay rigidly in their comfort zone and end up talking themselves out of new experiences."
Usually, she says, when someone is "in their head" too much of the time, it results in "somatic complaints" such as headaches, ulcers, muscle tension, and even back problems, the neuropsychologist tells Elite Daily. In other words, yes, you can basically think yourself sick, which is pretty wild to think about.
But this also means that, in order to deal with the physical symptoms of overthinking, you have to understand your thoughts and feelings, and find healthy ways to manage them, Dr. Eichenstein says. "Becoming attuned to the feelings of others around you and learning to hone your gut instincts will allow more creativity, emotional openness, and [allow you to] step outside your comfort zone."
And once you step outside your comfort zone, you'll also (hopefully) be stepping out of your head, and will feel more present in your everyday life as a result, Eichenstein says.
Of course, disrupting the process of overthinking is way easier said than done. As Jodi Baretz, a psychotherapist at The Center for Health and Healing in Mount Kisco, New York, tells Elite Daily, so many of us spend so much of our time living "from the neck up," so to speak. It's too easy to get caught in the same cycle of thoughts over and over again, but the truth, she says, is that "overthinking can be detrimental to our physical and emotional health," meaning it's crucial not to stand idly by and allow yourself to be consumed by this toxic thought process.
The key to combating overthinking, Baretz says, is to notice when you're in a pattern of rumination, and simply observe the thoughts as you start to distance yourself from them.
A really great, simple way to get into the right headspace for that, Baretz suggests, is to literally, physically do or look at something.
That could simply mean getting up from your desk and stretching for a moment, or it could even mean sending a funny GIF to a co-worker after you go get yourself a glass of water. "Begin to get in tune to the sensations in your body when you have a specific thought, and allow that to guide you," Baretz tells Elite Daily, adding that meditation can also help you let go of these negative thoughts when you're stuck in that spiraling cycle of rumination.
An important thing to remember as you do this, Baretz says, is that you don't actually have to believe everything you think. "Your brain creates thoughts based on your past programming and aren’t always helpful," she tells Elite Daily. In other words, your brain might be stuck on an endless loop of self-criticism and negative thoughts about, say, the mistake you made in a presentation at work the other day, but in reality, a) no one even remembers your slip-up, and b) you're a diligent worker, and even if anyone did remember that mistake, there's no way it defines you as a person, nor would it lead to any of the consequences your brain thinks it would.
The thing is, licensed psychotherapist Lisa Hutchison tells Elite Daily, when you become fixated on something mentally, you really can have difficulty letting go physically, and sometimes you don't put two and two together that the mental and physical symptoms are so intimately related. Overthinking, Hutchinson says, and the stress it causes, can potentially result in insomnia, muscle tightness, stomach distress, and yes, those dang headaches.
"The best remedy is to become aware of overthinking, then do something to distract yourself," Hutchison tells Elite Daily. "It teaches your brain to focus on something else and let go."
So the next time your temples are pounding and your mind is on overdrive, your best bet really is to just get up and do literally anything else besides sit there with those racing thoughts — no Advil needed.