Takeaway: Many people with anxiety get caught in spirals of overthinking. On the other hand, many people who tend to ruminate on thoughts, feelings, and situations also experience anxiety. In this post, we’ll break down the link between overthinking and anxiety, plus give you strategies to cope with both.
While everyone feels worried from time to time, some people are more prone to anxiety and overthinking than others. Experts aren’t exactly sure what leads to mental health disorders like anxiety, but they believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and situational factors may play a role.
Regardless of the specific cause, anxiety can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, and exhausting. It can get in the way of your ability to live an engaging, fulfilling life. Similarly, overthinking can make it difficult to be present with yourself and those around you.
However, there is hope. Learning more about anxiety and overthinking can help you feel more in control and may even empower you to seek professional help for your struggles. Let’s dive in.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety itself is a normal part of the human experience. The feeling of anxiety can mobilize us to keep ourselves safe in potentially dangerous situations. Before modern civilization, this response served to protect us from predators and threats.
While we’re not often faced with life-or-death situations in our modern society, we’re still wired with an anxiety response system. Nowadays, anxiety symptoms can kick in when we’re faced with a stressful situation, such as a big conflict with a loved one, an important presentation at work, or financial difficulties.
However, the anxiety response becomes overactive in some people. This can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, including their physical, emotional, and mental health, as well as their relationships and career.
Types of anxiety disorders
If your symptoms have reached that level of intensity, you may have an anxiety disorder. There are multiple different types of anxiety disorders. Many have overlapping symptoms, though all are distinct in some way. Some people experience one type of anxiety disorder while others have multiple.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is just what the name sounds like: a persistent feeling of anxiety that isn’t tied to any specific or individual stressor. People with this particular mental illness experience a near-constant feeling of anxiety or dread. While stress can intensify these feelings, symptoms are often present whether or not there is a stressful live event taking place.
Beyond an overarching feeling of anxiety, people with GAD experience other symptoms such as trouble sitting still or relaxing, difficulty focusing, sleep problems, and physical symptoms like muscle tension and headaches.
Social anxiety disorder
People with social anxiety experience worry (as well as other symptoms) related specifically to interacting with others. With social anxiety, people typically fear being judged by others for how they speak, act, and interact.
For many people with this mental health issue, the symptoms can be so intense that they avoid certain social interactions altogether. The fear, shame, and feelings of self-consciousness can be totally overwhelming and inhibit them from connecting with others.
Unlike generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety, people with panic disorder experience sudden, intense episodes of fear. These attacks are not necessarily tied to a particular trigger or stressor-rather, they can come on out of nowhere.
During a panic attack, a person experiences both physical and emotional symptoms including racing heartbeat, feeling out of control, tingling or numbness, sweating, dizziness, and feeling like something bad is going to happen.
Is overthinking a sign of anxiety?
Overthinking isn’t a mental health diagnosis or symptom in and of itself. Rather, it can serve as a defense mechanism that is meant to protect us from feeling intense, overwhelming emotions.
This concept can be difficult to digest-after all, getting wrapped up in repetitive negative thoughts isn’t comfortable by any means. However, if we have trouble tolerating intense emotions, thinking can feel a lot more accessible than feeling.
Overthinking is a common experience that isn’t specific to one kind of mental illness. While many people with anxiety get caught up in negative thoughts, overthinking is also common with depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If you experience both anxiety and overthinking, it may be a “chicken or the egg” situation. In other words, it may be difficult-if not impossible-to figure out whether your tendency to overthink fuels your anxiety or your anxiety fuels your tendency to overthink.
Even if you may not be able to tell which phenomenon came first, you can use tangible skills to help you manage overthinking and anxiety. It is possible to ground yourself even if it feels like worry and racing thoughts are trying to sweep you away.
Coping with anxiety and overthinking
As we’ve discussed, overthinking and anxiety are two interrelated experiences that often feed into each other. By addressing one, you may also be able to help confront the other. It can feel incredibly overwhelming to deal with both of these experiences, but there are steps you can take to feel more in control of your thoughts and feelings.
Strategies to combat overthinking and anxiety
While you can’t necessarily control when anxiety and overthinking come on board, you can control how you react. Next time you notice feeling worried or caught in a negative mindset, try one of these skills to help you stop overthinking and get grounded.
Notice when anxiety and overthinking kick in
Being mindful of when overthinking and anxiety take over is the first step in managing them. It sounds easy and straightforward, but this process is often anything but. Growing your awareness of your subconscious thought patterns can be time consuming and difficult, but it is possible-and it can pay off.
By gaining insight into the situations where your anxiety feels strongest or your racing thoughts kick in, you can begin the process of shifting those patterns. Change is highly unlikely without awareness, so don’t write off this step in your healing journey.
Use deep breathing exercises
Once you’ve grown your ability to recognize when you feel swept up by anxiety and overthinking, you can start to incorporate coping skills to help you feel better. Breathing exercises are a simple yet concrete way that you can care for yourself in moments of intensity.
There are many different kinds of breathing exercises to try, so play around and find the ones that work best for you. Some people enjoy square breathing, which involves inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding for equal amounts of time. Other people prefer the 4-7-8 technique, which consists of inhaling for four seconds, holding for seven seconds, and exhaling for eight seconds.
When we feel swept up by worry and racing thoughts, we often become disconnected from our body. Physical activity is an effective way to get into your body and out of your head.
Next time you feel distracted by anxiety and overthinking, try moving. Whether you prefer gentle movement like walking or yoga or vigorous exercise like weight lifting or a spin class, you can enjoy the benefits of getting in touch with your physical body.
Spend time in nature
Getting outside and taking in some fresh air can be another strategy to help you stop worrying. Spending time in nature has tons of mental health benefits, including reducing stress and improving mood.
We spend so much time sitting indoors in front of screens. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, we can all benefit from a change of scenery. The calming effect of nature, combined with the physical movement opportunities it provides, can help to bring down your anxiety level.
Use grounding exercises
Spending time outdoors can be grounding in and of itself. However, if taking a nature walk isn’t an option, there are plenty of other grounding strategies you can try when feeling overwhelmed.
One common grounding exercise is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This involves noticing five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. The point of this exercise is to engage your senses and connect with your physical environment to get you out of your head.
Get more support with anxiety and overthinking
Self management strategies are an excellent way to support yourself when you’re caught in loops of anxiety and overthinking. However, you don’t have to navigate it alone. There are other resources available to support your well being-here are just a few.
Find a podcast that resonates
Listening to a podcast isn’t a cure-all, but it can be incredibly validating to know that there are other people out there with similar experiences to yours. Feeling alone in your struggles only causes more pain and suffering, so it can be helpful to find connection.
There are tons of different mental health related podcasts out there, so find one that really resonates with your experience. Different forms of media, such as videos or books, can also be beneficial.
Work with a mental health professional
Talk therapy is another useful way to help you manage anxiety and stop overthinking. Working with a therapist can help you understand where your thought patterns come from and how to shift them in a way that’s customized to your unique needs and experiences.
There are many different types of mental health professionals who provide therapy. You may choose to work with a licensed clinical social worker, clinical psychologist, or licensed mental health counselor depending on your preferences.
No matter which professional you choose to work with, therapy can serve as a safe space for you to process your thoughts and feelings, learn new ways to cope, and build the life you want for yourself.
Try a support group
Many people benefit from working with a therapist one-on-one. However, others prefer to engage in a more informal group setting such as a support group. Group work can also be a supportive addition to your individual counseling.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has several virtual support groups that are tailored to specific issues and populations, including people with anxiety. Finding community with other people who have similar struggles can be comforting and even healing.
Online anxiety therapy can help you get to the root of your anxiety and overthinking
Anxiety and overthinking can take a significant toll on your well being and make it difficult to be present in your daily life. Therapy is an effective treatment that can help you understand your inner workings and improve your mental health, relationships, and overall quality of life.