I assume that most people think about their futures to some degree, but the difference between thinking and overthinking may be the difference between feeling uncertain and feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty. This post addresses the consequences of thinking too much and how to handle it.
To describe this further, I choose to label overthinking as process of repetitive thinking that isn’t helpful as the costs of thinking exceeds the benefits. Evidence shows that this type of thinking style is associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms in the long run. More thinking – more symptoms (Normann & Morina, 2018).
When we normally think about something, we try to solve something. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense that if we can’t solve an issue with x amount of thinking, we just have to think even more about it – as if thinking more is (always) better than thinking less, and no doubt, it can appear so on the surface.
However, you might have noticed that some ideas pop up while we are busy doing other things than problem solving as this is how the brain operates. Note how thinking itself can become an issue in regard to living life in the present moment.
Uncertainty in life – or not knowing what will happen next – can trigger a worry process, but let me introduce to you a new way of responding to uncertainty.
Uncertainty can become a worry-issue if the worries keep you up during the night because uncertainty in itself is just a feeling of not knowing. Just the same way as quietness isn’t an issue in itself but has the potential to trigger a worry process that then becomes the issue (time spent, and the psychological consequences). Take your time to think about this.
You might think by now: If worry can become so problematic, why then worry at all? Researchers within the field of psychology have already examined this.
A large body of research shows that the following metacognitive beliefs are related to extended worry processes. Said differently, these metacognitive beliefs make the difference between thinking and overthinking. The difference between discomfort and suffering.
Research shows that a person’s metacognitive beliefs determine his or her strategies/responses to negative thoughts and feelings. Metacognitive beliefs can be translated into “thinking about thinking”.
There are negative metacognitive beliefs like “I can’t control worry”, or “I have to control my thoughts otherwise they will control me”. And there are positive metacognitive beliefs like: “If I worry I will be prepared”, or “focusing on danger will keep me safe”, “if I anticipate the future, I can deal effectively with the future.”
These beliefs may seem reasonable on the surface, but consider this for a moment: Is it possible to be prepared for something without worrying? Is it possible to worry about everything that could happen in the future? And how do you know which threats to focus on?
How would your life be if you believed that worry was controllable? … If you believed that you didn’t have to worry about the future to be able to deal with the future. The thing is; our metacognitive beliefs determine whether or not we engage in the worries.
These metacognitive beliefs are considered to be learned beliefs just like all other beliefs that we hold. What we believe is what guides our behavior. For this reason, it makes sense to look at these beliefs.
We can use this model for an illustration: If the antecendent/trigger (A) is followed by metacognitive beliefs (B) like “I can choose not to worry” and “it doesn’t help me to worry about this”, you can image what the consequence (C) will be like.
Uncertainty – or not knowing – is inevitable, but you don’t have to live life with life-eating worry.
Living with uncertainty is therefore an exercise in controlling the worry process – or letting go of the attempt to anticipate the future. The next time that you experience uncertainty, try to leave it alone and wait and see what happens.
Summed up, we are taught that we have to think about things to solve things, but perhaps we have not been told that thinking too much in itself can become a problem as it can backfire. At least I haven’t been told that so that is why I now introduce the idea to you.
If this post inspired you, you might find one of my earlier posts interesting as well, “Think Less to Overcome Depression, New Treatment Paradigm Suggests (Why You Should Know About Metacognitive Therapy)“.
Thanks for reading.