Where Does Overthinking Come From?

A reader asks:

I’ve struggled with self-doubt and overthinking for as long as I can remember. I second-guess myself constantly. Making even small everyday decisions like what kind of coffee to pick up for a friend often turns into a spiral of overthinking. Why do I do this to myself?! Where does all this overthinking come from?

Overthinking is rough. In addition to all the worry, stress, and anxiety it produces, it’s also just exhausting to have your mind in overdrive all the time. And then on top of all that, overthinking is frustrating because despite causing so mnay problems, we seem to just keep doing it anyway.

If you want to understand your overthinking, here’s the most important thing to remember:

All bad habits, including overthinking, have a function.

That is, they’re doing something—getting a job done. And the key to letting go of bad habits is to figure out what that function is and then to address it in a healthier way. This effectively puts your bad habit out of a job.

When it comes to the mental habit of overthinking, the most common function it serves is as a defense mechanism—specifically, it’s a way to temporarily avoid or distract ourselves from the anxiety of uncertainty.

To use your coffee for a friend example: When you imagine what your friend might want, some natural uncertainty will arise around whether you should get a latte or drip coffee, or whether she prefers Starbucks or Peet’s. And this perfectly normal uncertainty leads to a bit of anxiety.

Here’s the key moment, though: How do you respond to that anxiety?

If you’re an overthinker, you likely use more thinking (usually some type of worry or catastrophizing) as a way to alleviate the uncertainty by figuring it out with more thinking. Of course, you’re not thinking about that in your head… Years of practice have made this habit automatic—more thinking is simply your automatic response to uncertainty anxiety. But what’s key to see is that, underneath it all, the psychological function of overthinking is to temporarily alleviate that anxiety by giving you something to do that feels productive—in this case, more thinking and “problem-solving”.

So even though overthinking leads to a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety in the long-run, in the very short term it alleviates anxiety, which is why it sticks around as a habit.

Here’s another way to think about it:

You keep overthinking because you’re addicted to the temporary relief from uncertainty anxiety that it brings.

But like all addictions, the short-term benefit comes with very high long-term costs—in this case, a lot of chronic worry, anxiety, self-doubt, and stress.

People who don’t struggle much with overthinking have a higher tolerance for uncertainty. That is, they briefly wonder whether their friend will prefer a latte or drip coffee and feel that same uncertainty anxiety, but they don’t feel the need to do anything about it. It’s normal. And in their world, it’s perfectly okay to make decisions while feeling somewhat uncertain and anxious.