Well-Being//

Problem-Solving Is Helpful. Overthinking Is Harmful. Here’s How to Tell the Difference

It has nothing to do with the amount of time you put into thinking. It's what you do with your time that makes the difference.

tomertu/Shutterstock
tomertu/Shutterstock

How should I strike up a conversation? What if I pick the wrong logo? Why did he say that?  

Those are the types of questions that might bombard you when you’re overthinking something. Rather than accept what happened or trudge forward with a certain degree of uncertainty, overthinking can keep you stuck.

From an increased risk of mental illness to difficulty sleeping, studies have linked overthinking to a long list of negative consequences.

And the truth is, we’ve all overthought something at one time or another. And there’s a good chance we didn’t even recognize our thoughts weren’t productive because it’s easy to confuse overthinking and problem-solving.

What’s the Difference?

As a psychotherapist, I’ve had countless clients come into my office who thought they had to invest a lot of time into worrying about specific problems. They were convinced that the more time they spent thinking about something, the more likely they’d be to develop a solution (or prevent something bad from happening).

But it doesn’t matter how much time you put into thinking about a problem. What matters is how productive your thinking is.

Time and mental energy are valuable resources. And you don’t want to waste them overthinking. Investing those resources into problem-solving, however, can help you make the best decisions.

When you’re problem-solving, you’re actively looking for a solution. You’re developing action steps you can take, strategies you can employ, and skills you can sharpen. Problem-solving decreases stress.

Overthinking involves ruminating, worrying, and overanalyzing. It involves dwelling on the problem, rather than developing a solution.

Overthinking increases distress. And the more distressed you feel, the more likely you are to focus on the negative–which causes you to feel more anxious. It keeps you stuck in a state of perpetual anxiety.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Whether you’re not sure what sort of financial move you want to make or you’re experiencing a problem in your relationship, answering these questions can help you determine if you’re problem-solving or overthinking;

  • Is there a solution to this problem? Some problems can’t be solved. A loved one’s health issue, a downturn in the economy, or a mistake you already made can’t be fixed. But you can turn your focus to changing how you respond to those situations. Problem-solving might involve solving the problem or healing your emotions, while overthinking might involve wishing things were different or rehashing things that already happened.
  • Am I focusing on the problem or searching for a solution? Looking for strategies that could help you get out of debt is helpful. Imagining yourself becoming homeless or thinking about how unfair your financial situation is will keep you stuck.
  • What am I accomplishing by thinking about this? If you’re trying to gain new perspective, thinking about an issue might be helpful. If, however, you’re rehashing a conversation, replaying your mistakes, or imagining all the things that could go wrong, you’re overthinking.

Turn Overthinking Into Problem-Solving

Overthinking can drain you of the mental strength you need to reach your greatest potential. So pay attention to the times when you’re tempted to overthink.

When you trade overthinking for active problem-solving, you’ll be free to devote your resources to worthwhile activities. 

Originally published on Inc.

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