When a close friend of mine suddenly ghosted last year, I did something that probably annoyed the hell out of the friends I had left: I obsessed for months over why she might have done it and every possible thing I could have done wrong. Like Cady Heron in Mean Girls, I could hear people getting bored of me, but I couldn't stop — it just kept coming up like word vomit.
Unfortunately, obsessing over things until I get an answer is something that I do all the time. But as scattered as I feel when this happens, Kevin Chapman, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), reassures me that overthinking or obsessing over things is extremely common in most people.
"You don't even have to have a pathology at all for overthinking, obsession, or obtrusive thought to be an issue," he says, adding that it's a trait that cuts across anxiety disorders, but also appears a lot in people who don't have anxiety.
Often, he says, obsession happens with people who have the tendency to be, well, a little neurotic. "Neurotic" is a loaded term, but Dr. Chapman says, "all neuroticism really means is that you feel a strong negative emotion more frequently and intensely than other people."
If you're anxious, angry or sad, for example, those feelings are dialled up to 10 — so when you have something to fixate on, you're likely to obsess over it. But that doesn't quite answer the question I ask myself multiple times a day: Why am I like this? According to Dr. Chapman, overthinking is actually a way of solving a problem for some people.
"Many people are anxious about uncertainty, so if you're uncertain about a potential outcome in their day-to-day life, then you tend to overthink it as a futile attempt at problem-solving," he says.
You don't even have to have a pathology at all for overthinking, obsession, or obtrusive thought to be an issue.
Kevin Chapman, PhD
In other words, if you have an uncertain situation going on in your life and can't do anything else about it, you think through all of the possible outcomes so that you can try to prepare yourself for the worst, even if there's nothing you can do and worrying is useless. It may seem counter-productive, but for some of us, thinking things over can make them seem less stressful.
"If you have the impression that thinking about something thoroughly will reduce stress, then I tend to view overthinking as a positive thing," Dr. Chapman says.
Sure, poring over every single detail about something in your mind might give you some temporary relief, but as you can imagine, it can backfire because it could make you even more anxious over possibly bad outcomes. If that's what you tend to do, Dr. Chapman says it could be helpful to ask yourself one big question about whatever it is you're obsessing over: "What evidence is there that something negative will come out of this?"
"Typically what you find when you ask those questions is that [the negative outcome] is not likely," he says. "Challenge yourself to come up with an alternative thought to challenge that original thought, and then use that as a mantra."
If, say, you made a mistake at work, you might overthink what could happen: You could get fired, fall behind on rent, be evicted, and become homeless. Sure, that might sound like you're going overboard, but Dr. Chapman says confronting the worst-case scenario might help you process how you feel about the situation (and prepare you for the worst-case scenario if it actually happens). As an alternative thought, maybe you also consider the best case scenario, where your boss understands your mistake and helps you work through it instead of firing you.
Since plenty of people overthink and obsess over things, this isn't a surefire sign that you have anxiety, but if your overthinking is really starting to affect your life, that's when it might be time to ask a doctor if you could be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
"The main criteria is that if you’re subjectively distressed by the symptoms, like if you’re worrying more than an hour a day about various things, that you’re having physiological symptoms that make it hard for you to function at work or in relationships," Dr. Chapman says.