Overthinking and constant worrying can have a host of medical implications.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 19, 2020. It has since been updated.
What did he mean when he said that? Did I look silly when I blurted it out? Maybe, it's my clothes. Oh, did I leave the clothes in the dryer? The weather sure is dry today; I need to take better care of my skin. Ugh, my skin looks so dull these days. I am so lazy. Why can't I be more active and in control of my life like her?
If you can relate to these seemingly unrelated set of statements and it seems familiar to you, you are not alone. We live during a time when overthinking, multitasking, hustling, and stretching oneself is celebrated. But this comes at a great cost. Just because many people are indulging in it consciously or involuntarily, doesn't make overthinking healthy. Studies across fields reveal the close link between the mind and body. If you believe overthinking is helping you or others, let's break it down for you. NO, it is NOT. You are harming not just your peace of mind but also your physical health. When you are struggling yourself, you cannot help others even if you want to.
Here are five ways overthinking affects your health.
We've all been there. Wide awake at 3 AM trying to figure out a solution to a pressing problem, replaying scenes from the day, coming up with better ways to have ended a conversation, going over a long list of "if only" statements. If only things were different, if only you had not said that in that tone, if only people were not so mean, if only you had made it on time, and the list is endless. Overthinking in the night is a classic sign you have let something affect you deeply. But the consequences of losing sleep due to overthin king are many. According to netdoctor, overthinking at night often happens when we have no space or time during the day to process our day's events.
When you are thinking on overdrive, your brain is basically firing away neural pathways, connecting dots, making associations, recollecting memories, and adding to that is a burst of emotions you feel every time you respond to each of these thoughts. This can leave you in an alert state, something people experience as "not being able to turn off" their minds. Constant lack of sleep can lead a host of ailments and also trigger anxiety and more overthinking.
Have you ever noticed that when you are too stressed out, your head begins to throb before it becomes a full-on episode of unbearable headaches? It could be a TTH (tension-type headache) or migraine, according to a report by the University of Michigan. If you are one of them who lives in their head, constantly analyzing things, your overactive mind might be causing you unwarranted pain.
One suggestion is to ground yourself with any experience that involves your senses: take a bath or shower or enjoy a green patch nearby. When you take a shower or bath, allow yourself to feel the cool of the water or warmth of the bath. Take time to enjoy the smell of soap or body wash. Close your eyes and feel the water against your back and allow your ears to take in every little sound. Or, you can simply enjoy your mealtime with complete attention to the sight, smell, flavor, texture of your food. You will notice an immediate shift in your body and your head will feel more relaxed and lighter. Deep breathing and listening to soft, calming music at low volume can also help with the pain.
Anxiety, a primary trigger for overthinking, can impact your immune system in a number of ways, according to Calm Clinic. When you are in any form of physical threat, where your survival is at stake, your body triggers the fight or flight mode. This immediately sends a rush of cortisol (the stress hormone) into your body and your entire system is ready to manage a life-threatening attack. While this might be good when you are in actual danger, if your body is constantly being hypervigilant, you can create a host of problems for yourself. The body cannot differentiate between actual and perceived threat often. So if you find yourself worrying too much (e.g., I think my boss hates me; what if he is looking for reasons to fire me; why is my spouse being so distant; I'm just not good enough for anyone), your body will perceive the situations created in your head as actual threats to your survival and activate the same internal systems that serve no purpose but to stress you out and wear out your body's cells and lower your immunity. It can also give rise to autoimmune diseases, which is especially the case with trauma survivors. According to Dr. Darin Ingels, "Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), have had a profound impact on the health of adults later in life."
A groundbreaking study done by Harvard University revealed that overthinking, which leads to neural overactivity, could lower your life expectancy, while lower neural activity can increase it. The research revealed that an overactive nervous system triggers neural excitation, which can impact the neural pathways in the brain and act on insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). On the other hand, a protein called REST, known to regulate genes, suppresses neural excitation. Studies done on animals reveal that blocking REST led to higher neural activity, which in turn led to earlier deaths, and boosting REST increased their lifespan. In short, the lesser you worry and find ways to relax and stay grounded and happy, your quality of life, as well as your lifespan, improves.
According to Dr. Christianson, high levels of cortisol are linked to high BP and increased risk of heart diseases. High cortisol levels can particularly impact women by causing hormone imbalance, hair loss, weight gain, lowered immunity, and inflammation, according to Women's Health Network. Inflammation doesn't just cause physical pain like joint and muscle ache, it can also lead to depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental ailments. This in turn can trigger all the more overthinking making it a vicious circle.
Now that you are aware of these, do not worry or beat yourself for overthinking. The human mind is incessant and believes thinking is survival. This is why, in the East, the Buddhists have a term called the "monkey mind," one which jumps from one thought to the other. Practices such as breathwork, meditation, mindfulness exercise may help; however, if you believe you may have symptoms of any mental or physical condition, it is best to reach out to an expert. Therapy can go a long way to help deal with overthinking, anxiety, and other conditions.
If you think you need some clarity or guidance, please reach out to a mental health expert or your local social worker. Or, talk to a trusted friend or family member.