The Psychology of Overthinking in College

As an anxious person experiencing the stresses of college, I have a tendency to overthink everything. I always seem to be in panic mode and fear that everything that could possibly go wrong will go wrong. Then whenever something goes right, I have a tendency to over-analyze everything and try to figure out what should have gone wrong but didn’t. This does not sound like healthy thinking at all, but that is how my brain happens to work.

overthinking

Over-thinking has personally caused me a ton of stress and led me to put way too much pressure on myself to succeed. Even though overthinking causes stress, it has been beneficial in forcing me to study for exams, and it is probably one of the main reasons I managed to make it onto the dean’s list for four consecutive semesters. While good grades are something to be proud of, I am starting to discover that my mental health is more important. Because I wanted to know more about the mental process of overthinking, I interviewed Gannon’s psychology and counseling professor Dr. Timothy Coppock about the psychology of over-thinking.

As an over-thinker, I am very curious to know the causes of overthinking. Dr. Coppock said, “There are a number of things that could create the opportunity for overthinking, but the most likely issue is anxiety.  Sometimes anxiety is the result of feeling inadequate or insecure.  However most people are able to manage times of other-thinking and find ways of self-regulation.  It’s important to identify that chronic over-thinking could lead to a more serious issue with obsessive thoughts.  In the more extreme and chronic cases it is important for the individual to seek professional help from a trained professional.”

So it turns out that anxiety is the main cause for my over-thinking. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

I have not had too much difficulty sleeping due to over-thinking, but I was very curious to see if over-thinking can lead to loss of sleep. Dr. Coppock said, “Anxiety and overthinking are frequently reported with persons who have difficulty with insomnia.”

While I do not have difficulty sleeping, I sometimes imagine the worst possible scenario happening before going to bed. I was curious to see how most people respond by doing this so I asked Dr. Coppock “What are typical internal responses to imagining the worst possible scenario happening every single time?”

Dr. Coppock said “Anxiety often creates the opportunity for generalizing from a specific stress or stressful thought to a more global thought pattern.  A good way to address this snowballing process is to find ways to interrupt the repeated thought with an alternative activity, such as concentration on breathing, exercise, or relaxing music or meditation.” Well, this explains why I feel significantly calmer after going for a run or listening to music. Many people have told me that I should try meditative activities. Well, I guess it is time to start.

Because over-thinking has helped me achieve academic success, I was curious to see if Dr. Coppock believed there were benefits to over-thinking. He said, “There are a number of tasks, such as writing a scholarly paper or completing a complex assignment that require one to think carefully and in more detail.  So,  for instance, working on a major thesis or doctoral dissertation requires careful attention to detail and rethinking that might resemble over-thinking.” That pretty much sums up how I made it onto the dean’s list for four straight semesters.

In my experience of over-thinking, I can’t help but wonder if overthinking can distract me from noticing the obvious. If it can, how does it?

Dr. Coppock said “Yes.  Overthinking often results in narrowing one’s thinking to a specific task or problem, causing one to be less attentive to other activities, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions. This type of tunneled thinking can result in missing deadlines and overlooking other important activities.” Oh great. I have missed a few deadlines after stressing out over assignments.

Because I do not want overthinking to cause me to miss the obvious any more than it already has, I asked Dr. Coppock if over-thinking can impact educational and professional performance.

He said, “Yes.  Anxious over-thinking can result in missed deadlines, impaired decision making, and disrupt professional performance.  But again it is important to identify that anxiety can also prompt one into the completion of tasks and even provide more incentive for attention to detail and accuracy.” So over-thinking can be a good thing or it could be a bad thing.

Then I started wondering about my social life. Is it possible for over-thinking to ruin friendships or even prevent romantic relationships. Dr. Coppock said, “Most times there would likely not be an undesirable effect on friendships and relationships.  However, as mentioned, one of the common issues that may lead to over-thinking is low self-esteem, inadequacy, and insecurity.  In a friendship or relationship this could lead to feelings of jealousy and/or dependency.” I typically do not feel jealous or overly-dependent in my social life so it is nice to know that over-thinking has not affected me there too much.

From my interview with Dr. Coppock, I have made one major conclusion. While over-thinking is a tool that helped me survive many research papers and projects, it has also gotten in the way of my ability in believing I can achieve. Sure good grades are important, but they are not nearly as important as mental health. And when one is mentally healthy, I am sure it would be just as possible to achieve decent marks, even if they are not perfect.

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