Updated: Apr 23, 2020
How many times has that question stopped us from doing something that we wanted to do, or acquiring something that we have long desired?
"But what if I don't make the team?"
"What if I fail?"
"What if I'm not good enough"?
Our "what if" moments are manifestations of our anxiety defences at work. You see, our brains are setup in such a way that when we face uncertainty or something that is threatening/intimidating, our anxiety sensors go off in order to protect us from possible danger.
And that word alone opens up the portals of our imagination to think of scenarios, outcomes and fears that have not yet been realized (and possibly never will be). Because we believe it's possible, we start to think that it will be. This isn't necessarily the case, however. Like Alice who was transported down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, we soon find ourselves down the (overthinking)rabbit hole of every possible outcome that - more often than not - is negative. The reason we do this is to try to ensure we are prepared and on guard for the worst-case scenario.
Here's why we venture down the rabbit hole:
"I've been down this road before and I know it will happen again." Many times experiences from our past inform us about what we can expect from similar scenarios. We therefore focus on the similarities of the contexts and venture into the realm of possibility that the outcome will also be similar.
We use our feelings to determine the reality. If we're afraid, then it must be that it is something to be feared, right? Not necessarily. Our perceptions are shaped by what we know and what we have experienced, which ultimately inform our emotional response. If we rely only on our knowledge and experience, then there are a lot of things we can get wrong because we do not know, or have not experienced everything. Which leads us to
- we don't have all the facts. The less information we have, the more we overthink. Our mind doesn't really like gaps of information, so it relies on stored memory to fill them in. When we don't have the information we need, we try to do this ourselves, usually to prepare us for what lies ahead and decrease uncertainty.
So how can we stop ourselves from overthinking? Here are a few tips:
Get the facts. If you find yourself with more questions than answers, try to get as much information as possible.
Ask yourself if your past negative experience is really the same as this new situation. Chances are if you closely examine it, you may notice that there are many things that contradict your preconceived notions about the context.
Think of the possible positive outcomes by identifying your strengths and your resources. In many cases there are perhaps as many (if not more) likely positive outcomes.
As we've seen with Alice, it's not easy getting out of the overthinking rabbit hole. It sometimes helps to talk with someone to map your way out. If you find that you struggle with overthinking a lot, feel free to contact me to explore how therapy can help to chart your way forward.