Overthinking is the act of thinking about something for too long. It’s seductive. The siren call of overthinking sounds something like this: If you keep overthinking things, if you keep thinking about unsolved problems or why bad things keep happening to you, you will experience enlightenment. You will solve problems, and you will find inspiration and relaxation! But overthinking just looks like you’re solving problems. If we get bogged down in overthinking, it’s like being swept up in a vortex of negative, self-critical thoughts. When we overthink, we’re less effective at solving problems and feel a lot worse.

How can we tell the difference between overthinking and thinking or analyzing problems that burden us? A thought is natural, curious, and reflective. It is a philosophical analysis of why things happen in a certain way. A thought may cause some healthy discomfort, especially when thinking about something you shouldn’t do. When we overthink, we usually feel terrible. We cannot stop, even if we try. Overthinking doesn’t lead to a solution but only to more overthinking.

If, for whatever reason, you wish to prolong the ill effects of stress long after a difficult event, overthinking is the perfect tool for the job. When we overthink, stress remains active long after the actual reason for it is gone. The body responds to overeating in the form of prolonged activation of higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, and higher levels of cortisol. The main parasympathetic activator, the vagus nerve, which makes us feel calm and regulates our heart rate and digestion, is deactivated and remains that way long after the stressful event is over. People who overthink a lot experience more depression and discomfort, which leads to greater deregulation of the autonomic nervous system with all its consequences.