Can overthinking cause anxiety?

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Last Updated on October 20, 2023 by the thought method co.

There’s a lot to think about. And our minds can become full of endless ‘what ifs’ and imagined catastrophes. But do constant thoughts cause anxiety, or is overthinking a result of an anxiety that is already there?

Short answer: yes, overthinking can cause anxiety. But, like most modern relationships, it’s complicated. Because overthinking can be a result of anxiety.

There is no set, scientific explanation for what came first, overthinking or anxiety. And both overthinking and anxiety can fuel the other in a seemingly never-ending cycle. So asking if overthinking causes anxiety is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. 

The first step in managing both anxiety and overthinking is to acknowledge their connection. Let’s break it down with some examples.

Example of Overthinking Causing Anxiety

Picture having an important project coming up, and you can’t stop worrying about it. You keep thinking, “What if I fail? What if I disappoint my team?” The more you dwell on these thoughts, the more anxious you will feel. Overthinking about the test’s outcome leads to constant feelings of nervousness, making it hard to focus and work effectively. Overthinking can cause sleep problems and physical tension, which can worsen anxiety and impact your well-being.

Example of Anxiety Caused Overthinking

Imagine you’re waiting for a friend to text you back. It’s been hours. You start feeling anxious. “What if something bad happened to them? What if they’re upset with me?” The anxiety about your friend’s well-being or your relationship leads you to overthink, imagining all the worst-case scenarios, and making it hard for you to focus on anything else. This loop of anxious thoughts might even lead you to send multiple texts or calls, fueled by the fear that something might be wrong, increasing your anxiety.

When It’s Hard to Tell Which Caused Which

Think of a time you worried about an important decision, like choosing the right school or career path. The more you think about your different options, the more anxious you become. At the same time, your growing anxiety makes it challenging to think clearly about the decision, causing you to overthink each aspect and potential consequence. Here, it becomes tough to distinguish whether the initial worries triggered the anxiety or if the anxiety fueled the overthinking. The connection between overthinking and anxiety can make you feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

Overthinking and anxiety can feed off each other, making it hard to identify which one started the cycle. In order to improve your well-being, it is important to recognize the signs of both and learn techniques to manage and cope with them effectively. By being aware, you can break the cycle and develop a healthier mindset, which allows for better decision-making and a more balanced perspective.