Adverse Impact of Overthinking

Too many people practically brag, “Oh, I just overthink everything,” with little to no idea how toxic and degrading overthinking can be to themselves and others.

A new study found:

…when intense cognitive work is prolonged for several hours, it causes potentially toxic byproducts to build up in the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. This, in turn, alters your control over decisions, so you shift toward low-cost actions requiring no effort or waiting as cognitive fatigue sets in, the researchers explain.

Reduced effort, low-cost actions included taking a little bit of cash now instead of holding out for a better pay-off.

And, of course, waiting would include doing nothing at all, waiting for someone or something to come along to put us out of our decision-making agony. Buridan’s Ass did that and died as a result. From an earlier post:

An equally hungry and thirsty donkey, placed exactly halfway between a stack of hay and a pail of water, cannot decide which way to go. Paralyzed with indecision and, therefore, approaching neither the food nor the drink while he tries to decide, the donkey dies.

Either way, whether impulsively choosing lesser options or procrastinating one’s way to nothing at all—it is not hard to imagine how the opportunity costs can degrade our lives and the lives of others around us.

The toxin associated with overthinking’s cognitive exhaustion is called glutamate, which:

…typically excites neurons, playing key roles in learning and memory, but too much of it can wreak havoc on brain function, causing problems ranging from cell death to seizures.

Good to know because I, for one, did not have any idea there was a toxin involved. As with most studies, there are questions and controversy (e.g., is this the only toxin involved, is there something other than the toxins involved).

And yet, for me, just the idea that my thinking could be producing toxins—right this second as I read and write this, maybe, yikes—makes me want to do something about it.

After all, thinking, thinking, thinking… is a favorite pastime of mine, as it also happens to be for so many in our culture.

Cultural Preference for Thinking

Brian Luke Seaward, in Managing Stress: A Creative Journal, points out that:

Western culture grooms and rewards left-brain thinking. And it is fair to say that judgmental thinking is one of our predominant traits. While it is true that the Western culture is left-brain dominant in thinking skills, the truth of the matter is that to be dominant in one style of thinking may actually be considered lopsided and imbalanced.

That said, the MBTI institute (Myers Briggs) published a higher percentage of the population scoring Feeling (59.8%) over Thinking (40.2), which surprised me.

But let’s leave this for another time. Those of us who think too much know who we are.

And, now we know, better than ever, that overthinking is not always good.

3 Tips for Toxic Overthinking

1. Sleep/Rest. Researchers say there is good evidence that glutamate, which is toxic in excess, gets washed away from the brain’s prefrontal cortex synapses during sleep.

2. Music. A separate study found that runners who were mentally fatigued but listened to music performed better than runners who were mentally fatigued and did not listen to music. The authors suggest that music may improve other day-to-day activities as well, possibly due to a modified self-perception of our effort when the music is on.

3. Mindset. In this case, what we think of thinking. Now we know that overthinking is not the answer to everything. Not always the right thing to do. A time and a place for everything.

And some times are better for listening to music, or for sleeping, you get the idea—rather than to over rely on thinking when thinking needs a break and so do we.

Practice, practice, practice, see what happens, and let us know.



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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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