Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often experience challenges such as racing thoughts, persistent rumination, and hyper-fixation on minor details. While these traits can fuel curiosity and aid in problem-solving, they can also lead to the unhealthy habit of overthinking. Overthinking can cause anxiety and hinder productivity—but there are healthy ways to cope.
In this article, we discuss what overthinking is and how it affects individuals with ADHD. We’ll also explore its potential dangers, and offer practical techniques to help manage and alleviate its effects. By gaining a deeper understanding of overthinking and its connection to ADHD symptoms, you can take proactive steps towards healthier thought patterns and improved mental well-being.
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What is Overthinking?
Overthinking occurs when you dwell on a topic in a continuous thought loop, ruminating about it enough to interfere with your daily life. You may have trouble focusing on the present moment, stuck in the circle of scenarios running over and over in your head.
Usually, overthinking happens when you’re upset about the past or worried about the future. In the first case, overthinking involves replaying the event in your mind, sometimes imagining different outcomes and wishing you’d behaved differently. In the second case, overthinking may involve imagining various outcomes of an event, both good and bad.
This way of thinking may sometimes spur you into action to prepare for the future or resolve a past mistake. Most often, it simply leaves you feeling paralyzed or helpless. Overthinking is rarely productive and can increase stress, cause insomnia, and ultimately become a detriment to your health.
Why is Overthinking with ADHD Dangerous?
While overthinking can be a natural side-effect of managing a significant life event or problem, ADHD brains take it to the next level. People with ADHD think much faster than those without it. Quick thinking is a valuable skill—it allows you to assess and understand situations very rapidly and come up with solutions on the fly when your mind is alert and clear.
However, fast-moving ADHD minds also experience more negative thoughts than their non-ADHD counterparts. As one negative thought spins into the next, they attract more gloomy thoughts like magnets, pulling in one after another until it’s difficult to see anything but problems.
This thinking pattern can last days longer, feeding into a nonstop stream of negative self-talk that may shift into more serious problems, such as depression or anxiety.
Overthinking and ADHD Can Lead to Depression
Continuous spirals of negative thoughts and self-talk can make it hard to enjoy things like time with loved ones, favorite activities, or favorite foods. Guilt and shame about the past or dread of the future may become all-consuming, leading to isolation and listlessness because they feel so heavy emotionally. Over time, these feelings may become acute or evolve into other mental health issues like chronic depression, characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, or numbness.
In addition to a fast-moving mind, someone with ADHD feels emotions intensely and may struggle with emotional regulation. Their brains also have trouble processing dopamine correctly, meaning they’re often deficient. Severe depression has been linked to low dopamine in the brain, meaning those with ADHD may be prone to it.
Overthinking and ADHD Can Lead to Anxiety
You may find you can’t stop imagining the worst possible outcome of every situation and forcing yourself to triage solutions so you feel prepared. However, instead of feeling prepared, you only feel more anxious. Overthinking’s emotional cycles of guilt and dread often increase stress levels, which can lead to anxiety if left unchecked.
Symptoms of anxiety include feeling restless, nervous, or panicky, increased heart rate, racing thoughts, a sense something terrible is about to happen, rapid breathing, and a general feeling of tension in the muscles. These symptoms may cause insomnia, body tremors, and anxiety or panic attacks.
Though this can happen to anyone, a person with ADHD may be more susceptible to anxiety because their minds quickly build and analyze scenarios. They can play out dozens of doomsday sequences every few minutes, and because human brains don’t differentiate imagined danger from the real thing, stress responses in the body rise accordingly.
How to Stop Overthinking with ADHD
Managing overthinking with ADHD can be a challenge, but the rewards are often well worth the effort. Avoiding overthinking can help you circumvent bouts of anxiety and depression and take advantage of the positive side of your neurodivergence.
When the energy from overthinking is redirected into more positive thoughts and actions, your intensely-felt emotions and lightning-fast thoughts become assets. For example, if your mind is free from negative self-talk, you’ll have more access to the creativity and problem-solving skills inherent in those with ADHD.
Through time, practice, and plenty of patience, you can avoid overthinking by using your keen observation skills and adding enriching habits to your daily life.
Recognize overthinking as soon as it begins. Learn to identify your triggers for overthinking and the patterns your mind draws when you start to spiral.
Keep a small notebook or memo in your phone tracking moments that triggered overthinking and unnecessary stress. Check the list for patterns to see what kinds of things send you into negative thought cycles.
Common triggers include:
- Feeling tired or sleep-deprived
- Getting too hungry
- Physical pain, such as headaches or muscle aches
- Feeling sad or lonely
- Mirroring others’ emotions (e.g., being around someone who complains a lot)
Once you know what may be causing you to overthink, you can be more aware of when your mind starts to spiral. For instance, if you’re struggling with negative thoughts and realize you’re hungry, see how you feel after a snack.
Keep a Journal
Journaling helps you analyze thinking patterns and more efficiently process unlikely catastrophic scenarios your brain may have conjured. It gets the negative thoughts out of your head and onto paper, where you can see them as separate from yourself and assess them objectively. Recording entries in a journal that detail overthinking events can be beneficial for evaluating potential triggers.
Since ADHD can cause thoughts to become cluttered and unruly, writing them down is also a way to organize them. That way, if there is a problem you need to address, you’ll be able to identify it more easily.
Find a Healthy Distraction
Healthy distractions can help stop your mind from racing and break a cycle of overthinking. One of the fastest ways to get out of your head is to “get into” your body. Any safe physical activity will do, such as swimming, dancing, hiking, lifting weights, or even going for a walk. Anything that requires dynamic, physical movements should help because exercise releases endorphins—feel-good hormones that combat stress. But, exercise carefully as routines which give you time to think, like running or cycling, may not be distracting enough to prevent overthinking.
Getting creative may also help. Cooking, making art, playing an instrument, or writing poetry or fiction take up focus and produce stress-reducing hormones. Spending time with friends or loved ones is also a good idea, especially if you notice the urge to isolate yourself. Your loved ones may even be able to provide an objective point of view and help you process some of your worries.
Process Your Worries
Sometimes the best way to combat overthinking is to confront some things worrying you. Clearing your plate of a few items will lessen the mental load and alleviate stress.
An effective way to process your worries is to list and evaluate them:
- Write down everything that’s worrying you, no matter how large or small. Don’t try to list them in any particular order; just get them onto the page.
- Read through your list and cross off things that aren’t necessarily problems, like folding laundry. You may want to do these things, but nothing terrible will happen if you don’t.
- Circle or highlight time-sensitive things you can take care of right away, like paying a monthly bill that’s coming due or checking the mail. Cross them off as you complete them.
- Rewrite more pressing problems, like a conflict with a loved one or a broken-down car, on a separate piece of paper. Create a loose timeline and plan for handling these things.
Seeing your problems listed on paper helps you decide how to address them. It can also help you see how few things actually warrant concern. Further, creating a plan for what needs attention helps foster peace of mind.
ADHD can make it difficult to concentrate—asking a trusted friend to sit with you during this activity may make it easier.
Mindfulness is a grounding practice that encourages staying present and fully engaged with the current moment. For those grappling with ADHD and the associated tendency to overthink, mindfulness can be a lifeline. By focusing on your breath, sensations in your body, or even the sounds around you, mindfulness teaches you to redirect attention away from distressing thoughts and toward the present moment.
Mindfulness practices can range from formal meditation sessions to simple daily habits, such as mindful eating or walking. People can also practice mindfulness by utilizing apps or guided sessions through telehealth platforms, making the practice even more accessible for you to use at home. Engaging in mindfulness regularly can also cultivate a sense of calm and control, allowing those with ADHD to manage overthinking more effectively.
The consistent practice of mindfulness not only reduces the immediate stress and anxiety associated with overthinking, but also builds a resilience that can lead to a more balanced and focused mind. Additionally, it offers an opportunity for people to take a step back, reassess what’s going on, and respond to life’s challenges with a clearer and more composed mindset. Whether you practice mindfulness independently or with the support of a mental health professional, mindfulness can be very beneficial for those dealing with ADHD-related overthinking.
Speak with a Mental Health Professional
Therapists are trained to know how the mind works and think outside the box. If you’re not sure how to stop overthinking, a therapist may be able to see patterns in your life or behavior that you don’t. From there, they’ll be able to help you develop techniques to break your overthinking habit.
Therapy is beneficial if you have ADHD because analysis through conversation may be easier than thinking about your own thinking patterns—especially if you’re already overthinking.
Talk with an ADHD Specialist
Since overthinking is often a symptom of ADHD, an ADHD specialist should be able to share insights and management techniques specific to your situation. They will probably prescribe medication to help manage your symptoms. They may also refer you to a therapist who specializes in neurodivergence.
Medication in combination with therapy is common for managing ADHD. The medication helps balance your brain chemistry, while therapy provides strategies for responding to and handling your emotions.
How Klarity Helps Relieve ADHD Overthinking Issues
At Klarity, we understand the challenges that come with ADHD and how it can contribute to overthinking. We can connect you with licensed ADHD specialists qualified to evaluate your symptoms and help you develop a personalized treatment plan. With our online portal, you can schedule your first appointment in just 48 hours, and attend with the click of a mouse or tap of a screen—no driving, no waiting, and no stress.
Take the first step toward overcoming your overthinking by talking to a mental health provider.