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Overthinking and ADHD seem to go hand in hand. We all overthink sometimes – when you are nervous about a big event, like giving a presentation, it is only human to go over and over the likely scenarios in your head as you prepare and find yourself unable to focus on anything else.
But ADHD brains are different. For one thing, they are fast, and their ability to immediately identify a whole range of possible outcomes from even the simplest of situations can be an issue.
Inevitably, some of these possible outcomes will be negative. We are generally much better at imagining failure and disaster than we are at visualizing success!
Let's dive into why we tend to overthink, and what we can do to prevent it.
So Does ADHD Cause Overthinking?
As an ADHDer, once you have identified these doomsday scenarios, your lightning ADHD brain is then more than capable of fixating on them to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, and especially any suggestion that things might go well and that you are getting the situation way out of proportion!
Whether ADHD causes overthinking or overthinking is a part of ADHD does not really matter. The two certainly occur together in many people. What is important is recognizing whether overthinking is an issue for you, and learning how to manage it if it is.
Are you an overthinker?
None of us can see inside each other’s heads (probably a good thing!), so this is a subjective issue and there is no simple test that can determine of you are officially an overthinker or not.
But if most scenarios lead you to spend significant time thinking through all the possibilities and then fixating on the bad potential outcomes, maybe even to the point that you start to become put off from acting by fear of these, then you are likely an overthinker.
If you are now trying to justify your thought processes as something like “sensible planning” rather than overthinking, then you are probably an overthinker in denial!
How to tackle overthinking
Overthinking can be an issue when it starts to take over your life. It can affect your relationships with others and reduce your confidence – we often tend to be our own worst critics.
A certain amount of reflection and planning is helpful and important, but when it becomes a recurring issue, you need to address it.
Acknowledge your thoughts
It is a fundamental building block of mindfulness to acknowledge your thoughts as a neutral observer rather than trying to suppress them. We all know that when told “do not think of an elephant”, we can think of nothing else. Trying to block out thoughts simply does not work.
But what can work is observing your thoughts and investigating them as if they belonged to somebody else.
When we acknowledge that we may be overthinking a situation, we can immediately take a step back and look at why we are going down this route. Is it because last time we did something similar, something went wrong, for example?
Or do we just generally believe that things will always turn out for the worst for us?
There is nothing wrong with any of these thoughts in themselves – what is important is managing them when they do arise.
Yes, the last presentation you gave may have gone wrong, but you will also know why and what to do to avoid that happening again. It may be another presentation, but you are starting from a different place – you now have that previous experience to learn from and build on, so the situation is not the same at all.
Get to know yourself and how your thoughts arise, and then try to put a bit of distance between yourself and those thoughts.
Recognize the triggers
Often overthinking is not a result of the situation we are concerned with at all. Presenting us with the same issue on different days may well lead to totally different outcomes.
A small problem that occurs when we are tired, stressed, hungry or already feeling down can cause a huge bout of overthinking, while a bigger problem that arises when we are feeling good may be taken in our stride.
Know when you are vulnerable to overthinking and other negative thoughts, and be ready to park the issue mentally until you are in a better place to deal with it.
Keep your perspective
Perhaps the biggest problem that arises when we go into a spiral of overthinking is that the problem becomes our entire world. We simply cannot focus on anything else while we are thinking of new ways that something could go wrong and how we would be completely unable to cope with the consequences when we do.
It is like holding an apple up so close to your face that all you can see is apple, no matter where you look. The world still exists beyond the apple, but your vision is unable to get to it. The answer, of course, is to move the apple, even just a bit, so that you can see around it.
We can do the same with our thoughts. By getting our brains to focus on something else, even just in a small way at first, we can break the cycle of overthinking and get our perspective back.
There are lots of ways to do this. You could do something that you enjoy and you know distracts you, do some exercise or walk to get some endorphins flowing and improve your mood, or talk to a good friend, either about what is on your mind or something else entirely.
Doing something else immediately presents your brain with inarguable evidence that there is life outside the thing that you are overthinking and breaks the cycle.
You are not your overthinking
The negative spirals that your brain takes you down are not the whole of you, or even a big part. They are just part of the nature of your different mind. The biggest and hardest step is recognizing what is happening, as any situation is easier to address when you know what you are dealing with.
Finally, know that you are not alone. There are many of us ADHD overthinkers out there – I will soon likely become fixated on all the negative things that readers may think of this article – but it does not define us, and it can be managed. You can do this.