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Upside of being a worrywart: The surprising benefit to overthinking

Sure, you overanalyze everything in your life, but researchers say they may not always be a negative.
/ Source: TODAY

If you’re a classic overthinker, you analyze everything that happens in your life. You mull over every decision until you’re exhausted. You even brood about your tendency to brood.

Well, here’s good news to ruminate on — there are benefits to overthinking, according to a paper in “Trends in Cognitive Science.” Brooding may be connected to creativity.

People who overthink tend to score high in the neurotic department. Neuroticism is one of the five big personality traits, along with openness, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness. It's linked to anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy and frustration.

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But neurotic fretfulness can also bring a problem-solving focus. Brooders are also more likely to daydream, which can lead to creative discovery, according to Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the neurobiology of personality at King’s College London.

“Imagine there is someone who is daydreaming a lot and has a lot of inner thoughts. If those inner thoughts are about a particular problem [that person is] going to be coming up with [creative] solutions to particular problems,” said Perkins, one of the researchers who analyzed scientific literature about self-generated thought.

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It all has to do with the default mode network— the region of the brain that’s active when people aren’t focusing on the outside world — which fires with activity when people use their imagination, ruminate and engage in creative acts.

Steven Smith, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University who studies creative thinking, said the theory makes sense. After all, people with busy minds do often find inspiring solutions.

“Self-generated thought can be an important ingredient for creative thought,” said Smith.

All humans engage in creative thinking daily, said Smith. The results might not be fine art or the great American novel, but the process remains the same.

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“We think of creative as being something that drops the jaw," he said. "That really refers to a product.”

In fact, creativity comes in many forms. “When a baby discovers his toes and [a scientist] discovers a formula, it is still the same cognitive process," he said.

Shelley Carson, an associate of the psychology department at Harvard University, says the most creative people are generally those who are open to new experiences. The neurotic/creative link is worth exploring, but experimental studies need to be conducted to validate the theory, she said.

“As far as personality studies go, most personality studies do not find a specific link between creativity and neuroticism,” she said. “We do know that self-generated thought is associated with creativity and imagination. Where I am not seeing the link is where neuroticism is associated with creativity.”

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And even if neurotic overthinking spurs creative thoughts, it also can cause a lot of stress.

There are ways that over-thinkers can channel their ruminations in positive ways. Perkins suggests over-thinkers do the following:

  • Try engaging in creativity activities, such as painting or ceramics, or tedious activities that consume a lot of mental energy. This channels the overthinking into a healthy activity.
  • Write a list of all your worries and walk away. When looking at it again, evaluate each item to determine what is a real problem, what is something that can’t possibly be solved, and what is a major issue that can be fixed.
  • Take one more look at your list. This time, cross off the non-problems, fix the easy issues, and save the tough ones for focused thought.