The critical comment your boss made about your project last week is replaying in your mind like a broken record.
You just can’t stop thinking about the argument you had with your spouse a few nights ago.
You tend to dwell and brood about things like loss, failure, and past mistakes – and it causes you to feel even worse about yourself.
Overthinking – or ruminating – is examining and reexamining negative emotions, thoughts, and memories.
When people ruminate, they obsess about situations or life events. They get stuck in a mental rut, replaying those negative situations in their heads and agonizing over them.
Rumination is a toxic process that leads to negative self-talk such as, “It’s my own fault. Who would ever want me a friend?”
There’s a saying, “When you’re in your own mind, you’re in enemy territory.” You leave yourself open to those thoughts and the danger is believing them.
Your mind goes round and round over negative events in the past, problems in the present or bad things you’re worried will happen in the future.
You rehash these events and analyze them, but you don’t do anything to solve the problems or feel more in control of your situation.
Rumination and depression can trap you in a vicious cycle: they feed each other, explains psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want:
Many people believe that when they feel down or depressed they should try to focus inwardly and evaluate their feelings and their situation — they think this will help them gain insight and find solutions that might ultimately resolve their problems and relieve their depressive symptoms.
She says research indicates that people are better off if they can fight this inclination to brood over the causes and consequences of their depression:
These studies have shown that repetitive rumination about the implications of one’s depressive symptoms actually maintains those symptoms, impairs one’s ability to solve problems, and ushers in a host of negative consequences.
That’s because ruminative thinking leads people to:
- Feel even more sad, anxious, angry, and depressed
- Think more negatively and pessimistically about themselves, their problems, and their future
- Use fewer effective problem-solving strategies
- Feel less motivation to act
- Have a reduced ability to concentrate
- Experience even more stress and more problems
According to Nolen-Hoeksema, the way our brain is organized makes overthinking an easy habit to fall into:
Our memories and thoughts form an intricate web of associations so one idea or remembrance that gets triggered stirs others that are similar.
If we slip into an anxious, stressed, or depressed mood, thoughts that resonate with our mood are aroused. A cascade of mental activity that is mood-compatible is released, and we may end up ruminating about things that have nothing to do with the event that set-off our mood. For instance, we might find ourself dwelling on why our boy or girlfriend broke up with us after getting a poor grade on an exam.
Our amazing neurological network is a blessing that allows us to think creatively, but feels like a curse when it is stuck in negativity. Once our mind starts spinning around negative emotions and memories, it is difficult to stop. The more we engage this type of thinking the more habitual it becomes.
Rumination can lead to feelings of helplessness because it suppresses your problem-solving skills. You become so preoccupied with the problem that you’re unable to get past the cycle of negative thoughts, as Nolen-Hoeksema explained:
When people ruminate while they are in depressed mood, they remember more negative things that happened to them in the past, they interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and they are more hopeless about the future.
Learning from our mistakes and past experiences can be very helpful, but there’s a difference between healthy reflection and damaging rumination. Thinking without following up with action keeps you trapped. It prevents you from creating solutions and resolving problems.
Trying to understand the deeper meaning of events to gain insight and solve or prevent problems can be beneficial. But if nothing gets resolved, and you find yourself more stressed and overwhelmed, that’s a warning sign: you are ruminating in an unhealthful way.
So, how can you stop ruminating – or at least reduce it?
Identify triggers: Are there certain people, situations, or places that tend to lead you to ruminate? If you can figure out what is triggering your bouts of over-thinking, you may be able to prepare yourself in advance, or avoid the offender altogether.
Write it down: Get it on paper and out of your head. Jotting down your thoughts and feelings can help you organize and better understand them.
Schedule it: Set aside a 30 minute “rumination session” for yourself each day. Chances are, you won’t even want to use it, but if you do, be sure to stick to that time limit.
Catch yourself: Stop yourself from ruminating when you realize it is starting. Tell yourself NO, or STOP, and move on.
Problem-solve: Brainstorm with someone, or by yourself. What can you DO to overcome a problem you are thinking about? Come up with at least one concrete solution or positive step you can take.
Meditate: Mindfulness techniques can help you take a little “mind vacation” and reduce stress.
Reassess your goals: Linking small goals to big goals can prevent you from meeting neither. Here’s an example: you may need to challenge a belief that achieving big goals (such as happiness) completely depends on succeeding at smaller goals (such as losing five pounds).
Think about the worst-case scenario: While this might sound like a terrible idea at first, it is important to realize that we CAN handle most obstacles that come our way. Ask yourself two questions: 1) What is the worst thing that could happen? and 2) Can I handle that? Odds are, the problem was blown out of proportion in your mind and in reality, you are resilient enough to handle it – and may even grow from the challenge.
Let go: Can you change or control the situation in any way? If not, let it go. Don’t let it steal your precious time and energy.
Learn from it: The English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” We all make mistakes, and each one offers an opportunity to learn and improve. Ask yourself what you can learn from the experience, forgive yourself, and move forward.
Engage in positive activities: Exercise. Take a dance class. Do yoga. Watch a comedy. Go for a walk. Play with your children.
Seek professional help: If you are ruminating so much that it is interfering with your daily life or is causing you to become depressed, it might be time to find a therapist to help you identify and change your thinking patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the best established modalities for these kinds of challenges.