Women love to think and, sometimes, overthink. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Yale-educated expert psychologist studied mood, depression and gender differences. Her extensive and pioneering research on rumination helped explain why women are twice as likely to have depression than men and also demonstrated how widespread overthinking can be.
“When there is any pause in our daily activities,” says Nolen-Hoeksema in 2013, “many of us are flooded with worries, thoughts and emotions that swirl out of control, sucking our emotions and energy down, down, down. We are suffering from an epidemic of overthinking.”
In her book, Women Who Think Too Much, she defines overthinking and shares helpful tips to slow our minds down and stop the trap of overthinking.
Kneading Our Thoughts
Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema explains overthinking is paying attention to the thoughts created by our mood, mulling them over, taking them very seriously, and letting them influence our decisions. It looks like going over your thoughts and then examining them repetitively. She says overthinking is similar to kneading our thoughts like dough. Overthinking is pervasive and self-focused and often not helpful. Researchers interviewed students about their results after overthinking. They discovered the students were less insightful and usually wrong about their assumptions. In fact, they had a kind of tunnel vision that only allowed them to focus on the negative. Overthinking is not your friend.
The Yeast Effect
Not only does getting caught kneading our thoughts lead us to have a negative focus; but, this overthinking comes with a yeast effect. In the same manner dough doubles in size when kneaded, our negative thoughts will grow when we work them over too. These oversized thoughts lead to less insight and consequently more negative decisions. Choices that can ruin your life, impair your well-being and ability to function in the world. Research shows ruminative-type thinking leads to a dip in our performance and our ability to concentrate, pay attention, and shift to account for the positive. Overthinking also affects our ability to problem solve well; and, when we do problem solve, we have difficulty adequately putting the solution in place.
Stopping the Cycle
- Break the grip of your thoughts by giving your mind a planned rest. Intentionally distract yourself with a positive activity like a mindful hobby, physical activity, good book, massage, or movie. Be your own “thought police”, firmly telling yourself to stop in the moment, and then schedule a specific time to think things over. Another solution is asking a friend or spouse to help and talking about what you are overthinking.
- Climb up out of the muck onto higher ground. Take time to change your focus away from overthinking to a healthier view of a situation. Don’t get stuck in comparisons or be ruled by negative emotions. Accept the pain then brainstorm possible solutions. Consider other simple reasons for your distress at first, like lack of sleep or hunger. Connect with higher values to evaluate all possible solutions. Next, take some small action to begin overcoming your problem. In the process, try to forgive those who have wronged you to let go of overthinking their offense. When implementing solutions, listen out for when your overthinking is the result of others telling you how you ought to be feeling, thinking or behaving.
- Avoid falling into the trap again. She says, “don’t go there.” Choose not to put yourself in situations that involve overthinking. Sometimes, this looks like physically avoiding a situation or letting go of unrealistic and unhealthy goals for yourself. However, if the trap feels unavoidable, create a new picture of yourself inside those situations by replacing negative images with positive ones. For an example, seeing yourself as someone who is competent to learn new skills or trying to find a satisfying story to understand your troubles. Finally, broaden your base for multiple sources of support. Becoming a volunteer at a cause you value or finding new friends in other stages of life can provide a different perspective on life.
“Over the past four decades women have experienced unprecedented growth in independence and opportunities,” Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema wrote, “We have many reasons to be happy and confident.”
Fuller Life is here to help you restore yourself to joy and calm.
Carey, B. (2013, January 13).Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Psychologist Who Studied Depression in Women, Dies at 53. The New York Times. Retrieved November 12, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/us/susan-nolen-hoeksema-psychologist-who-studied-depression-in-women-dies-at-53.html?_r=0
Lyubomirsky, S., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and interpersonal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1), 176-190.doi. 10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.168
Contributed by Angela Blocker, M.A, LMFT Associate
Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC