It's the Thought That Counts

Overthinking can wreck our emotional health, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., on the basis of her studies over the past decade. A professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, she provides answers to some common questions:

Do men ruminate too?

Women do it more than men, but that doesn't mean that men don't do it at all. And it takes on a different character. Our research suggests that men are more likely to ruminate about anger and angry situations, and it comes out as angry, grudge-bearing self-righteousness.

Women tend to focus much more on depressive and anxious themes: "What's wrong with me that this person doesn't like me? What did I do wrong?" And they focus on whether they can control something in the future, particularly with regard to relationships. "How can I keep my husband interested in me? How can I make sure that everybody likes me?"

How do you explain those differences?

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We know that from a very early age girls are much more relationship-oriented than boys are. It's socialized into us; it may even be programmed into us evolutionarily. Relationships are great fuel for rumination because interactions with others are always ambiguous; you never know exactly what the other person means or whether they're being sincere. Investing too much of your self-worth in the approval of others provides an unstable source of self-esteem. That's one major contributor to women's tendency to ruminate more.

How does one develop into a ruminator? Do we learn it?

It can be socialized into people or we can be inclined to it by biological temperament. If you are encouraged to pay attention to your emotions and also given the message that there's not much you can do about them, that contributes to being a ruminator. Boys are encouraged to do something about the situations that make them upset, girls are encouraged more to just think about the situations that make them upset. If biological temperament inclines you to be easily upset, that quite naturally leads to questions about "what's wrong with me?" If on top of that you are not socialized to handle distressed feelings actively, then the two can strongly contribute to rumination.

How does that get set into the brain?

Research suggests that there are connections between nodes of the brain. Different memories and thoughts are connected by virtue of sharing an emotion, so that negative thoughts are connected with each other even when they have little to do with each other. Your boss yells at you-and you think about how fat you are. What connects them is unhappiness.

When you ruminate, you rehearse the connections between such thoughts and strengthen them, creating a spreading network whereby a whole complex of distressing thoughts becomes more easily aroused by just a little bit of negative mood. So the next time you're upset not only do you think about your boss yelling at you and being fat but about how your mother treated your brother better than she treated you.

What effect does rumination have on relationships?

It undermines them in a couple of ways. Ruminators seek out other people for reassurance but they confront others constantly: "You don't love me, you don't care about me, what did you mean when you said that the other night?" Men particularly find this hard to deal with. It may lead to arguments or to the partner stalking off.

The other thing it can do is make a person excessively dependent and anxious about everything a partner or friend says or does, which again can drive them away. Our research shows that ruminators seek out social support from other people more than non-ruminators, but they actually get lower-quality social support because people get frustrated.

There's such as thing as excessive reassurance seeking: "Do you love me? Do you really love me? I don't know if you love me, do you really love me?" Eventually their partners get frustrated; they may try to hide it and be reassuring, but the ruminator notices the frustration and confronts them: "You say you love me, but you seem so irritable all the time and you're getting more irritable. What's the matter? What's the matter with our relationship?" Eventually, there's often a huge blowup.

Is rumination more toxic for women because of its effect on relationships?

Rumination is toxic in both men and women; it leads to depression and anxiety in both. It's just that women are more prone to do it.

What has most surprised you in the research you've done on rumination?

We keep looking for what's good about rumination. Over and over we find that it is immobilizing and impairs the quality of thinking.

Have we become too self-analytical?

Our data indicate that older adults are less prone to rumination than younger ones, suggesting that a cultural shift toward awareness of emotions may contribute. There's been a huge shift in the last couple of decades from being very stoic and unaware of our feelings to being obsessed with them. The main theme of a huge amount of pop culture has been about getting in touch with your feelings and analyzing your past. That's good to some extent, but a lot of us have taken it too far and we've become a bellybutton culture, hyperfocused on every twist and turn of our emotions, trying to analyze everything everybody says for its deeper meaning.

One thing that keeps people in the cycle of rumination is a sense that they're incredibly profound and gaining tremendous insight. We actually find that by every measure, they're doing a lousy job of problem solving. People need to recognize that it's not a healthy process.

When does thinking get dangerous?

Self-analysis is a good thing-to a point. Just as the cell-splitting processes that contribute to cancer are not inherently bad-it's dangerous when it gets out of control and becomes self-perpetuating-so with thinking about yourself and your emotions. Some of it is crucial to our understanding of who we are and how to behave. But when it takes up all the space in your brain, it's malignant. We need to spot when self-analysis turns into rumination and gain skills for controlling it.

It's in the danger zone when you start feeling increasingly hopeless and immobilized, when you're getting feedback from others that you seem stuck and unable to deal with a situation and certainly when you are feeling chronically depressed and anxious. By then, however, you may need professional help.

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