It's the Thought That Counts

An expert answers key question about the dangers of overthinking.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on April 2, 2003 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

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?

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.