Trapped in Reflection

Women are far more inclined than men to ruminate about the stressors and disappointments they encounter and get stuck there.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published April 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When it comes to differences between men and women, some are, as the French have always known, highly worthy of celebration. Others, however, are more often a source of confusion and downright misunderstanding between the sexes.

Among the latter, one of the most distinctive is invisible to the eye. Men and women differ dramatically in their approach to negative emotions such as sadness. Specifically, men avoid them, and women don't.

And therein lies a problem, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D. Unfortunately, women can get stuck in negative emotions, caught in a downward spiral of hopelessness and immobility. And that, she finds, is a major reason women are twice as likely to develop depression as men are.

Over the past decade, Nolen-Hoeksema, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has found that women are far more inclined to ruminate about the stressors and disappointments they encounter—and get stuck there. They focus on symptoms of distress and the possible causes and consequences of them, repetitively and passively.

They go over and over their negative thoughts and feelings, examining them, questioning them, kneading them like dough. And like dough, their problems swell in size.

At the very least, such rumination makes life harder. And it damages relationships along the way.

"When there is any pause in our daily activities, 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—caught in torrents of negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and well-being."

We are, in short, experiencing an epidemic of morbid meditation, the Michigan psychologist contends in a new book Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life (Henry Holt).

What is it that women ruminate about? The short answer is, almost everything: their appearance, their families, their career, their health. But most of all they ruminate about their relationships and about their body.

They might begin thinking about a recent conflict with a friend: How could she have said that to me? What does she really mean by that? How should I react?

But such questions just lead to more questions, what Nolen-Hoeksema calls "the yeast effect." Negative thoughts might start out about a specific event or situation but they expand and grow, spreading to more situations and leading to big questions about one's life. And—here's the kicker—they get more negative with time.

Of course, some rumination is natural, even necessary. But people who ruminate a lot amplify negative events. They dredge up more negative memories from the past, are more pessimistic about the present and more fatalistic about the future. That tilts them more towards despair, and renders them less likely to take positive action to either dispel the negativity or resolve underlying problems.

Their ruminations often center on relationships, because relationships are very important to women. Yet the social support that ruminators seek from their intimates often eludes them.

For one thing, they wind up torturing those closest to them with their oversize need for reassurance. Plus, the very hopelessness of ruminators makes them unpleasant to be around. So while they seek out others more, they actually get less of what they want from them.

Let's make it clear: overthinkers are not your standard worriers. Bread-and-butter worriers are concerned about what may happen to them in the future. Overthinkers go over and over what happened in the past. And they become dead certain something bad has already occurred.

Being in touch with one's negative emotions is not in itself a bad thing. Some of it is necessary. And a good deal of evidence shows that those who suppress unpleasant feelings are at risk for a host of physical ills.

But "negative emotions don't necessarily give us a direct line to our truest, deepest concerns," says Nolen-Hoeksema. They impose a lens "that shows a distorted, narrow view of our world." And instead of seeing the unvarnished reality of our past and our present, "we see only what our negative mood wants us to see."

Nor is the solution to just stop thinking. Many of the problems being ruminated about are real problems and they have to be dealt with. But the research Nolen-Hoeksema has done shows that rumination makes people terrible problem solvers.

It makes problems seem larger than they are and leads people to make catastrophic decisions, as when someone confronts a boss and quits a job, rather that ironing out the real and manageable issues. And even if ruminators can come up with a solution to their problems, because rumination makes their problems seem so large it saps their motivation to take even the littlest steps towards solutions.

In one study, Nolen-Hoeksema and her colleagues presented to depressed and nondepressed subjects a series of problems commonly faced by depressed people. For example, one of the problems was, "Your friends don't seem to want to be with you anymore." Then they asked the subjects how they would go about solving the problems. The depressed ones who had been overthinking generated terrible solutions.

When asked what they would do if a friend avoided them, they said things like "I guess I'd just avoid them too." But depressed people who had been distracted from overthinking generated solutions that were likely to improve their lives. They said things such as "I'd ask the person I was closest to in that group what I was doing that made people avoid me."

If overthinking is so bad for us, why then do we do it? "The organization of our brain sets us up for overthinking," Nolen-Hoeksema contends. The thoughts and memories stored in our brains don't sit there in isolation; they are woven together in intricate networks of associations.

"When you are in a bad mood of some type—depressed, anxious, just altogether upset—your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. These thoughts may have nothing to do with the incident that put you into a bad mood in the first place, as when a poor job performance causes you to think about your aunt who died last year."

While this spiderweb organization of the brain greatly increases our efficiency of thinking, it also makes it easy for us to overthink. Being in a bad mood makes negative memories more accessible. It's not only easier to think of negative things when you are in a bad mood than when you are in a good mood, it's also easier to see interconnections between the bad things in your life. And the more you overthink, the easier it is to do it in the future.

The brain isn't the only factor in overthinking. Nolen-Hoeksema believes that women may have more to overthink about because they experience more chronic strains, and they tend to define themselves more by their relationships to others.

The strong grip that overthinking has makes it all the more necessary for women to practice mental hygiene. It's never too late to overcome overthinking.