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How to Stop Overthinking Things

Learning to break free of rumination can help you feel happier.

Key points

  • Rumination involves repeatedly and passively focusing on the causes, consequences, and meaning of negative feelings and circumstances.
  • Rumination is a transdiagnostic risk factor for various forms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety.
  • Learning to recognize and shift away from rumination can improve mental health.
Patrick Hoesly/Flickr
Rumination means being trapped, overthinking about negative feelings or circumstances.
Source: Patrick Hoesly/Flickr

Rumination, also called repetitive negative thinking, is a thought pattern that involves repeatedly and passively focusing on the causes, consequences, and meaning of negative feelings and circumstances. It’s like being stuck in a whirlpool of endless, abstract negativity: “What’s wrong with me? Why do bad things keep happening to me? Why am I so unhappy? Why do I always mess up? What if things never improve? What if things get worse?”

Rumination takes a lot of effort, so it seems like it ought to be helpful or even necessary, but it’s not. Brooding, overanalyzing, and going over troubling things again and again is a mental habit that keeps people feeling stuck and makes them feel even more miserable. In fact, rumination is a transdiagnostic risk factor. Longitudinal studies have shown that increased rumination predicts later onset or worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, bulimia, and substance abuse (Ehring & Watkins, 2008; Wilkinson, Croudace, & Goodyer, 2013).

Recognizing rumination

The good news is that interventions that help people unhook from the mental habit of rumination can yield noticeable improvements in mood and even decrease the likelihood of a diagnosis of depression a year later. (Topper et al., 2017; Watkins, 2016).

Step one is to recognize when you’re ruminating. Everyone ruminates about problems sometimes, but not endlessly. If you find yourself stuck, spending a lot of time dwelling on unanswerable questions about negative things in your life, you’re probably stuck in unhealthy overthinking. If pondering your problems makes you feel less energized and more hopeless, rather than resolved to move on or do things differently, it's probably rumination. Just noticing what’s happening can enable you to shift your thinking processes. Obviously, you can’t just stop thinking about something, but when you recognize what’s happening, you’re better equipped to choose a different response.

Shifting Away from Rumination

One alternative response that can disrupt rumination is simple distraction. Do something you enjoy that’s engrossing or satisfying, and you’ll have less room in your mind for rumination. You might go for a walk or a run, try a bubble bath, talk with a friend, read a book, watch a silly video, do a puzzle, or draw. Just a few minutes of distraction may be all you need to reset.

Another way out of rumination is to focus on problem solving. Rumination is an abstract way of thinking that’s focused on “Why?” and “What if?” Problem solving is more concrete, specific, and actionable. Here are some anti-rumination questions, excerpted from my book Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem, that you may want to ask yourself:

What can I do to solve this?
What can I do to make things a little bit better?
What can I try that might make a difference?
What can I do as a first step to get started?
What can I do next?
What can I do to make it more likely things will go well?
What can I do to prevent this from happening again?
What can I do differently next time?
What can I do while I’m waiting to find out?
What can I do to get more information?
What can I do to help me decide?
What can I learn from this?

These "What can I...?" questions are all about taking action or moving forward in good ways. One more question that’s very useful when we’re feeling overwhelmed by problems is:

Who can help me?

We don’t get any points for going through life the stupid, hard, alone way! Finding the right helpers eases our burden and makes it less likely that we’ll get caught in the trap of rumination.

Freeing yourself from rumination is not easy. You can't just will yourself to stop thinking negative thoughts! But when you recognize what's happening and know alternatives, you're better equipped to ease away from negative and repetitive overthinking and find happiness.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD

References

Ehring, T., & Watkins, E. R. (2008). Repetitive negative thinking as a transdiagnostic process. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 1, 192-205.

Kennedy-Moore, E. (2019). Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Topper, M., Emmelkamp, P. M., Watkins, E., & Ehring, T. (2017). Prevention of anxiety disorders and depression by targeting excessive worry and rumination in adolescents and young adults: A randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 90, 123-136.

Watkins, E. R. (2016). Rumination-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression. New York, NY:Guilford Press.

Wilkinson, P. O., Croudace, T. J., & Goodyer, I. M. (2013). Rumination, anxiety, depressive symptoms and subsequent depression in adolescents at risk for psychopathology: a longitudinal cohort study. BMC Psychiatry, 13, 1-9.

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