The last time you saw your grandma before she died. That work presentation last month. Yesterday’s argument with your SO. Your performance eval next quarter. That damn toast you agreed to give at the wedding next summer. What do they have in common?
You can overthink the hell out of them.
We all do it, and most of the time it’s relatively harmless. We churn over what we should have said or over-plan what we should do, and then we move on. It’s annoying, but most of the time it’s no more stressful than an earworm song you can’t get out of your head or a nagging discussion you wish you could redo.
But for some people in certain situations, the thinking doesn’t stop and creates even more distress. This compulsive tendency to overthink has a name in the world of mental health: rumination. And it's not great.
Even though I confront rumination every day in my practice, I teamed up with a couple of experts who wrote books on the topic: Dr. Margaret Weherenberg, a psychologist and author of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques and The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques, and Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. Hopefully between the three of us, we can shed some light on this aggravating problem and help you deal.
1. Well, for starters, it's related to cows.
“To ruminate means to ‘chew over’” according to Winch. “The word is derived from how cows digest their food. Cows chew, swallow, regurgitate, then chew again. This works well for cows but what humans chew over is our distressing thoughts. Ruminating therefore means to brood over upsetting thoughts by replaying them in our mind.”
2. Rumination is closely tied to depression and anxiety in a few ways — it can be a symptom of both, make them worse, or make you more susceptible to them in the first place.
As a psychologist who has dealt with overthinking on both a personal and professional level, I can definitively confirm: it sucks. It steals time and energy, and rarely produces anything worthwhile. And by exhausting you in the process, it makes you more susceptible to its close relatives, anxiety and depression.
While rumination isn’t its own diagnosis, it is unique in that it can be a symptom of both depression and anxiety. The depressed person dwells on losses and missteps from the past, while the anxious ruminator drowns in a sea of “what if” questions, forever envisioning the negative outcome. Whether it’s what we can’t change or can’t predict, sometimes our brains get stuck trying to control the uncontrollable.
3. It might feel like you're problem-solving, but you're actually not.
While many problems are resolved by giving them careful thought and deliberation, Weherenberg explains that “rumination is repetitive thinking — going over and over the same thought or problem without any resolution. A problem does not get solved: it intensifies by ruminating on it. It is simply repeating (typically negative) thoughts without mentally moving to a new perspective.”
Winch adds, “Rumination does not lead to new insights or understanding, it just spins us around like we’re trapped in an emotionally distressing hamster wheel.”
4. Rumination can definitely be harmful. Think about it: You don't typically overthink good things.
Rumination tends to be about the bad stuff. It isn’t when you replay your last-second game-winning shot or a well-timed joke; it’s slogging through the negatives. As Winch describes it, “Ruminative thoughts are, by definition, intrusive. They pop into our minds unbidden and they tend to linger, especially when the thought is about something really upsetting or distressing.”
5. Not to mention, it impacts our bodies.
“Replaying distressing thoughts is like picking at emotional scabs because it brings up the distress each time we have the thought, and floods our body with stress hormones as a result,” says Winch. “We can easily spend hours and days stewing in upsetting thoughts and by doing so putting ourselves in a state of physical stress and emotional distress. As a result, habitual rumination significantly increases our risk of developing clinical depression, impaired problem solving, eating disorders, substance abuse, and even cardiovascular disease.”
6. It's not great for our brains, either.
Repeating the rumination cycle results in changed brain circuitry, says Wehrenberg. “Rumination actually changes the structure of the brain — not unlike changing a footpath into a roadway into a highway with a lot of on-ramps — so it gets easier and easier to fall into rumination.“
7. And the more you do it, the harder it is to stop.
It becomes routine, says Weherenberg. “Rumination becomes a habit of thought. It is a challenge to shift to another thought. A person who believes, ‘If I just think about it long enough I will figure it out,’ is making a mistake. The more habitual the thought, the harder it is to break it.”
8. Being aware is your first line of defense.
As with many mental health issues, awareness always helps. According to Winch, your first step is to identify ruminative thoughts and flag them as harmful.
"Once a ruminative thought becomes repetitive (or starts out that way) we need to catch it and convert it into a useful problem solving task — by posing it as a problem that can be answered as opposed to one that cannot be," he says.
For example, convert, "I can’t believe this happened" to "What can I do to prevent it from happening again?" or convert "I don’t have good friends!" to "What steps could I take to deepen the friendships I have and find new ones?"
9. Try to stop it before it starts.
Have a stockpile of positive statements at the ready, like “I’m trying my best” or “I have support if I need it.” Weherenberg says, “The way to ‘erase the trace’ of a repetitive thought — often a worry — is to block the on-ramp to rumination and deliberately plan ahead about what to think instead. It sounds straightforward, but is one of those things that is easy to understand but hard to do.”
10. Distract yourself to get out of the loop.
Winch recommends redirecting your attention to something else that requires focus. "A two to three minute distraction such as a puzzle, memory task, anything that requires concentration can be enough to break the compelling pull ruminative thought," he says. "If we use distraction each time we have the thought, the frequency with which it appears in our mind will diminish, as will its intensity."
11. Journal to get the thoughts out of your head.
It might seem strange to give these thoughts more time in the spotlight, but I often tell ruminating clients to journal their thoughts. People who tend to slip into rumination when they’re trying to go to sleep can benefit from having a notepad by their bed to jot down the thoughts and worries that are on repeat. Tell yourself that you won’t forget the thoughts now that they’re on paper, and you need a break from them as you rest.
12. Remind your brain that you're in charge. Seriously.
Weherenberg recommends reclaiming order by making a blanket rule to interrupt your unneeded thoughts whenever they come up, and plan ahead for a positive thought to switch to.
"If you need to interrupt and replace hundreds of times a day, it will stop fast, probably within a day," she says. "Even if the switch is simply to return attention to the task at hand, it should be a decision to change ruminative thoughts.”
13. Don't put pressure on yourself to handle it alone.
According to Weherenberg, “There are several methods, ranging from meditation to mindfulness practice to cognitive techniques that will help people take charge of their own thinking. But a person who feels ruminating is too hard to stop should consult a professional.”
Looking up a therapist on Psychology Today or GoodTherapy is a good start. You can sort therapists by gender, location, specialty (look for anxiety or depression if rumination is your thing), payment options, etc., and try to test drive a few before you make your final selection. Your mental health deserves your best effort.