Over-thinking: Why it's never helpful & how to tackle it

Grübeln / overthinking

Do you worry a lot? Is it hard for you to forget bad events? Do you worry about what will happen because you made a mistake? Whenever you have a problem, do you think about it all the time? Or about how bad the problem is? You can't stop thinking about it? Are you afraid that thinking about the solution will only make things worse? Are you asking yourself "why me" when you're feeling bad? This could mean that you spend a lot of time ruminating.

Over-thinking is called rumination in psychology, and that is what it means:

Ruminating is a process of persistently thinking about one's feelings and problems. Rumination is recurrent and a type of passive thinking that dominates our attention. Ruminations can also be described as a tendency to think about something bad, harmful, or hopeless for an extended period of time. Ruminating can also occur, for example, as a reaction to (potential) distress, in which one repeatedly and passively focuses on the distress and its possible causes and consequences.

Why rumination is not good for you

Ruminations have been associated with various mental disorders in studies. People with depression or anxiety disorders ruminate, which can contribute to the disorder, maintain it or lead to a relapse. However, ruminating or being in thought does not only affect people with symptoms of mental disorders, but the vast majority of people. A study from Harvard could show that we spend half of our waking time in thought. Thoughts of the past, future, or things that may not happen allow us to plan, learn, and weigh, but it comes with an emotional cost. Not being in the present moment but being in thoughts simply makes us unhappy.

Learn how to distinguish rumination from other thinking patterns

In general, it can be said that too many people spend too much time in their heads. But when does that become harmful? It's important to distinguish between when you're actually solving a problem in your mind and when you're just ruminating unproductively, because ruminating often feels productive, not harmful. Leading scientists present in this interesting article findings that show that problem solving differs from rumination in that it involves fewer abstract thoughts and more concrete thoughts.

Abstract thoughts usually arise from questions like "Why?". "Why didn't I behave differently?" or "Why can't I just enjoy my life?" are examples of abstract thoughts that usually don't bring us any closer to the life we want. Concrete thoughts, on the other hand, relate to specific situations and experiences and tend to deal with questions that begin with "what?" and "how?", that is, planning and carrying out actions. For example, "How can I act better next time?" or "What can I do now to feel better?"

The researchers also describe that negative coloring of thoughts is more likely to result in harmful rumination. This negative coloring is caused by two factors: If the content of the thoughts weighs heavily on the person, it is more likely that no solution will be reached, only repeated ruminations about it. Moreover, ruminating is especially unproductive when persons are already in a negative mood. So, philosophizing about the big questions of life is less stressful when we are in a neutral to positive mood and the preoccupation with it does not torment us.

What you can do

Breaking out of ruminations is possible with practice. Mindfulness is a good way to do this. This is not only said by classical philosophical and religious approaches such as Buddhism, it can also be confirmed by science. Mindfulness means the ability to focus on the present moment. This can be implemented in various ways. For example, through a form of meditation. Here you can focus on a specific thing and observe it - your breath, for example. It is useful to be guided by an app or a course if you do not have much experience with meditation.

But you can also be mindful in everyday life, for example by paying full attention to routine activities like drinking a cup of coffee or walking. You can do the same with internal processes on a regular basis - so you can scan your body every now and then throughout the day to see what sensations are there right now. This is also a good first step to learn to make room for feelings notice what's going on right now, without judging it. In addition, you can develop finer antennas for what is going on inside you right now, and in the future you may recognize earlier that you are lost in thought right now, in order to come back to the current moment.

Ruminating does not bring you any further, but does quite the opposite, makes you unhappy. If you notice yourself rumianting, that is already a success, because you have noticed what you are doing consciously instead of sinking further and further into thoughts. This is not a reason for self-criticism (even if your mind might disagree) but rather a reason to come back to the here and now. If there is a problem that needs your attention, you can move into active problem solving. Ask yourself what you can do in the present moment to make the best of the situation, i.e. what actions now will bring you closer to the life you want to have.

Do you also often get lost in your thoughts? Could this article help you to better understand rumination and its consequences? Feel free to contact me with a comment or message if you have any questions or comments on the topic.

As a psychologist, I can also guide you individually online or offline to break out of ruminations and find a balanced and full life guided by your values. Just contact me now here. Maybe you know someone who could benefit from this article? Then share it with him or her right away by email.

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