What Is Overthinking Or Rumination (Psychology Made Easy)

“There are more things, Lucilius, that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca The Younger, Roman Stoic Philosopher (Moral Letters To Lucilius)

Did you ever feel that your thoughts kept returning to that one negative incident? And you couldn’t just get your mind off that blunder, judgment, or comment?

Overthinking, also called rumination, is analyzing the same thought over and over. Our ruminations are usually on a negative incident from our past.

No one can change the past. But ruminative thoughts try to do just that.

Ruminating is rehashing the past, trying to rewite it.

Rumination builds on regret, forcing us to reimagine how we should have handled the situation back then. As a result, we “suffer more in imagination.”

It is a rather common behavior. Researcher Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that among people aged 25 to 35, over 70% admitted to overthinking at some time in their lives.

Fortunately, we usually move out of our overthinking phase on our own.

ruminating equals chronic stress

When overthinking or rumination becomes chronic and is left untreated, it can lead to anxiety and depression.

It’s a harmful habit, and many people, from spiritual preachers to motivational speakers, have told us about it. Let’s dive into understanding it from the psychological point.

What Is Overthinking or Rumination?

Overthinking is the process of repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of a perceived problem or stressful situation. Also called rumination, in it, a person passively analyzes the same thoughts over and over, which are mostly dark and sad, and about a negative event from their past.

An overthinking person feels helpless in repressing or resolving the thoughts, reaching a decision or solution, or taking action to fix the current problem.

Overthinking is often referred to by this illustrative phrase: analysis paralysis.

Almost all overthinking is about something that hurt you in the past, but you could do nothing to fix it then.

In simple words, overthinking means repeatedly and endlessly rehashing the same thoughts in your head about a past incident.

Remember, the overthinker does not have thoughts about many incidents at the same time. Instead, they keep running and analyzing the same event repeatedly, without reaching an end.

The thoughts in an overthinking mind are in themselves damaging, as the person suffering cannot “avoid” thinking them. This helplessness makes them go through a lot of distress. Once the intrusive thoughts start, there is seemingly no stopping them.

Are You Reflecting Or Ruminating?

Curiosity, an integral part of success, is a hallmark of self-reflection or introspection. When you reflect, you are curious to learn more about an experience or event.

Rumination or overthinking lacks curiosity.

To find out whether you are reflecting or overthinking, rate yourself on the Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire [RRQ] by Trapnell & Campbell (1999).

For each question, give yourself as follows:

  • 1 for Almost Never,
  • 2 for Sometimes,
  • 3 for Often, or
  • 4 for Almost Always.
Rumination Reflection Questionnaire
Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire [RRQ]. Source: Trapnell & Campbell, 1999

What Is The Psychology of Overthinking?

Overthinking is accurately referred to as rumination by psychologists. The process is similar to what many animals do — chewing cud for hours on end.

Rumination in animals is a way of digesting food found in most hoofed mammals, as cattle, camels, and giraffes. These animals bring up the food into their mouths from one of their four stomachs and then chew on it for hours before swallowing it back again.

The ruminating humans do the same — pull up their disturbing thoughts and keep on chewing them with their mental teeth.

A ruminating mind dwells over an event that already happened and makes catastrophic predictions from it. This is called catastrophizing—an irrational worry over what might happen in the future.

Catastrophizers tend to assume the worst in any circumstance, believing that if things go wrong, they will be less hurt or upset.

An overthinking mind tends to view a mistake, even when it was unintentional, from a pessimistic and worst-possible perspective.

The late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a pioneering researcher on rumination, found that 73% of people between 25 to 35 years of age identified themselves as overthinkers.

Among these young and middle-aged adults, Nolen-Hoeksema found that rumination was more common in women (57%) than men (43%).

overthinking is more common in women
Overthinking tends to be more common in women (Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash)

Professor Nolen-Hoeksema was the founding editor of the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, and author of Women Who Think Too Much and Women Who Think Too Much.

People become tired, even annoyed, with overthinkers for continuing to talk about their loss. They may simply withdraw, or if they can’t withdraw, they may eventually blow up at the overthinker, expressing anger and frustration rather than sympathy and concern.

— Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “Mother of Rumination”

An extensive study on 33,000 people found rumination and self-blame were responsible for high levels of anxiety and depression in those who already had a family history of mental health problems.

A 2015 study says people who think too much are probably creative geniuses. The author/s write:

Moreover, because SGT (self-generated thought) allows us to imagine realities different to way they are right now, we argue that it underpins our capacity to solve problems in creative and original ways, which is a particularly common gift among high scorers on neuroticism.

Thus, our theory can explain why neurotic individuals tend to do well in creative professions but poorly in occupations that demand the individual’s attention is constrained to the moment (such as combat aviation).

— Cell Press. (2015, August 27). Creative and neurotic: Is neuroticism fueled by overthinking? ScienceDaily.

What Causes Overthinking?

Overthinking can be an early symptom in people who are already suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or major depression. However, rumination can also lead to depression and anxiety.

As research by psychologists shows the two most common causes of overthinking are:

  1. Passive behavior learned from over-controlling parents
  2. Stressful, traumatic, and negative events from the past life

1. Passive Behavior Learned From Parents.

Children who learn passive behavior from their parents often go on to develop a habit of overthinking.

One study found children between 5 and 7 years of age who had mothers telling them what to do instead of pushing them to try their own methods to solve problems were more helpless and passive when facing frustrating situations. It can then lead them to overthink.

In another study, college students who reported their parents were overcontrolling showed higher levels of rumination.

2. Stressful & Traumatic Events From Past.

Stressful events can trigger or worsen overthinking. In one study, many of the people who went through stressful situations like divorce and serious illnesses went on to develop overthinking. Moreover, one year later, they had a higher tendency to get depression and anxiety.

More research (as this and this) confirms that stressful life events can indeed trigger overthinking and are linked with higher depression levels in later life, as early as 6 months.

If overthinking persists for a long period of time, to the point where it interferes with their normal daily functions or radically alters their behavior, one should seek the help of mental health professionals.

how to stop overthinking

What Are The Effects of Overthinking?

Habitual rumination can wreck your body and mind in many ways.

Notably, overthinkers sleep badly, hardly exercise, and eat mindlessly — and all of these harm their brain. But there is more.

Here are 10 of the most harmful effects of overthinking:

1. Anxiety

They are always anxious because they are unable to reach any final point where their thoughts can stop, and then they can take action. More so, because they can not help themselves out of it.

2. Fear

They may reach a point where they start to dread meeting anyone, for these people might say things that might overload them with more negative thoughts.

In severe cases, it can grow into social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder), agoraphobia (fear of being in places where it is hard to escape from or receive help), and autophobia (fear of loneliness.

3. Stress

Distress, or the stress of the debilitating kind, is a close companion of overthinkers.

While rumination causes stress, heightened stress causes further overthinking. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. Fatigue

Overthinking causes mental fatigue, because, understandably, it takes up a lot of mental energy.

Like a hamster running on a wheel, their never stopping racing minds stay drained.

Soon, this effect shows up in their bodies too. Their stressed bodies produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, which can then lead to burnout.

Missed Signs of Mental Fatigue

5. Indecision

The overthinkers find it hard to find great or even good-enough solutions to their problems.

Even when they conceive a potentially useful solution, they are not confident it would actually work.

Moreover, they hardly have any intention or motivation to act on that solution.

By the way, the Stoics have a system for making quick decisions.

6. Substance abuse

Alcohol is a favored substance of abuse among overthinkers, studies have found. Overthinkers frequently indulge in binge drinking.

They also tend to smoke more and abuse prescription and non-prescription drugs.

7. Loneliness

They are likely to stay in isolation and suffer social loneliness, as they shun most social interactions.

People don’t like to be with these whiners. They repel others with their pesky habit of always harping on how bad they feel all the time.

8. Sleeplessness

They find it extremely hard to shut out their thought loops and go to sleep.

Overthinking keeps their mind and body in a state of arousal, not calmness, so they can not sleep.

They can fall asleep only when their brains are too much tired to take another minute of wakeful thinking.

They can find help in these six science-based sleep hacks.

9. Depression

Rumination worsens depression and promotes negative thinking.

Overthinkers tend to focus more on the negative memories of their past.

They explain their present situations in pessimistic tones. They also express hopelessness about their future.

Women are more prone to rumination, and hence more likely to go into depression as a result.

10. Suicide risk

Rumination may lead to suicide. The ruminating people are often harshly self-critical and tend to have low willpower.

These, together with social phobia and social isolation, increase their risk of suicide attempts.

More so, as they do not seem to seek professional help, even when they are abusing drugs.

Overthinking can increase or even cause revenge-seeking.

Is Overthinking Different From Worrying?

Overthinking is not the same thing as worrying.

  • Worrying is thinking about a future event. Overthinking is about a past event.
  • Worrying involves having many thoughts about the future. Overthinking is about what a person should have done in a particular past event.
  • Worrying makes a person apprehensive and anxious, and excessive worrying is a major clinical symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
  • An overthinking mind is also a highly anxious mind. Prolonged rumination can progress into depression.
  • Overthinking and worrying often work together, and make each other worse.
  • Both overthinking and worrying involve excessive thinking of negative thoughts.

What makes overthinking different from worrying is this: the “worriers” make a fuss about the present or the future, while the “ruminators” go over stuff already in the past. An example each to differentiate between them:

  • OverthinkingWhy did I not walk out that day?
  • WorryingCan I even finish this by tomorrow?

Worry typically involves anxiety over negative outcomes in the future. It is mostly about the two following “what if” questions:

  • What if the wrong thing happens?
  • What if the right thing does not happen?

Some amount of worrying is a normal phenomenon in our everyday lives. But too much worrying can lead to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Psychologists suggest that worrying often starts with and is maintained by having “thoughts about thoughts.”

Final Words

Overthinking hurts your ability to move forward when it gets out of control.

Much of the time, when you overthink, you get stuck in a circular pattern of sad and dark thoughts. You lose hope and believe your present situation can only result in a destructive outcome.

Anxiety that lasts a long period can cause one to overthink. Then there’s the overthinking that never stops humming, which can lead to spells of anxiety. It’s a hard-to-cut loop.

It takes conscious effort, and in many cases help from mental health experts, to control these repetitive thoughts.

• • •

Let your past not overshadow your present. Learn how to stop overthinking.

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Going to therapy to feel better is a positive choice. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns.