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, Moral Letters To Lucilius Click To Tweet

Overthinking is analyzing the same thought over and over. Usually, the thoughts are about a negative experience from your past, and how you should have handled it then. Left unresolved, overthinking can bring in depression.

Overthinking is a rather common behavior, with more than 70% of young people admitting to doing so at some time in their lives. 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.

In simple words, overthinking means repeatedly and endlessly rehashing the same thoughts in your head about a past incident. Here’s another way to understand it: Overthinking is unstoppable pondering of negative events from one’s past life.

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.

Almost all overthinking is about something that hurt you, but you could do nothing to fix it then. Click To Tweet

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. Such a mind tends to view a mistake or a gaffe from a pessimistic and worst-possible perspective.

The late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a pioneering researcher on rumination, found 73% of people between 25 to 35 years of age identified themselves as overthinkers. Among these young and middle-aged adults, she found more were women (57%) than men (43%).

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

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 show, two of the 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.

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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 someone’s normal daily functions or radically alters their behavior, they should seek the help of mental health professionals.


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What Are The Effects of Overthinking?

Habitual rumination can wreck your body and mind in many ways. One notable finding is that 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. 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, hence more likely to go into depression.
  3. 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. It can grow into severe cases of social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) and agoraphobia (fear of being in places where it is hard to escape from or receive help).
  4. Stress: Distress, or the stress of the debilitating kind, is a close companion of overthinkers. While rumination causes stress, heightened stress causes further overthinking.
  5. Fatigue: Like any hamster running non-stop on its wheel, their racing minds stay drained of energy. Soon, this effect shows up in their bodies too. Their stressed bodies produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, which can then lead to burnout.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Loneliness: They are likely to stay in isolation and suffer loneliness, as they shun most social interactions. Also, they are quite good at repelling others with their pesky habit of harping about how bad they feel all the time.
  9. 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 fall asleep only when their brains are too tired to take another minute of wakefulness.
  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 or Rumination can increase or even cause revenge-seeking. Click To Tweet

Is Overthinking Different From Worrying?

Overthinking is not the same thing as worrying.

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Worrying is thinking about a future event. It involves having many thoughts about what realities the future might bring. 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, and 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 worry often starts with and is maintained by having “thoughts about thoughts.”

Final Words

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.

• • •

Overthinking hurts your ability to move forward. To live in the present moment and find joy, you must step out of your past. Learn how to stop overthinking the past.

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


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