Stuck in a mental rut, constantly rehashing old problems and bad events? It may be leading to depression. Learn how to break the cycle…
The boss makes an upsetting comment about your work and you stew about it constantly. Or perhaps you rehash last month’s breakup obsessively.
Ruminating – a repetitive, passive brooding – can trigger depression, says Yale psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., author of Women Who Think Too Much (Holt Paperbacks) and The Power of Women (Times Books).
“Your mind goes round and round over negative events in the past, problems in the present or bad things you’re worried will happen in the future,” says Nolen-Hoeksema, who pioneered the study of women’s rumination and depression and is considered the go-to expert in the field.
And this inability to release bad thoughts and memories can get you down.
“You rehash these events and analyze them, but you don’t do anything to solve the problems or feel more in control of your situation,” she says.
Women are twice as likely as men to become depressed, and they’re also more prone to rumination.
That’s no coincidence, says Nolen-Hoeksema.
In this exclusive interview, learn why women tend to overthink events, and how to recognize this trait and break free.
How does ruminating lead to depression?
Negative thoughts breed hopelessness, despair, and low motivation and self-esteem.
When you rehearse negative thoughts over and over, they grow even more powerful.
Stresses seem bigger, and you’re more likely to react in an intense, lasting way. If you’re vulnerable to depression, you could end up seriously depressed.
Often, [such] rumination is focused on the past – bad things that have happened or unfortunate situations you wish had gone differently.
Then a woman might start thinking that nothing is going right at work, her co-workers don’t like her and her marriage is falling apart.
How can you tell if you’ve crossed from brooding to depressed?
When you have major depression, you’re down almost all the time or lose interest in almost everything.
You also have other symptoms – changes in sleep or eating habits, tiredness, trouble concentrating, or feelings of worthlessness.
The symptoms are bad enough to interfere with your ability to get along in daily life.
Ruminating makes these symptoms worse.
If you’re only a little down, ruminating may tip you over the edge to more severe depression.
Then problem-solving becomes harder, and the increased depression saps your motivation to try any solution you consider.
Why do more women suffer from depression?
A long list of biological, social and psychological factors may increase women’s chances of becoming depressed.
But you may also be genetically disposed. And dramatic hormonal changes might trigger [an episode].
Is the cause mostly physiological?
Social factors come into play too.
Women tend to have more traumas in their past, and that contributes to a higher depression rate. They also may live with chronically stressful situations [such as job discrimination].
Psychologically, women tend to get wrapped up in relationships and are unable to pull out of unhealthy ones.
Conflict with others is a common trigger.
Why don’t men ruminate the way women do?
Men are generally less prone than women to [getting stuck] in these rumination cycles.
Men spend less time thinking about relationship problems.
When they do, they’re less likely to keep brooding over conflicts with others or how they feel about things.
Instead, they take constructive steps to solve the problem or destructive steps to avoid it.
So should women try to “man up?”
We need to cultivate our unique strengths.
We’re good at understanding people’s feelings. When we’re not mired in rumination, that [can help us] cope with distressing situations.
We can also anticipate the emotional consequences of life choices, which helps us make well-informed decisions.
With problem-solving, we tend to be mentally flexible and focus on getting things done, not just getting our way.
We also know when to ask for help and aren’t afraid to do so.
And we’re able to capitalize on the combined strengths of the people around us, instead of always trying to do everything ourselves.
All in all, a lot can be said for thinking like a woman. The trick is not to get mired in over-thinking that leads nowhere.
Does ruminating play a role in other psychological disorders?
Research has shown that people who ruminate are also at increased risk for eating disorders.
Binge eating may be ways to escape temporarily from rumination.
Let’s say you’re going over a breakup: How could I not have known he was going to leave? If I hadn’t been so blind, things might have turned out differently. Now he has ruined my life.…
Turning to wine or ice cream may briefly quiet these thoughts.
But in the end, they’re only temporary fixes.
The overthinking returns, and now you may have added the complications that accompany an eating disorder.
But isn’t analyzing problems a good thing?
Thinking about a problem to find workable solutions helps.
But people who ruminate don’t do that.
They think over and over about the causes and consequences of their problems without creating solutions.
You might not even realize you’re ruminating.
You might believe you’re trying to understand the deeper meaning of events, gain insight and solve problems.
The tipoff is that nothing gets resolved.
If you’re immobilized by your thoughts, getting more distressed and overwhelmed [with] time, you may be ruminating in an unhealthy way.
Does overthinking hurt relationships?
When people ruminate, relationships are often on their mind.
Yet, ironically, ruminating tends to push people away, because they may not understand why you can’t move on.
If you’re fixated on talking about your mother’s death, at first people may be sympathetic.
But eventually they can get impatient and annoyed if you keep talking about it without coming to terms with the grief.
Some might pull away, others may become derisive. Either way, you lose support, and that leaves you more vulnerable to stress and depression.
How can someone break the rumination cycle?
The first step is to give your brain a rest. Find positive distractions to take your mind off ceaseless brooding.
Lose yourself in a physical activity that demands all your attention, such as tennis, racquetball, mountain-biking or dance class.
Immerse yourself in a hobby, book, movie or videogame. Or play with the kids.
My research shows that distracting people for only 8 minutes can lift mood and break the repetitive thought cycle.
Next, brainstorm small steps to solve the problem you’ve been ruminating about.
For example, instead of focusing on how unfair it is that you were laid off, think of a small step toward landing a new job, such as taking a workshop to brush up on work skills.
When you’re paralyzed by overthinking, [taking action] isn’t easy. To get moving, pick a day and time to act, and write them in your datebook.
Also, tell a supportive friend of your plans.
If it’s something you can practice, such as a job interview, ask the friend to rehearse with you.
How can you help someone who’s an overthinker?
Talk about it. Say, “I want to be supportive, but I think we’re just going around in circles.”
Then nudge the person to come up with solutions. Ask, “If you could change one small thing, what would it be?”
When should you seek a therapist’s help?
If you’ve tried self-help techniques but still brood incessantly, it might be time to talk to a cognitive-behavioral therapist. He or she can help you identify and change unhealthy thinking patterns.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also one of the best established treatments for depression. So, as you change your thinking, you may also improve your mood.