There is a phenomena that is well known to psychologists – they call it self-focused rumination. The psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema (2003) calls this phenomena overthinking. Overthinking is simply thinking too much – or thinking too much, more specifically in a manner that is negative and ultimately unhelpful. The kind of self-absorbed thoughts that may preoccupy an overthinker would be thoughts like: ‘Why am I so clumsy?’ ‘Why can’t I lose these last few pounds of body fat?’ ‘Why is that person looking at me in a funny way?’
Overthinking also contains a great deal of ‘what-if’ thinking – such as ‘What if I’m late for the interview?’ ‘What if the train is full?’ ‘What if it rains tomorrow?’ Either way, overthinking tends to show an obsessive preoccupation with either the state of our minds (“Why I am so anxious all the time?”), the quality of our character (“I’m absolutely hopeless at things like this”) or what is happening in the world around us (“What did he mean by that?”).
Overthinking is, in many respects a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are encouraged to develop self-awareness through reflecting inwardly on what we are thinking and feeling. We are encouraged to believe that the development of self-knowledge and increased personal insight will provide us with a solution to many of the problems we face. On the other hand, intense self-reflective thinking, when that thinking is focused on negative, pessimistic thoughts is not only unhelpful but can actually make matters worse – it can deepen feelings of anxiety, worry and despair. People who overthink invariably end up, as the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) says with a view of themselves and the world around them that is not only negative and pessimistic but is distorted.
A person who is apt to brood, ruminate and dwell on negative thoughts – a person who is prone to obsessive, pessimistic thinking is unlikely to benefit from overthinking as the overthinking just serves to remind them of how stressed, anxious and unhappy they are. But all is not lost. According to Lyubomirsky, overthinking is really just a habit and like all habits it can be changed. People who are genuinely happy feel stress, worry and anxiety just like everybody else but they also have the ability to divert their attention away from negative, pessimistic thinking, they distract themselves from that which is unhelpful preferring instead to engage in that which makes them feel good.
Each and every one of us, each and every day will be confronted by stresses and strains, by nuisances and annoyances. Some will be minor like getting a parking ticket and some will be major like being made redundant. We will experience illness, trauma, rejection and failure. We also have to confront a great deal of emotional pain such as the death of a loved one. Many of these experiences will, of course be out of our control – we cannot protect ourselves from bereavement, for example, but we can learn to manage our thinking effectively in relation to the difficulties life presents us. Attaining and maintaining a high level of subjective well-being requires, therefore the ability to disengage from overthinking so we can engage instead in the skills of resilience, optimism and hope. Recognising and acknowledging painful and difficult emotions is certainly worthwhile but we don’t need to dwell, brood and ruminate upon them.
When we identify strongly with negative thoughts, when those negative thoughts preoccupy us on a regular basis then it becomes increasingly difficult for us detach ourselves from them. If, for example we are constantly stressed, anxious and worried then we will find it increasingly difficult to engage fully in experiences which would be good for us such as going to the cinema, planning a holiday, going for a walk in the park, reading a book, getting some exercise or having a coffee with a friend.
Constantly comparing ourselves to others is also unhelpful. An overthinker who is constantly ruminating on how unfit they are compared to others will give themselves a hard time every time they see a cyclist or runner in the park, for example.
Nelon-Hoeksema (2003) offers the following three stage process to overcome overthinking:
1. Cut loose: the first step to overcoming overthinking is to distract yourself from what you would normally find yourself ruminating on in a negative, unhelpful way. More often than not distraction works best, in other words, when we are engaged in those activities which bring us a lot of pleasure and satisfaction such as exercising, reading, listening to music, meeting up with a friend for lunch, and so on. Sometimes, something as simple as just going into the kitchen and putting the kettle on is all that is required to distract yourself. When you find yourself ruminating dramatically say ‘stop!’ or ‘No!’ to yourself (you can imagine yourself banging a big, red button when doing this if you like). The key here is to deliberately make yourself change the negative thought into something more useful.
2. Move to Higher Ground: one of the most useful strategies to use when engaging in change-work is too look at situations from a different perspective. A differing point of view can help you, quite literally to see the situation differently. Taking positive, constructive action is also required. Brooding and ruminating won’t change anything but setting goals and then determining the actions needed to achieve that goal will bring about powerful, life-affirming change. Don’t wait until you feel like changing, don’t wait until you feel motivated to change – act now! Commitment is critically important.
3. Avoid Future Traps: one of the most useful strategies to use in overcoming overthinking is to develop awareness of those situations which may trigger and trap you into overthinking. Consider, for example, someone who is trying to lose weight – one of the most useful strategies they can employ is to stop buying juke food and avoiding places where junk food is sold. Get to know what might cause you to think negatively and avoid those situations or modify your approach so you don’t fall into the trap of overthinking.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Women Who Think Too Much. New York: Henry Holt.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want. London: Piatkus.