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Toxic Habits: Overthinking

This week, we’ll wrap up our three-part series on toxic habits. Our third toxic habit? Call it overthinking, obsessing, brooding, or wallowing, or, call it the official term: rumination. In this episode of the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 4 tips to stop the mental hamster wheel. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #069

 OverthinkingRumination is thinking (and thinking and thinking) about something upsetting, but in a passive way, without actually taking action.

Now, I bet you never thought you’d learn about taxonomy in a psychology podcast, but I promise I’ll connect the dots: animals like cows, deer, goats, and sheep belong to the suborder Ruminantia. These multi-stomached ruminants regurgitate their partially digested food and chew it again.  

Likewise, ruminators chew on their thoughts, as it were, over and over and over again. Very different, but essentially the same concept. How’s that for a mental image?

What’s So Bad About Rumination?

Rumination makes people think they are working on a problem, but not only does rumination not produce solutions, it also exacerbates the problem. All that thinking takes up time and energy individuals could spend fixing the problem.

Not only that, but rumination has been found to impair problem solving skills, which makes ruminators less likely to take action on a possible solution, makes them more pessimistic about the future, and pretty much guarantees a bad mood. In fact, those who ruminate develop major depression at four times the rate of those who don’t ruminate. It’s like a hamster running frantically on a wheel, exhausting itself without actually going anywhere.  

See also: Toxic Habits: Avoidance

Finally, the biggest downside of rumination, aside from the fact it doesn’t work, is that it drives others away. To their credit, ruminators actually reach out for help more often than non-ruminators, but ruminators tend to share their misery to the point of being annoying. Plus, though others might be sympathetic at first, after a while they get frustrated when the ruminator seems never to take steps to solve his or her problems, even after patient listening, sincere sympathy, and good advice.  After a while, all people give the ruminator is eye rolls. In short, you can lead a ruminator to a solution, but you can’t make him take action.  

Ironically, individuals who ruminate really value their relationships—romantic, family, friends—to the point that they’ll sacrifice greatly to salvage one. But they often don’t see that they contribute to stress in the relationship by overthinking both real and imaginary problems, telling everyone how awful their life is, and not taking any action. They put their relationships on a pedestal, but then drag them down to join the wallowing.

How Can I Tell If I'm Ruminating?  

Rumination has three essential characteristics that make it unique:  

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