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. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #69

OverthinkingTrait #1: It’s repetitive. Like our bovine friends, ruminators chew on something over and over again. Not only can ruminators not let go, they also examine a problem from every angle: Why did this happen? Why did she say that? Why did I do that? That wasn’t fair. What does this mean? The list goes on.

Trait #2: It’s passive. Ruminators say they overthink in order to solve a problem, but instead, studies have found that ruminators aren’t particularly effective at coming up with solutions. Plus, even when there is a good solution, it’s difficult to summon the motivation carry it out, even when the stakes are high. For example, a 2006 study found that women who ruminate are more likely to procrastinate about seeing a doctor after discovering a lump in their breast.                                                        

Trait #3: Rumination is about the past, not the future. This is how rumination differs from worry. Rumination focuses on the past: “If only I had done X,” or, “How could I have been so stupid?” On the other hand, worry is about the future: What if Y happens?” or “I don’t think I’ll be able to handle this.”

See Also: Toxic Habits: Perfectionism

4 Ways to Nip Rumination in the Bud

So what to do? Here are 4 ways to nip rumination in the bud. Or cud, as it were (ooh, that was cringe-worthy).

Tip #1: Give up regret.  Everyone does stupid things they regret. I, for one, do them daily. So stop your downward spiral by heaving a big sigh and saying “OK, that happened.” And then move on.  It’s cliche, but rather than focusing on what could have been, focus on what could be.  And then try…                                                                                 

Tip #2: Distract yourself. The late, great Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema was the queen of rumination research. In 1993, she explained that the gender gap in depression was due not to biology, gender roles, or Freudian theories, but to rumination.   

Let’s back up and give some context: rumination affects both genders the same way. Again, both men and women who ruminate develop depression at four times the rate of non-ruminators. However, women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression over the course of a lifetime.

Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression over the course of a lifetime.

Why? It turns out that overall, women are more likely to be ruminators—they’re more likely to get stuck in their bad moods and to dwell on what happened, why, and how.

By contrast, men (again, overall) tend to be fixers, and even if the solution isn’t that effective—watch TV, go for a drive, or even throw a punch—when men are faced with a problem they tend to do something, which distracts them and changes their mood.

Of course, these are generalizationsthere are many men who ruminate and many women who don’t.  But overall, women ruminate and make their mood worse, while men distract and make their mood better.

So how to use distraction effectively?  Luckily, distraction doesn’t have to be a big thingyou don’t have to go on vacation or engage in retail therapy to distract yourself. Even little, nonsensical things like visualizing the floor plan of your local post office or imagining clouds forming in the sky will work.  Which brings us to...

Tip #3: Shrink the time and space available to ruminate. There’s an urban legend that Japanese carp, or koi, will grow as big as the space you give them. Put them in a little tank, and they’ll remain just a few inches long. Put them in a pond, however, and they’ll grow big, with gaping mouths and buggy eyes. So it is with overthinking.  

So take distracting yourself one step further. Keep yourself busy with activities that are meaningful to you. Think twice before turning down a social invitation. Go work out. Sign up for that class you’ve been meaning to take. Of course, don’t set yourself up for exhaustion, but shrink the space allowed for overthinking, and your rumination will stay manageably goldfish-sized.

Savvy PsychologistTip #4: Do something a little bit hard. Accomplishing something that’s a little bit difficult but still within your abilities builds what’s called mastery, or the belief in your own ability to get stuff accomplished.  

Lack of mastery, along with lack of confidence, is often a big barrier for ruminators, who frequently have good intentions, but just can’t seem to make their ideas happen. A ruminator might really want to switch careers, let go of that old grudge, or finally move out of his parents’ house, but without confidence that what he tries will make a difference it’s unlikely to happen.  

Therefore, our ruminative friend might identify one step he can take that’s a little bit hard, like figuring out the requirements for a certificate program or budgeting for a new apartment. Mastery is the opposite of passivity and, as it grows, turns long-suffering rumination into confident action.                                     

So with practice, you can leave rumination to the cows.  And if you catch yourself ruminating, you can always distract yourself with a gentle “moo.”

Are you a ruminator? What steps do you take to cut down on overthinking? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments section below or on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page


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Lyubomirsky, S., Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Nelson, S.K.  (2015). Thinking about rumination: The scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.  Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 11, 1–22.

Lyubomirsky, S. & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and inter-personal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 176–90.

Lyubomirsky, S. & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1993). Self-perpetuating properties of dysphoric rumination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 339–49

Lyubomirsky, S., Kasri, F., Chang, O., Chung, I. (2006). Ruminative response styles and delay of seeking diagnosis for breast cancer symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 276–304.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. & Davis, C. (1999). “Thanks for sharing that”: Ruminators and their social support networks.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 801-814.

Stop overthinking images courtesy of Shutterstock


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.