Is Overthinking Bad for You?

Consider these four statements:

· I always seem to be rehashing in my mind recent things I’ve said or done

· My attention is often focused on aspects of myself I wish I’d stop thinking about

· I often reflect on episodes in my life that I should no longer concern myself with

· I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments

These items are taken from a questionnaire by two American researchers into overthinking*. Do you identify with any of them? If you do, you might be prone to a kind of thinking pattern called “rumination” – rehashing events from the past over and over, from a negative, self-critical frame of mind.

Why does it matter? Well, here’s the key point: ruminating makes you more likely to develop depression, anxiety and low confidence.

At this point, you might draw the conclusion that just thinking about the past or yourself is bad for you. It isn’t! The secret is in how you think.

Here’s an example:

· I love exploring my inner self

· I often love to look at my life in philosophical ways

· I love to meditate on the nature and meaning of things

· I love analysing why I do things

These statements come from the same questionnaire, and they also indicate spending time thinking about oneself and one’s personal history.

What’s the difference? They are neutral. There is no negativity there! Instead, there’s a sense of enjoyment of the nuances of human experience. These statements are infused with curiosity, inquisitiveness, interest, respect for the self and for life. This attitude is entirely different from rumination: social scientists call it reflection, and point out that, crucially, it does not lead to negative emotions.

Now that you know the difference, if you catch yourself lost in thought about something that happened, ask yourself: is it rumination or reflection? And if it’s rumination, can you turn your attitude to a balanced exploration of your experience? You will thank yourself for it.

Trapnell, P. and Campbell, J. (1999). ‘Private self-consciousness and the five-factor model of personality: distinguishing rumination from reflection’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 284-304.

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