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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 9, 2003

Brooding amplifies sadness

By Marilyn Elias
USA Today

A quiz on overthinking

To find out whether you're an overthinker, take the quiz below. When you feel sad or nervous about something, check how often you respond in each of the ways listed:

1. I think about how alone I feel.

2. I think about my feelings of fatigue or achiness.

3. I think about how hard it is to concentrate.

4. I think about how passive and unmotivated I feel.

5. I think "Why can't I get along?"

6. I go over and over a recent situation, wishing it had gone better.

7. I think about how sad or anxious I feel.

8. I think about all my shortcomings, failings, faults and mistakes.

9. I think about how I don't feel up to doing anything.

10. I think "Why can't I handle things better?"

If you answered "never" or "almost never" to all of these, or "sometimes" to one or two, you're probably not overthinking. If you answered "often" or "always" to more than three of these, then you may be an overthinker.

Source: Susan Nolen-Hoeksema

A friend makes a rude remark, and you brood about his nerve all day. The boss is irritable, so you dissect every word she says, wondering if it means something bad for you. Lingering problems with spouses, children who get Cs instead of As, aging parents with poor health — they're all grist for thinking and thinking.

If a little thinking is good, a lot is better (we think).

But that's wrong, insists psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, whose groundbreaking research shows the down side of stewing over life's issues. It amplifies sadness, makes problems harder to solve and alienates others.

The dangers of overthinking don't strike the sexes equally: women ruminate more, Nolen-Hoeksema says. Her new book, "Women Who Think Too Much" (Henry Holt), tells why overthinking occurs, why it hurts people and how to stop.

About 20 years ago, Nolen-Hoeksema's studies began to show that women often fall into what she calls "endless analysis of the past, present and future." If they're upset, they tend to call friends who hold a magnifying glass to every little angle.

At the first sign of a problem, men head out for a game of pickup basketball or other distractions. "Later," they say.

So who's better off?

Women are about twice as likely as men to develop depression. But women who act more like men —distracting themselves first and then plotting solutions — have the same depression rate as men.

"This is not all about ruminating," says Nolen-Hoeksema, a University of Michigan professor. Biology, upbringing, social and economic factors all may contribute to women's depression. But overthinking is a destructive habit that can be changed.

The goal isn't suppressing or denying problems, Nolen-Hoeksema says. Dozens of studies show that pulling away temporarily, then strategizing, produces the best outcome for problems and mental health.

Depressed patients often overthink, agrees Constance Wood, a Houston psychologist.

"You hear a lot of 'What did he really mean by that? Why did he say it to me and not her?' "

Not just female issue

In 35 years, Wood has treated more women overthinkers than men, but adds: "Men raised in some kinds of homes may do it, too ... For example, an only male child who's doted on and constantly monitored can become a ruminator."

Parents encourage the expression of sadness and anxiety more in girls than boys, Nolen-Hoeksema says. They also pay more attention when girls feel sad or anxious, which reinforces it, she says.

But that's not the only reason many girls grow up to become fretters. Chronic hassles, the "too much on your plate" kind, fuel overthinking, and working mothers know all about that.

Women often are reared "to base their self-esteem and well-being too much on what others think of them," says Nolen-Hoeksema, so they agonize over this more than men do. Also, they're more affected by events in others' lives, "so they have more to ruminate about."

Gender differences in overthinking are greatest during early adulthood and smallest after 65, when both men and women ruminate the least. Psychologists aren't sure if baby boomers will do less fretting in their old age, or if today's elderly stew less because they gained perspective by living through hard times.

Gender difference seems to surface early, studies show. By age 11, girls are ruminating more than boys. They brood over things that depend on other people's opinions, are harder to figure out and don't trouble boys as much: Do people like them? Are they pretty?

Anne Scheck, 49, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., doesn't stew over problems, except maybe the problems of her fretful daughter, 10-year-old Amelia.

"I'm a can-do person," she says. "If a door doesn't open, I go through a window, and if a window isn't open, I find the crawl space."

An accomplished swimmer and equestrian, Amelia also is gifted at math. "But if there's a single thing she does wrong on a test, she'll say, 'That reminds me of what I did in first grade, and if I hadn't done such-and-such at the swim meet, and that's why Stevie doesn't like me,' and on and on, linking things that have no pattern. There's just no end to it!" Scheck says in exasperation.

Amelia's brother, 15-year-old Trevor, shrugs off problems.

Scheck says both kids have seen her can-do approach and received equal encouragement, but genes and peer influence count, too.

"If you look at any of the little girls in her social circle, they're self-blamers. Anything that goes wrong, they're willing to brood about it."

Amelia's linking of seemingly unrelated bad events makes sense, according to cutting-edge brain studies. A bad mood activates a network of bad memories that are connected in the brain, says Nolen-Hoeksema; the more someone mulls over problems, the stronger this link becomes. So constant overthinkers can "hard-wire" their brains for brooding.

They also can minimize or stop it if they're determined, her book says.

Some solutions

Some overthinkers keep toy "Stop" signs in their desks or purses as a reminder to limit pondering. Others schedule "overthink" times and find the wait gives needed perspective. Many have discovered new solutions, or at least limited their "fret" time, by writing about problems, meditating or praying.

Sometimes people need new friends, "people who will problem-solve with them and not indulge in 'tit-for-tat' worrying sessions," Nolen-Hoeksema says.

Unrealistic expectations must go — for oneself, for others — and forgiveness must supplant the desire for revenge.

Reasonable goals are the key to preventing rumination, she concludes.

"Women often hang onto impossible goals in relationships, including the goal of making everyone around them happy."