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Trapped in Reflection

By: Hara Estroff Marano

Summary: Women can get caught in a downward spiral of negative emotions.
When it comes to differences between men and women, some are, as the French have
always known, highly worthy of celebration. Others, however, are more often a source of
confusion and downright misunderstanding between the sexes.

Among the latter, one of the most distinctive is invisible to the eye. Men and women differ
dramatically in their approach to negative emotions such as sadness. Specifically, men avoid
them, and women don't.

And therein lies a problem, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D. Unfortunately,
women can get stuck in negative emotions, caught in a downward spiral of hopelessness
and immobility. And that, she finds, is a major reason women are twice as likely to develop
depression as men are.

Over the past decade, Nolen-Hoeksema, professor of psychology at the University of

Michigan, has found that women are far more inclined to ruminate about the stressors and
disappointments they encounter--and get stuck there. They focus on symptoms of distress
and the possible causes and consequences of them, repetitively and passively.

They go over and over their negative thoughts and feelings, examining them, questioning
them, kneading them like dough. And like dough, their problems swell in size.

At the very least, such rumination makes life harder. And it damages relationships along the

"When there is any pause in our daily activities, many of us are flooded with worries,
thoughts and emotions that swirl out of control, sucking our emotions and energy down,
down, down. We are suffering from an epidemic of overthinking--caught in torrents of
negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and

We are, in short, experiencing an epidemic of morbid meditation, the Michigan psychologist

contends in a new book Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking
and Reclaim Your Life (Henry Holt).

What is it that women ruminate about? The short answer is, almost everything: their
appearance, their families, their career, their health. But most of all they ruminate about
their relationships and about their body.

They might begin thinking about a recent conflict with a friend: How could she have said
that to me? What does she really mean by that? How should I react?

But such questions just lead to more questions, what Nolen-Hoeksema calls "the yeast
effect." Negative thoughts might start out about a specific event or situation but they
expand and grow, spreading to more situations and leading to big questions about one's life.
And--here's the kicker--they get more negative with time.
Of course, some rumination is natural, even necessary. But people who ruminate a lot
amplify negative events. They dredge up more negative memories from the past, are more
pessimistic about the present and more fatalistic about the future. That tilts them more
towards despair, and renders them less likely to take positive action to either dispel the
negativity or resolve underlying problems.

Their ruminations often center on relationships, because relationships are very important to
women. Yet the social support that ruminators seek from their intimates often eludes them.

For one thing, they wind up torturing those closest to them with their oversize need for
reassurance. Plus, the very hopelessness of ruminators makes them unpleasant to be
around. So while they seek out others more, they actually get less of what they want from

Let's make it clear: overthinkers are not your standard worriers. Bread-and-butter worriers
are concerned about what may happen to them in the future. Overthinkers go over and over
what happened in the past. And they become dead certain something bad has already

Being in touch with one's negative emotions is not in itself a bad thing. Some of it is
necessary. And a good deal of evidence shows that those who suppress unpleasant feelings
are at risk for a host of physical ills.

But "negative emotions don't necessarily give us a direct line to our truest, deepest
concerns," says Nolen-Hoeksema. They impose a lens "that shows a distorted, narrow view
of our world." And instead of seeing the unvarnished reality of our past and our present,
"we see only what our negative mood wants us to see."

Nor is the solution to just stop thinking. Many of the problems being ruminated about are
real problems and they have to be dealt with. But the research Nolen-Hoeksema has done
shows that rumination makes people terrible problem solvers.

It makes problems seem larger than they are and leads people to make catastrophic
decisions, as when someone confronts a boss and quits a job, rather that ironing out the
real and manageable issues. And even if ruminators can come up with a solution to their
problems, because rumination makes their problems seem so large it saps their motivation
to take even the littlest steps towards solutions.

In one study, Nolen-Hoeksema and her colleagues presented to depressed and

nondepressed subjects a series of problems commonly faced by depressed people. For
example, one of the problems was, "Your friends don't seem to want to be with you
anymore." Then they asked the subjects how they would go about solving the problems.
The depressed ones who had been overthinking generated terrible solutions.

When asked what they would do if a friend avoided them, they said things like "I guess I'd
just avoid them too." But depressed people who had been distracted from overthinking
generated solutions that were likely to improve their lives. They said things such as "I'd ask
the person I was closest to in that group what I was doing that made people avoid me."

If overthinking is so bad for us, why then do we do it? "The organization of our brain sets us
up for overthinking," Nolen-Hoeksema contends. The thoughts and memories stored in our
brains don't sit there in isolation; they are woven together in intricate networks of

"When you are in a bad mood of some type--depressed, anxious, just altogether upset--
your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. These
thoughts may have nothing to do with the incident that put you into a bad mood in the first
place, as when a poor job performance causes you to think about your aunt who died last

While this spiderweb organization of the brain greatly increases our efficiency of thinking, it
also makes it easy for us to overthink. Being in a bad mood makes negative memories more
accessible. It's not only easier to think of negative things when you are in a bad mood than
when you are in a good mood, it's also easier to see interconnections between the bad
things in your life. And the more you overthink, the easier it is to do it in the future.

The brain isn't the only factor in overthinking. Nolen-Hoeksema believes that women may
have more to overthink about because they experience more chronic strains, and they tend
to define themselves more by their relationships to others.

The strong grip that overthinking has makes it all the more necessary for women to practice
mental hygiene. It's never too late to overcome overthinking.

Publication: Blues Buster

Publication Date: April 1, 2003
Last Reviewed: 30 Aug 2004
(Document ID: 2680)