by Margaret Forde
In the counselling work I do with third-level students, I have yet to meet a student with serious depression or high anxiety levels , who does not consistently overthink almost everything going on in their lives. They all complete a questionnaire which measures the way they feel and think in the past week. The questionaire is scored and measured against what is “normal” and they are assigned a percentile score. Invariably if their levels of depression and anxiety are in the top 10% , so too will their scores on overanalysis.
At this stage, I often don’t wait for the profile to be returned , but make a bet with them, that they probably overthink everything. As soon as I mention the word, there is usually a sheepish grin, or they wonder if I’m psychic! Their answer is usually “ I never stop, my friends, my parents all say the same thing, its been going on for years!”
Mostly, people regard their overthinking as a personal quirk, a harmless mental pursuit, with no consequences. When I point out that there is in fact a causal relationship with this “response style” as it is technically called, and their depression or high anxiety, there is usually a “ light bulb “ moment. Its not just something they are doing in their heads, but something that has “real life” consequences!
To hammer it home even more, I often point out, that Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema , the Yale professor who spent a lifetime studying overthinking ( also called rumination) called it the “secret to unhappiness” . In other words, if you want to be as unhappy or anxious as you can, then overthink as much as you possibly can for as long as you can!
I am not being unfeeling here, and I am very aware that life events eg exam stress, relationship breakdown or biological factors such as low serotonin levels can be factors. Nevertheless, one of the largest studies (nearly 40,000 people from 172 countries took part) carried out at the University of Liverpool corroborrated the causal link established by Nolen-Hoeksema “We found that people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they had experienced many negative events in their lives” (Peter Kinderman, Prof of Clinical Psychology, study leader).
So, I believe, that pointing out that your habitual thinking habits can cause depression is a positive message because the way you think and deal with things can be changed, unlike genetics or unfortunate real life events which are outside your control. People who habitually overthink, however, take some convincing that their thoughts ARE within their control .
OUTSIDE THE SUN COULD BE SHINING
So I tend to put it this way:people who overthink are in a prison of their own making. They are like people locked inside a darkened room watching re-runs of movies that highlight tales of failure and hopelessness. Outside, the sun could be shining and all sorts of good stuff going on, but they are locked up, “watching a play within a play”, never realising that it is just a play, and that their thoughts are “just thoughts” as Mindfulness would put it. Nowhere is this more obvious than with those who are highly distressed, who may literally be torturing themselves in the theatre of their mind. In other words, the more distressed somebody is, the more likely they are to be locked into over-analysis and rumination, an observation borne out by Nolen-Hoeksema’s research which showed that an overthinking response style also contributed to other conditions such as eating disorders, self harm and OCD.
Most importantly, she pointed out that an overthinking response style actually hinders a person from looking for solutions. Her research also showed that women are almost twice as likely to “overthink” as men (who are more likely to do something) and hypothesized that this is perhaps the reason why twice as many women suffer from depression.
I worked as an individual psychotherapist for many years, honing ways of helping people to stop showing showing themselves those wretched movies in the “home cinema” inside their head. I switched to providing courses and workshops as I felt I could get the psycho-educational material across to people at much lower cost than in individual therapy, and that the group dynamic would aid the process.
I centred the course around Mindfulness because it has such a long tradition of helping people to control their own mind, backed up by the latest research in neuroscience. Short bursts of mindfulness can give a break from the constant churning, and escape into the real world for a change.
In the “Take the Steps” courses, I present a very structured approach to Mindfulness as I feel people really need a step by step mind-training to interrupt the well-worn pathways in their brain. Fortunately, it turns out that the adult brainis much more plastic than was believed by neuroscientists even ten years ago.
The course combines Mindfulness with techniques such as “the three good things” which force the person to look outside their well-worn thought patterns, and other techniques which encourage filling the mind with more resourceful movies as a back up.
The catchphrase I sometimes use “Re-wire your brain, re-boot your life” is a 21st century take on the words of the Buddha: What we are today forms from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of to-morrow. Our life is the creation of our mind”