Ruminating Versus Overthinking

Have you ever gotten caught up by your thoughts, with no ability of finding a way out of it? That's called ruminating. It's can be very perturbing, and can affect one's mental health and other life domains such as relationships and more. In my opinion, this phenomena has been shed too little light over in the last years compared to other mental health topics that have largely normalised.


People tend to openly say they are over-thinkers or anxious all the time. We hear it when talking to our friends or on Instagram memes. But, you rarely hear of ruminating. They are two very different things, and I find important to discern between the two of them. Overthinking is reliving scenarios in your head and thinking of how they could've gone differently, re-examining every little detail, re-experiencing the emotions you felt during that moment and so on. Rumination, on the other hand, are thoughts that get out of control and takeover all ones attention and energy. It's is a vulnerability factor in people that can be triggered, maintained, and chronic and is closely linked to depression. The faster you intervene in ruminating thoughts the less it gets out of control. Identifying ones own rumination is hard because you get caught up and lost in your thoughts. Rumination is triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain.


Trying to keep it simple; the human brain mind-wanders 85-90% of the time (which is regulated by the Default Mode Network (DMN) in the medieval Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) in the brain) and then when we get aware of our wandering thoughts we often shift our focus back to something in our environment (which is regulated by the Task Positive Network (TPN) in the mPFC ). Psychiatrists have been arguing that people with a tendency to ruminate have a dominant DMN over TPN activity. But, they also have an increased activity in the limbic system, which is the brain area in charge of emotion regulation.


Now, knowing that the ruminator's brain has decreased capacity of focusing his attention in the here and now, and increased emotional reactivity, we can explain exactly what happens when one starts to ruminate. A stressor triggers the emotional reaction and the activation of the racing self-reflective thoughts, which leads to problems in inhibitory attention control; which is responsible for stopping and disengaging from self-reflective thoughts.


Both overthinking and ruminating have in common that they are not problem solving. It's thinking about things that steal away the present moment from you. But, the difference between both is that in ruminating people get stuck in their heads and their brain takes everything over. Ruminating can get out of control and lead to isolating and harmful consequences. On the bright side, there are way of "getting out" of ones head through ruminations. Though, the faster one intervenes the easier the way out (disclaimer: PLEASE reach out to your caregiver if you recognise this pattern!).


I don't like discussing "problems" without discussing the solution on the side. So we will cover some ways of stopping to ruminate. I will start by saying that the hard part of ruminating is that the healing process is counter-intuitive. Your thoughts keep calling you back in, but in reality what you really need to do is get out. Here is what you have to do step-by-step 'to get out':


  • Step 1- AWARENESS: Now, that you know exactly what ruminating is and what happens in your brain; when you feel it coming remember this and think to yourself. "Ok it's happening. Something triggered my ruminating thoughts." Usually people experience a physical sensation along with it (e.g., tension in the chest). So, pay attention to that. It could help you to identify a trigger more easily.

  • Step 2- RUMINATING ≠ PROBLEM-SOLVING: Realise that you won't solve ruminating by engaging into your thoughts. On the contrary, doing so will intensify them and you will get more trapped in your head.

  • Step 3: CHOICE: Realise that you have a choice here. You can take two different roads (visualise it): a) the highway road into your head b) take the little road that exits that highway and goes out of your head. You have the choice to move your attention away from those thoughts.

  • Step 4- HERE & NOW: This is the counter-intuitive part! Your thoughts will be screaming your name loudly, and you will want to answer. Instead you must try to focus your attention on something in the here and now. In this case distracting yourself is a very good control strategy! Don't have any doubts about that. In fact it's the wished control strategy. Learn all types of mindfulness strategies, exercises, meditations etc. to strengthen this muscle. PS: don't focus on pushing away the thoughts, rather focus on the things in the here and now. Because focusing on pushing things away only brings them closer (e.g. "Don't think of a pink elephant"... What are you thinking about? Precisely.)

  • Step 5- ACT: Do things that are aligned with who you are, what you like, what you value, and the life you want to live. Make you values or actions louder than your internal 'monsters' or thoughts.

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