Dear Dr. Dana,
Once I get started thinking something negative, I can’t stop the thoughts. I realize I am making myself depressed, but I’m not sure what to do. Do you have any ideas?
Diane W. (via email)
You are a victim of the yeast effect. Interestingly, this is more common in women than in men. The yeast effect occurs when you ruminate, or go over and over your negative thoughts, kneading them like dough. And just as kneaded dough expands, when you ruminate, your problems swell. This happens for two reasons. First, negative thoughts that started out about a specific event or situation spread to other situations and events. In other words, instead of being focused on just one circumstance, you now feel negative about lots of circumstances. Second, and this is the kicker, the thoughts become more negative with time. The longer you ruminate, the more catastrophic circumstances in your life appear. You dredge up more negative memories, and become even more pessimistic about the present and future.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, describes the yeast effect in this way, “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 well-being.”
A certain amount of worrying and rumination is not only normal, it is essential. You need to be concerned about what may happen in the future and make plans and decisions based on the information you gather. This is the POWER Optimism principle of Well-informed. Overthinkers, in contrast, do not practice this principle. They are not reutral observers, appraising information objectively. Just the opposite. They impose a negative lens that allows them to see only a narrow view of their world – and that view is negative!
It is so easy to fall into the trap of overthinking because of the way are brain organizes information. Our thoughts and memories are woven together into networks of associations. So when we think one bad thought, it triggers other negative thoughts. The key is to overcome overthinking. James Clavell, in his novel Shogun, points the way. He writes, “To think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world. If you leave your mind to itself, it will spiral down into ever increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts, however, requires effort. This is one of the things that discipline – training – is about.”
Here are two steps to train your brain to overcome overthinking.
When you find yourself ruminating and moving into a downward spiral, make an effort to stop. You can change the direction of that spiral by actively choosing to stop focusing on the negative. Train yourself to intentionally stop overthinking. Literally say to yourself, “STOP.”
This next step is critical. Unless you replace your negative thoughts with new, positive ones, your brain will just go right back to them. This is where discipline comes into play. After you say stop, focus on something positive. This can be a positive thought, a picture that brings you joy, or your favorite tree. Be sure to keep focusing long enough to change your mood and energy.
Regular practice will make this a habit, and before you know it, you’ll put yourself on an upward spiral easily and effortlessly.