It’s 4:45 pm on a Friday. After a particularly long, grueling work week, all you can think about is how nice it will feel to spend some much-needed downtime with your friends. As you begin powering down your computer, you notice a new email in your inbox from your boss. You click open the email to find a short and extremely vague message…
“Let’s touch base first thing Monday morning…enjoy your weekend.”
You glance over at his office only to see darkness. He has already left for the day. You notice a slight increase in your heart rate as you turn to your coworker in the next cubicle. You ask her if she happened to receive the same email. Your heart sinks as she shakes her head no.
You start to wonder what he might want. It doesn’t take long for your mind to begin swarming with questions…
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Why did he wait until 4:30 on a Friday afternoon to email me?”
“Why did he tell me to enjoy the weekend?”
“Doesn’t he know that I won’t be able to enjoy my weekend now because I have no clue what he wants?!?”
Later, you meet up with friends for a dinner date. Of course, you immediately ask them for their opinion on the email. “Does he sound mad? What do you think he wants? What would you do if you got the same email from your boss? Should I be worried?”
By the end of the weekend, you are feeling annoyed, worried, and frustrated. At this point, you have basically convinced yourself that you will be fired first thing in the morning.
This is a classic example of “overthinking” or what we in the psychology field refer to as rumination. Rumination is a cognitive process characterized by intrusive, repetitive thoughts and images. While some may find it useful to analyze past situations in order to avoid repeating similar mistakes, ruminators will replay past events over and over again with no resolve, leading to increased anxiety and depression.
The Role of Emotions and Emotion Regulation in Rumination
As humans, we all experience emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant – each and every day. Evolutionary psychologists believe that emotions serve a primal function in signally us to potential danger. However, there are also times when our emotions seem to serve no purpose at all and can quickly get out of hand if we are unable to regulate them.
Emotion regulation is a term used to describe the ability to effectively manage and respond to emotional experiences. People employ emotion regulation strategies throughout the day – both consciously and unconsciously. Emotion regulation strategies can be useful to gain insight into our emotional experiences. However, strategies such as ruminative thinking have a paradoxical effect, prolonging or even increasing our experience of unpleasant emotions.
Why Do Some People Ruminate More Than Others?
Psychologists have long been interested in studying factors that predispose some people to engage in more excessive rumination over others. Emotional intelligence is a psychological construct that has been linked to decreased rumination.
Researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer first coined the term emotional intelligence (EI) back in 1990. They described EI as four distinct abilities: perceiving emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions. EI researchers contend that emotionally intelligent people are better able to process and assimilate their emotions, making it easier for them to engage in adaptive responses.
In one study, a group of researchers sought to investigate the relationship between EI abilities and mental rumination using a sample of college students. Results indicated that participants with higher EI abilities – particularly the ability to manage emotion – were less likely to engage in mental rumination immediately following an emotional event and over time. The researchers concluded that people who are able to effectively manage their emotions, recover from emotional experiences more quickly, and have less intrusive thoughts associated with those experiences.
If you are one of the many people who struggles with overthinking, know that it is possible to get off the proverbial hamster wheel and break the rumination cycle.
Five Scientifically Backed Strategies to Help You Stop Overthinking
1. Learn to label your emotions
Emotions that go unlabeled are easily misunderstood, often leading to counterproductive consequences. The ability to pinpoint feelings and emotions provides a buffer against excessive rumination. Because people who ruminate do so in an attempt to make sense of their emotions, it only makes sense that accurately labeling emotions will help to decrease rumination. Brain researchers have even found that labeling of emotions leads to decreased activity in the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and Broca’s area, responsible for rational thinking processes.
Practice: Instead of actively trying to suppress unpleasant emotions, acknowledge them, give them an appropriate label, and then actively work to contain the emotions.
2. Boost your emotional vocabulary
In order to effectively label emotions, it is necessary to have a strong, working emotional vocabulary. People with high emotional intelligence are able to accurately identify what they are feeling, due to their expansive emotional vocabulary. There are various tools available that are meant to help build an emotional vocabulary. Researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed the Mood Meter mobile app to help users of all ages build the necessary skills needed to “recognize, label, and regulate emotions in order to live a healthier, more productive, and fulfilling life.”
Practice: The next time someone asks you how you are doing or feeling, instead of instantly responding with “good,” “bad,” or “fine,” try to more clearly articulate how you are feeling.
3. Distract yourself
Multiple studies have found distraction to be an adaptive emotion regulation strategy that can reduce anxiety, depression, and improve one’s mood. Distraction strategies involve an intentional shifting of attention away from unpleasant emotions toward a more neutral or positive emotional state, stimulus, or situation.
Practice: If you experience a negative encounter with a friend or coworker, try to distract yourself from unpleasant emotions including anger and frustration by talking to another friend about an upcoming trip or something fun.
4. Use cognitive reappraisal
Cognitive reappraisal involves the intentional act of changing the meaning of an emotion (or a situation leading up to an emotion), to reduce any negative feelings. Reappraisal is a highly adaptive skill that has been associated with lower levels of depression and greater levels of psychological well-being.
Practice: The next time you notice you are anxious about an upcoming event (e.g., a speech, important game, or another type of performance), reappraise the emotion as excitement by telling yourself that your body is just helping you prepare for the performance.
5. Learn radical acceptance
Emotional acceptance is a core process of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which involves increasing one’s self-awareness. When people choose to emotionally accept a situation, they not only become more aware of their emotions, they learn to accept them without judgment and without trying to change them. By learning to acknowledge emotions and not feel threatened by them, you can learn to cognitively transform them. This highly effective therapy has been known to increase resilience, allowing people to better cope with future stressful encounters.
Practice: Meditation is one way to practice accepting emotions. Mindfulness meditation teaches you how to be aware of both internal and external experiences, which can be tremendously useful in learning how to accept unpleasant emotions.
Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.Lanciano, T., Curci, A., & Zatton, E. (2010). Why do some people ruminate more or less than others? The role of emotional intelligence ability. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 6(2), 65-84.
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
Wante, L., Van Beveren, M. L., Theuwis, L., & Braet, C. (2017). The effects of emotion regulation strategies on positive and negative affect in early adolescents. Cognition and emotion, 1-15.