People can change," Mroczek says. "If you learn to worry or fret less, you may add time to your life."
Women are more likely than men to overthink, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University, who has studied rumination for years. Women brood about things that make them sad or anxious; men are more likely to stew about anger, she says.
And you don't have to be an adult to suffer bad health effects. In her latest, four-year study of adolescent girls, she found that girls prone to ruminating were more likely than the others to develop eating disorders, alcohol problems and depression. Future chronic ruminators often were anxious little kids, Nolen-Hoeksema says.
Karen Mead, 62, of St. Paul was one of those. Living with an alcoholic father, "a Jekyll and Hyde character," she constantly worried about his unpredictable moods. "I also worried so much about whether people would like me, what people would say to me and so on." Trying to quell these anxieties, she turned to alcohol herself and became an alcoholic by early adulthood.
Through treatment for her addiction, she says, she has learned to solve problems rather than brood and calls herself "a recovering ruminator." She's director of Emotions Anonymous, a nationwide 12-step program for adults with emotional problems.
Humans are the only species prone to "overthinking" that solves nothing, says Julian Thayer, a psychologist at Ohio State University. Our complex brains "have allowed us to achieve great civilizations, but they also are maladaptive," Thayer says, because people can fall into mental potholes that aren't a threat to animals.
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