Be careful: overthinking your woes may worsen your problems rather than solve them. That is the conclusion of a new study, in which researchers from the University of Liverpool show that belaboring life’s curveballs is associated with an increased risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. The findings set the stage for improved preventative measures in psychiatric care.

Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the study examined the relationship between excessive rumination and mental health. An online survey of 32,827 people from 172 countries found that dwelling on negative experiences was the single biggest predictor of depression and anxiety in all age groups. In addition, such thoughts appear to determine stress levels.

"We found that people who didn't ruminate or blame themselves for their difficulties had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they'd experienced many negative events in their lives," said lead researcher Peter Kinderman. “Dwelling on negative thoughts and self-blame has previously been recognized as important when it comes to mental health, but not to the extent this study has shown.”

According to Kinderman, these findings suggest that both self-blame and negative thoughts are psychological states that could act as pathways to depression and anxiety. More importantly, the negative effects of overthinking a problem may actually exceed those of the problem itself. For this reason, an individual’s self-blame or rumination quickly outgrows the negative experience, and may come to be generalized across other thoughts and memories. This way, the anxiety may persist long after the initial stress factor is removed.

While the findings may seem discouraging, co-author Ellie Pontin submits that they could also help people realize that they are in control of their problems. After all, negative thought patterns and rumination habits can be changed. “It's actually a really positive message and should give people hope," Pontin explained. "It can be very hard to be told your problems are because of what you have experienced in the past or your genetics, things you can't change. The way you think and deal with things can be changed.”

So the next time past issues bring you down, it might be in your best interest to turn the other shoulder.

Source: Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. Kinderman P, Schwannauer M, Pontin E, Tai S (2013) Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076564