“James,” my acupuncturist said once, “you think too much. You need to think less.”

Apparently my brain is sort of like the Macbook Air I’m typing this on: it occasionally overheats. I can be prone to what might be called “binge thinking.” Have you ever had a piece of fish that had lots of tiny bones that weren’t removed, and you’ve spent your whole meal dissecting it with fork and knife to find the bones, and chewing each mouthful carefully and thoroughly and probingly to find and remove any hair-thin bones you missed, lest they puncture your intestine? My thought processes can get like that from time to time.

Not that I think thinking is bad. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can think they ever stop thinking. How can you not constantly be thinking? I don’t mean being lost in thought all the time, but at least always considering everything before, during, and after, and – when nothing else is going on – having lengthy mental dialogues with yourself or imagined others. When is there ever a space where there’s nothing going on? I remember the line from Billy Joel: “Should I try to be a straight-A student? If you are then you think too much.” Ha! If you think you’re ever not thinking, then you’re just not paying attention. Right?

But overheating is bad. Brooding is bad. Fixating. Spiralling. Forming mental centres of gravity that become black holes. It can be a key feature in depression and anxiety disorders.

Which is where kufungisisa comes in. Kufungisisa has nothing to do with kung fu or ISIS or fungus or the Kurfürstendamm. The word kufungisisa means ‘thinking too much’ in Shona, a language (and culture) of Zimbabwe. It’s a cultural view of a particular set of mental disorders – or, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) puts it, “an idiom of psychosocial distress.” If you have it, you’re ruminating on various upsetting thoughts. It is associated with various conditions, including “anxiety symptoms, excessive worry, panic attacks, depressive symptoms, and irritability.” Which means that I, and many of you too, have had kufingisisa. Or would have had I (and you) been Shona.

Mental illness diagnoses are culture-bound, after all. Expression of mental illness can be strongly culture-bound too. Some cultures have names for culture-bound syndromes where, for instance, a person just “snaps” and runs amok – in fact, amok is from a Malay term for just that culture-bound syndrome. Japan has a disorder called tajin kyofusho that is “characterized by anxiety about and avoidance of interpersonal situations due to the thought, feeling, or conviction that one’s appearance and actions in social interactions are inadequate or offensive to others.” Cultures with strong expectations regarding body image will give rise to mental disorders related to those body images, never mind that other cultures – or that same culture at other times – may have entirely different views on body image.

But people are people, and some things are fairly common at the underlying level. Depression, for example, appears to happen everywhere, though not necessarily with the same incidence and certainly not with the same interpretation. The DSM-5 notes that “thinking too much” is a common way of describing certain kinds of mental distress in many cultures. Indeed, “In many cultures, ‘thinking too much’ is considered to be damaging to the mind and body and to cause specific symptoms like headache and dizziness.” In Nigeria, excessive study is thought to cause damage to the brain, “with symptoms including feelings of heat or crawling sensations in the head.”

Maybe it is possible to overheat the brain. Intense thought can be different from ordinary thought, after all, and if there are strong emotions involved, well, this is not exactly some kind of Spock thing. But I rather suspect that much of this is focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause. Brooding doesn’t cause depression; depression causes brooding.

It’s like calling nausea or earache a condition. They’re just symptoms. So is binge thinking. I think.

13 responses to “kufungisisa

  1. Interesting, insightful and, as usual, a pleasure to read!

  2. I really enjoyed this and found it so relatable!! My brain overheats all the time haha

  3. Wow… But I love to think think think all day!

  4. I seem to ALWAYS be in the middle of a mental conversation with one loved one or another. In my head, I say what I’m thinking and then I think why they might be saying. It’s nuts I know.

    The problem comes when I try to carry over those conversations with one person or another in “real” life…and he or she has no idea what I’m talking about. “I told you,” I always start, “when we talked about this yesterday…” Only to be told that we DID NOT talk about this yesterday. I sometimes forget the people in my life aren’t always privy to the conversations I have with them in my head.

    THAT’S when my brain begins to overheat… when I’m trying to sort out the details of who I REALLY talked to and when and how much of the conversation I have to go over and repeat for everyone to be on the same page. LOL

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Very entertaining and informative!

    Angela @www.thebookandi.com

  5. Gave me a new perspective on the anxiety I have.

  6. You should try reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. That book taught me how to turn off my thoughts, how to just be the person that lurks there beneath the surface of my mind, how to just be. There is more to a person’s mind than their thoughts, this is what monks practice when they meditate. We are never really taught how to turn off our thoughts in western society however so it seems like it is impossible. I assure you it is not however, and when you can do it it is the most relieving thing in the world.

    And it isn’t just meditation that allows one to reach that state. I often get into that state when I’m snowboarding down a mountain and I don’t have any thought, just feeling the movement beneath me and around me.

    I think you could find that too one day 🙂

  7. I think I suffer from this, now and then. It’s exhausting to be always thinking, and worse not getting anywhere as there are so many thoughts that I don’t know to which i may give the word.

  8. Wow!!! For a moment i thougjt something was wrong with me because i do this all the time and because i always think too much its hard to fall asleep ..

  9. This post obviously touched a nerve with many readers, given the number of comments so soon after it appeared. Seems many of us have a hard time shutting down our internal conversations. In yoga, at the beginning of class or session, we are asked to put aside our thoughts… and if we found ourselves nonetheless engaging in thinking to gently nudge the thoughts away. It seems like a nice idea – rather than yelling at yourself to stop thinking!

  10. I believe that mental illness can be a gateway to the outside of the box, therefore we need overthinking in order to make amazing discoveries. It’s not always bad, you just have to learn how to manage it! Very interesting post, thank you!

  11. As a child, I was frequently told I was “over-thinking” or “over-analyzing”. As an adult, I have found it to be incredibly useful. I have times where I can think about something to exhaustion, but I prefer to think about it as “necessary processing” rather than “overthinking”. Sometimes it’s helpful to quiet our mind, or go be active but it just boils down to whatever the healthy balance is for me at the time. Thank you for sharing. LOVE when you talk about the cultural origin of words! 😌

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