How to Manage Obsessive Thinking

Running on the Wheel: How to Manage Obsessive Thinking
Running on the Wheel: How to Manage Obsessive Thinking

Anxiety is a condition where people worry.

Most people have worries from time to time. We may worry about making a good impression, or how we will do on a test or an assignment. Sometimes people worry about the weather, loved ones, or illness. When worry happens so much that it starts to make our life harder than it should be, or interferes with things we have to do (like school or work), it is called an Anxiety Disorder. About 1/3 of people are diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder at some time in their life. That’s a lot of people!

In fact, sociologists have found that proof that our current generation is far more worried than previous generations, which means that our culture is part of why people are so worried.

It makes sense. We live in a world in which people try to hurry and get lots of things done. Often, people have to work more hours than their parents or grandparents did in their jobs. Students have many activities, test scores, and homework assignments to balance. It is a lot to juggle, and even when we try, we often aren’t perfect at it.

Running on the Wheel: How to Manage Obsessive Thinking
Running on the Wheel: How to Manage Obsessive Thinking

One type of worry that people commonly experience is called obsessive thinking.

This means our thoughts get stuck and repeat themselves over and over, like a hamster on a wheel. Sometimes, obsessive worries seem to go away, but then pop up again later. Oftentimes, it is the same thought, or type of thought, that gets stuck. Often, the more people tell themselves to stop the obsessive thinking, the worse it gets.

The good news is that there are ways to get off the wheel. But, it may seem paradoxical. You may doubt that it will help. It may seem like the things we try are going to make it worse.

Luckily, you can reassure yourself that researchers have been studying anxiety disorders carefully for a long time. Scientists have found that best way for us to reduce anxiety is to face our fears. (This is often referred to as “exposure therapy.”) We have to identify our fears and face them. After that, our brain will let go and our thoughts will move on to other things. Below are some techniques that can help you face your obsessions and get off the worry wheel.

Write down the obsession.

When you start obsessing, write down your exact thoughts. If the worry continues, write down the next thoughts, and the next thoughts, even if they duplicate what you have already written. Keep writing until the obsession fades away. The act of writing out worries or obsessional thinking helps us to see how repetitive and senseless these thoughts can be. This perspective weakens the obsessions. After awhile it will seem like a chore, but continue until you are ready to let them go.

Sing the obsession.

Pick a short phrase that summarizes your obsession. Ignore its meaning for awhile. Repeat the words and add a simple melody. A friend of mine once shared with me that he often had obsessive thoughts that he was stupid, particularly if someone became mad or upset with him. So he wrote a silly song that he entitled, “stupid, stupid, stupid. I feel stupid.” By adding a silly tune, and singing the song it to others, he was able to let go of the obsession, and obtain some social support as well. The process of singing the obsession makes it difficult to stay upset or distressed by the worry.

Change the picture.

If your obsessions include a distressing image, try to change the picture on purpose. If you imagine having an argument with a loved one, try to imagine a loving exchange instead. Try to switch from distressing feelings to pleasant feelings. Choose pictures that will help you feel safe, loved, or humored. Continue to practice this technique until things feel better. If it helps to draw or create the picture, this may also be useful.

Remember to stay in the present.

Most of our worries are about things that COULD happen in the future. But, they haven’t yet. Tell yourself, “It is just a worry. It is not a fact. I can’t tell the future.” Notice the worry. Imagine it as a wave, and notice where you are on the wave. Observe it leaving. Remind yourself that this moment, this second, this minute, you are ok. You are in the present. Enjoy this moment. Soak in the joys around you. Practice mindfulness regularly.

Pay attention to triggers.

Notice what was happening when the obsessive thoughts started. Were you alone? At work? At school? Did you have a difficult interaction with someone? Were you overtired, overhungry, or over-stimulated? The more aware of triggers you are, the better you can make a plan to face your fears.

Talk to your therapist.

Ask for help in facing your fears. You are not alone. If you aren’t in therapy, this may be a good reason to consider it. Therapy can help you feel braver and stronger, and more independent. It will help you have more freedom to do and think the things that you want to. The most effective therapists for anxiety are typically those who rely on exposure training (teaching you to face your fears) and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety can be very difficult. But it is treatable. And there is great reason believe in (and notice) an easier present and future.


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