What Does It Mean To Have Obsessive Thoughts? (And How To Stop Them)

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Obsessive thinking is a mental game that some of us partake in, but prefer to lose. When we go down the rabbit hole of overanalyzing what we said, what we did, or what a situation entailed, it can feel like a continuous loop of notifications popping up in our minds. And as hard as we try to silence them, they reappear without our consent, which can then affect our mood — and possibly, our way of life.Whether you’re experiencing this all-too-familiar situation or you know someone who is, it’s important to identify what and how these thought patterns can impact you and those around you. Below, we got to the bottom of what causes obsessive thoughts and how to overcome themWhat causes obsessive thoughtsObsessive thoughts, or rumination, usually appear in your mind when an unpleasant situation has occurred. According to the American Psychological Association, men and women tend to ruminate when they have a history of trauma, believe that it will provide insight into their situation, perceive that their situation is uncontrollable and stressful; and/or if they have personality characteristics that exemplify perfectionism, neuroticism, and excessive relational focus (aka overvaluing relationships to the point where you choose to sacrifice yourself to maintain them).

Essentially what this means is that your thoughts could be disrupting your life more than you realize. If you find yourself taking an hour or two to respond to a professional email because you want it to be perfect or deeply analyzing a conversation you had with a friend you just met, it could mean that you’re trying to control a situation to avoid or fix a possible negative outcome.

How to stop obsessive thoughts

Recognize and identify the pattern

Getting stuck inside a ruminating thought pattern can quickly feel debilitating when not addressed or stopped right away. If you’re not careful, you can easily spiral into an uncomfortable, negative cycle that can make you obsessive. The next time you become aware that you’re going down this route, try to take a break from thinking about the situation, take a deep breath, and identify why these thoughts are appearing.

According to text- or video-based therapy app Talkspace, Bruce M. Hyman and Cherry Pedrick wrote in The OCD Workbook that when you write down your thoughts, you should “examine these thoughts to understand how they’re triggered and how you’re currently responding to them.” Ideally, when you’re writing about what you’re feeling, you want to get to the root of the issue to identify the main cause of these negative thoughts. For instance, you want to ask yourself questions like “Why am I feeling anxious?” or “Is there another reason why I am experiencing these anxious emotions?” Sometimes we forget to actually take the time to talk to ourselves instead of just experiencing the emotions we feel. Asking these questions will help you have a better understanding as to why these type of thoughts are appearing in your mind in the first place.

Distract yourself

When you’re unable to stop worrying about a specific situation, the next best thing you can probably do is to distract yourself. Call a friend or family member who will help you think of something else, watch a movie, go for a walk, take an exercise class, or clean your home. Physically doing something else can help break the thought cycle and remind you that you have more control over your thoughts than you think.

Be kind to yourself

While we all wish that we could have obsessive thoughts about how amazing we are, we most likely experience the opposite. Our brains create scary scenarios in our minds because they want to protect us and keep us safe from doing risky and uncomfortable things. This is why applying for a new job or simply making a new friend can feel like the end of the world. Whatever situation you’re experiencing, remember to be kind to yourself and your thoughts. At the end of the day, your thoughts are just thoughts, and they’re not always accurate.

A great way to combat this is by talking to your thoughts like you would to your worried, overprotective parents. Begin by thanking them for trying to keep you safe and for caring so much about you, but let them know that they don’t have to worry about the situation anymore because you have everything under control.

Find stillness

It can feel nearly impossible to overcome obsessive thinking when everything around you feels chaotic. While you may not have the ability to control everything in your life, you can control how you feel and think. “Many people don’t take a step back in their own lives to sit and be still,” says mindfulness expert and author of Mindfulness for PMS, Hangovers, and Other Real-World Situations, Courtney Sunday to Well+Good. “If we use specific instances to focus our minds, like picking up our dog’s poop, we have the capacity to be more centered.”

While you don’t need a dog to find stillness, there are other ways to connect with your environment and mind, like meditating or being mindful. These two practices allow you to focus on your breath and observe your physical surroundings. For instance, when things become too overwhelming, try to physically touch and identify things that are around you by saying phrases like, “I’m sitting in a chair, the fan is blue, I smell coffee, the pillow is soft.” This exercise can bring you into the present and help you forget worrying about the past or the future.

Talk to a therapist

If you feel like your obsessive thoughts have gotten out of control and you have the ability to go to therapy, do it. While you can manage your obsessive behavior with the above exercises, sometimes the best thing you can do for your mental health is to seek professional help.

If you’re unsure of what kind of therapy to try, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is usually a go-to for anxious individuals who experience obsessive, worrisome thoughts. CBT is an evidence-based, action-focused form of therapy that can help change the person’s beliefs and thought patterns through acceptance, redirecting, and challenging dysfunctional behaviors. However, if you don’t have access to a cognitive behavioral therapist, there are plenty of other forms of therapy to help you with your mental health journey.

This article originally appeared on The Everygirl.

9 Ways To Free Yourself From Rumination

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Of all my symptoms of depression, stuck thoughts are by far the most painful and debilitating for me. The harder I try to move the needle from the broken record in my brain, the louder the song becomes.

Ruminations are like a gaggle of politicians campaigning in your head. Try as you might to detach from their agenda, their slogans are forefront in your mind, ready to thrust you down the rabbit hole of depression. Logic tells you they are full of bull, but that doesn’t keep you from believing what they have to say.

Ever since the fourth grade, I have been fighting obsessive thoughts. So for four decades, I have been acquiring tools for living around them, continuously trying out strategies that will deliver them to the back of my noggin. Sometimes I am more successful than others. The more severe my depression, the more pervasive the thoughts. I don’t promise you tips to get rid of them forever, but here are some ways you lessen their hold over you.

1. Distract Yourself

Distraction is an appropriate first line of defense against ruminations. If you can, divert your attention to a word puzzle, a movie, a novel, or a conversation with a friend, in order to tune out what your brain is shouting. Even a five-minute reprieve from the broken record will help your mood and energy level, allowing you to focus on the here and now. However, if you simply can’t distract yourself — and I fully realize there are times when you can’t — don’t force it. That’s only going to make you feel more defeated.

2. Analyze the Thought

Obsessions usually contain a kernel of truth, but they are almost always about something else. Understanding the root of the thought and placing it in its context can often help you to let go of it, or at least minimize the panic over what you think it’s about. For example, a friend of mine was obsessing about the size of his backyard fence. A few times a day, he knelt beside the fence with a measuring stick, fretting that it wasn’t tall enough. The obsession was never really about the fence. It was about his wife who had just been diagnosed with dementia. Scared of losing her, he exercised what control he did have over the fence.

My recent ruminations are similar. I was obsessing about a mistake I made, or a decision I made that had consequences I didn’t consider. Once I realized that my obsession was really about something that happened 30 years ago, I breathed a sigh of relief.

3. Use Other Brains

It can be extremely difficult to be objective when you’re in the heat of ruminations. The politicians are incredibly convincing. That’s why you need the help of other brains to think for you — to remind you that your rumination isn’t based in reality. If you can, call on friends who have experienced obsessive thoughts themselves. They will get it. If you don’t have any, consider joining Group Beyond Blue on Facebook. This online depression support group is full of wise people who have guided me out of ruminations many times.

4. Use Your Mantras

I have ten mantras that I repeat to myself over and over again when cursed with obsessive thoughts. First, I channel Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen” and say or sing “Let it go.” I also repeat “I am enough,” since most of my ruminations are based on some negative self-assessment — usually how I handled a certain situation.

The most powerful mantra for ruminations is “There is no danger.” Panic is what drives the obsessive thoughts and makes them so disconcerting. You believe you are literally going to die.

In his book Mental Health Through Will Training psychiatrist Abraham Low writes, “You will realize that the idea of danger created by your imagination can easily disrupt any of your functions … If behavior is to be adjusted imagination must interpret events in such a fashion that the sense of security … overbalances the sentence of insecurity.” In other words, there really is no danger.

5. Schedule Rumination Time

Sometimes a rumination is like a tantruming 2-year-old who just wants a little attention. So give it to him. Some parenting experts say by acknowledging the kid, you provoke more tantrums. However, my experience with tantruming toddlers and with ruminations is that sometimes if you turn your attention to the kid or the thought, the screaming ends. You don’t want to stay indefinitely with the thought, but sometimes you might get a reprieve by setting aside a certain amount of time for your brain to go wherever it wants. Let it tell you that you are a despicable human being and that you screwed everything up once again. When the time is up, say, “Thank you for your contribution. I need to do other things now.”

6. Lessen Your Stress

Like most people I know, the severity of my ruminations are directly proportional to the amount of stress in my life. Recently, when the stress at work and at home were off the charts, so, too, were my ruminations. My brain was literally on fire, and no technique could quiet the thoughts.

Be proactive about lessening your stress. You might not have to make the dramatic changes that I did — resigning from a job. A little tweak in your schedule to allow for some relaxation may be all you need.

7. Do a Thought Log

Take a sheet of paper and draw three columns. In the first column, record your thought and assign a percentage of how strongly you believe it. For example, “I’m never going to recover from that mistake,” 90 percent. In the second column, list the cognitive distortions associated with that thought. For example, the above example involves “mental filtering,” “all or nothing thinking,” “jumping to conclusions,” “overgeneralization” and “catastrophizing.” In the third column, write a compassionate response to the thought THAT YOU BELIEVE and a percentage.

For example, “My decision may or may not have been a mistake, but it surely isn’t the end of me, and chances are that I can learn a lesson from it that will improve my life in the future,” 90 percent. If your percentage of the compassionate statement is lower than the original thought, tweak the compassionate response until the percentage is equal or higher than the original thought.

8. Be Kind to Yourself

The most important thing you can do to relieve the anguish of these thoughts is to be kind and gentle with yourself. In her book Self-Compassion Kristin Neff, Ph.D., offers a beautiful mantra she developed to help her deal with negative emotions, a reminder to treat herself with self-compassion when discomfort arises: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

Ruminations are, without doubt, moments of suffering. Self-compassion is your most powerful antidote.

9. Admit Powerlessness

If I have tried every technique I can think of and am still tormented by the voices inside my head, I simply cry Uncle and concede to the stuck thoughts. I get on my knees and admit powerlessness to my wonderful brain biochemistry. I stop my efforts to free myself from the obsessions’ hold and allow the ruminations to be as loud as they want and to stay as long as they want because, here’s the thing, they do eventually go away.

Unwanted Thoughts? Don’t Try to Suppress Them

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Consider every long song you hear on the radio. How many begin or end with the lyrics, “I can’t get you out of mind”? The human brain is conditioned to obsess — its negative bias makes us worry and fret. Despite our valiant efforts to shift our thoughts, they follow us into the shower and to work meetings.

The Untamed Thought

It’s time to accept the good/bad news: Thought suppression doesn’t work. The harder you try to eliminate something from your mind, the more likely it will stalk you.

1943 study published in the Social Science Research Council Bulletin, for example, found that people instructed to avoid making color associations with stimulus words were unable to stop the associations, even when threatened with shock for doing so.

More recently, Gordan Logan and Carol Barber published a study in the Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, detailing an experiment to determine whether a stop-signal procedure is sensitive enough to detect the presence of inhibited thoughts. Their results showed that the stop-signal can, in fact, pick up on inhibited thoughts, even when a person is immersed in a complex task.

The White Bear Study

By far the most famous and fascinating study on thought suppression was the one led by Daniel Wegner in 1987, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Wegner, a social psychologist, wanted to test a quote he came across in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Suppression,” which said, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Wegner conducted an experiment where he asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while not thinking of a white bear. Every time a white bear popped into their thoughts, they were to ring a bell. How many times did the participants ring a bell? On average more than once per minute. That’s a lot of bears.

They then did the same exercise but were asked to think of a white bear. Interestingly enough the group that was originally told not to think of a white bear had far more white-bear thoughts than the group that was never given the first instructions. Apparently the act of suppressing the thought in the first exercise stimulated the brains of the folks in the first group to think of white bears even more often.

Strategies for Unwanted Thoughts

From that study, Wegner went on to develop his theory of “ironic processes” that explains why it’s so hard to tame unwanted thoughts. He conceded that when we try not to think of something, part of our brain cooperates while the other part ensures the thought won’t surface, thereby causing the thought to be even more prominent. While presenting his theory to audiences across the country, people would ask him, “Then what do we do?” In response, he compiled a few strategies to tame unwanted thoughts. Among them:

  • Choose a distractor and focus on that. If you’re given two things to think about, your concentration is fractured, and will give your brain a small break from focusing on the unwanted thought. For example, think of a white bear and a zebra at the same time and see what happens.
  • Postpone the thought. Set aside an “obsession time,” whereby you allow yourself to think about the forbidden thought all you want. Theoretically, this frees up your other minutes. I found the strategy helpful for mild-to-moderate ruminations, but not with severe.
  • Cut back on multitasking. Studies consistently show that multitaskers make more mistakes. However, Wegner asserts that multitasking also leads to more unwanted thoughts. More specifically, his studies show that an increased mental load increases thoughts of death.
  • Think about it. Like the “postpone the thought” strategy, this is a form of exposure therapy where you allow yourself to face your fear in a controlled way. According to Wegner, when you allow yourself the freedom to think the thought, your brain doesn’t feel obligated to check in on removing it, and therefore doesn’t send it to your consciousness.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. Whenever possible stay in the present moment, connect with your breath, and try to calm yourself. However, don’t make the white bear angry by forcing meditation and mindfulness.

The next time a white bear or any other unwanted thought pops into your noggin, don’t fight it. Consider its soft fur, sharp claws, or clumsy run.

Thought suppression doesn’t work. May this truth set you free.

Are Constant Nightmares A Sign Of Mental Health Problems?

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Constantly having nightmares can be very stressful on mental health. It disrupts your sleep; your mind doesn’t get the rest it needs and you could wake up feeling down, tired or sleep-deprived, which in turn affects your day-to-day activity. But why do these unhelpful dreams sneak their way into your head and are they a sign that something bigger is going on in your life? It can be particularly difficult to deal with a barrage of nightmares if you aren’t aware of any mental health issues that you’re suffering, because you might not have tools to deal with these issues. We find out what having consistent nightmares can be an indication of and how to manage them (so that you can finally get a good night’s rest). What causes nightmares? Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep – similar to dreams – and although they can be a sign of an underlying issue, they’re not always this complex. According to WebMD, having a snack late at night can trigger nightmares as it boosts your metabolism and tells your brain to ‘be more active’. Taking medication or coming off medication can also stimulate nightmares, as can alcohol withdrawal. You get less REM sleep when you drink, and although it may seem tempting to have a nightcap, reduced REM sleep also means your mind’s ability to process dreams is impaired – so you might not be able to deal with what you’re dreaming about. Interestingly, sleep-deprivation in itself can also lead to nightmares, meaning you’re effectively stuck in a loop of bad sleep. A study from 2016, which measured the role of insomnia, nightmares and chronotype (essentially your biological clock) in relation to mental illness revealed that 8% to 18% of the population is ‘dissatisfied’ with their quality of sleep, and between 6% to 10% suffer with some form of insomnia disorder. The same study showed that a disruption in sleep patterns ‘commonly presents prior to acute psychiatric difficulties’, such as a manic episode, paranoia or ‘transition to major depression’. (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk) Lola, 21, is currently going through a phase of sleep disruption – she’s only sleeping a few hours per night and when she does, her sleep frequently consists of nightmares. ‘After every night’s sleep, I wake up and remember the wholly vivid nightmares I’ve just had’, she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘They vary from being a mash-up of several short intertwined dreams about people, some good that I don’t want to wake up from, but mostly horrible ones. ‘Sometimes they involve people from my life, sometimes faceless figures, which makes it even more creepy. Mostly I will wake up intermittently throughout the night. ‘I’ve had dreams of my teeth crumbling out of my mouth and anxiety nightmares, where I spend the entire time feeling anxious within the dream. ‘When I wake up, I’m worn out and extremely tired, which makes me not want to get out of bed – it’s paralysing. I’ve pretty much had nightmares my whole life, but they never used to be as frequent as they are now. They definitely happen more when I’m stressed or anxious, but I’ve never spoken to anyone about them because I’m so used to it.’ When should you seek help for your nightmares? Just like mental health problems are very individual, so are nightmares, and having the occasional one doesn’t automatically mean you also have a mental health problem. Therapist Sally Baker tells Metro.co.uk it’s how these affect you that could be a sign of something troubling underneath the surface. ‘Occasional nightmares are completely normal and many people experience them,’ she said. ‘It is how you feel about having those nightmares and the judgements you make about them that indicates how you are feeling about yourself and can give you insights into whether you are feeling emotionally balanced and okay, or may need to seek professional help. ‘Dreams and nightmares are one of the ways the sub-conscious mind processes emotional challenges, so recurring nightmares can be a clue that your mind is struggling to cope with real life negative emotions or events. ‘The nightmares may even vary with different narratives but if they engender the same feelings on waking from them such as heightened anxiety or feeling of dread you are definitely struggling to process.’ How can you deal with constant nightmares? Hayley, 30, has suffered from night terrors for years and tells Metro.co.uk these are similar to nightmares, but completely ‘take over’ her mind. ‘It’s hard to deal with them, as I’m not sure when they will happen,’ she said. ‘I can go for nights without anything and then bam, suddenly I’m screaming in my sleep. The main difference between nightmares and night terrors is that night terrors completely take over. I also remember them a lot more vividly than nightmares. ‘They’re always the same – someone is trying to kill me. ‘Counselling helps and communicating what happens in my night terrors helps too, as it allows me to process and understand what’s happening in my head. ‘For example, whenever they happen, it’s always in the flat I lived in with my mum and I have a lot of negative emotions and memories in that place that I’ve never addressed. ‘The night terrors have actually allowed me to understand this and address these fears directly. ‘I often find if I’m relaxed or I’ve done a workout in the evening, this will rest my mind but ironically, my night terrors seem to be worse when things are going great – it’s a cruel twist.’ Sally also recommends speaking with a therapist about your nightmares, especially if you experience persistent after effects or if they’re anxiety-inducing. ‘If you are left with heightened anxiety or depression after recurrent nightmares, you can work with a therapist to resolve the negative emotions even when you are not sure what is bothering you,’ she said. ‘Be your own detective and focus on the feelings you’re left with, not the storyline of your nightmares as that will be more helpful in finding out what is at the root of your scary or disturbing dreams. ‘Also ask yourself what you may have been ignoring in your life or overlooking. ‘Your intuition or your gut reactions are always on your side and are your best friend, so ask yourself what have you been overriding in your life that in your heart of hearts you’re not really sure about.’ MORE: HEALTH You Don’t Look Sick: ‘I have MS but I get told to give up my train seat’ Will a CBD spree of workouts, croissants, and high tea get rid of your stress? Teenager uses coffee to colour her hair after dye left her looking ‘like a monster’ Having singular nightmares are usually not a sign of mental health problems. But if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and suffering from nightmares or even night terrors, it’s worthwhile speaking to a medical or mental health professional about it. Don’t ignore your sub-conscious mind – it can be just as telling as your conscious one.

 

Read more: https://metro.co.uk/2019/02/17/constant-nightmares-sign-mental-health-problems-8649694/?ito=cbshare

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