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.