If you are at all the analytical type then it is likely that you will have experienced obsessive thoughts more than once in your life. Perhaps these were about a particular girl that you liked (something we more commonly term “oneitus”). Or maybe they were about something your boss said to you, or around a sporting event in which you wish you’d performed better.
Whatever the subject matter, if you find that thoughts keep repeating themselves in your head, or if you keep returning to the same mental scenario trying to find a different way around it in vain, then you need to snap out of it. Obsessive thoughts are exhausting, drain your brain of the RAM necessary to tackle other, more important issues, and generally have an adverse effect on the quality of your life. Luckily, there are a few simple hints that will help you to keep the problem under control.
What Are Obsessive Thoughts?
For many mental health professional, obsessive thoughts are a symptom of anxiety just as much as physical symptoms such as nervous tics, sleeplessness, sweating, and so on. Therefore, if you are given to “catastophising” when you give in to obsessive thought—that is, imagining the very worst outcome possible in a given situation, then the first thing you must realise is that what your mind is telling you is the result of a condition and is therefore not necessarily objectively “true.”
It is a mixed blessing that our minds are extremely powerful instruments that are able to fabricate the most dire and inordinate consequences from the smallest of triggers. Thus, if you think you might have left the gas on then you will then imagine your house being burned down, your financial and insurance documents going up in smoke, and important property from your company being damaged, leaving you penniless and sleeping under a bridge, doing card tricks (or worse) for cash to survive. If you want to elaborate further you may then imagine picking up some disease and dying horribly of it in the street.
Of course, none of this is in any way close to the reality of the situation. It is a spiral of fantasy that the obsessive thinker allows himself to get into, partly because such a downward spiral of thought can be oddly addictive and compelling, producing a trance-like state in the sufferer.
If you find yourself entertaining such patterns of thought then you need to strike back with evasive action in order to seize control again.
1. Identify the distortions in your thinking
First, monitor your thinking at all times and be aware when it is not presenting facts or situation as they really are.
In The OCD Workbook, Bruce M. Hyman, Ph.D., and Cherry Pedrick, RN list the following ways in which obsessive thinkers can warp reality when they fix on a particular person or situation.
- Overestimating risk, harm and danger
- Over-control and perfectionism
- Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking
- Persistent doubting
- Magical thinking
- Superstitious thinking
- Intolerance of uncertainty
- Pessimistic bias
- What-if thinking
- Intolerance of anxiety
- Extraordinary cause and effect
If any of these sound familiar to you then take note and realise that your thinking may well be at fault. Simply by recognizing this intellectually, you will do much to quell the tide of unhelpful thought and speculation.
2. Accept, and know that it will pass
As with many things in life, once you have identified that your thinking is obsessive and out of control around a particular topic, accept that this is the case. Don’t try to fight it immediately. Just realise that you are prone to a very common phenomenon, and don’t give yourself a hard time. Accept, too, that obsessive patterns of thought can be difficult to break. Cut yourself some slack.
In accepting your faulty thought patterns, though, you should also take some solace from the fact that “this too shall pass.” On average, I will think really obsessively about something for maybe two, three days maximum. After that it will lose something of its sting, and my mind will slowly move on to other things. So no matter how bad things seem at the moment, it will get better naturally in time.
3. Change your physical state
A great way to break the pattern of obsessive thoughts is to change your physical state. The most obvious—and best—way of accomplishing this is through exercise, of course. Going out for a run or going to the gym for a weights session will help no end. The endorphins that exercise introduce into the body are brilliant for breaking up unhelpful thought patterns and offering a new perspective.
Another technique that is very powerful is going into water. This could mean swimming, but equally, a jacuzzi or plunge pool is great too. Saunas and steam rooms can also help. There is something about changing the elements around the body that seems to have a deep effect on the way thought patterns emerge and progress.
Don’t leave this one to chance. What you should plan to do is to have a substitute thought ready to focus on when the thing you’re trying not to dwell on enters your mind.
For example, right now I have a legal dispute going on. For days the particulars of the case would keep coming into my mind and I would imagine all the possible consequences of this or that eventuality. All a complete waste of brain RAM, since I can’t accurately guess exactly what is going to happen in the future.
Then, when I found out about this concept of substitution, I resolved that whenever the case came into my mind, I would substitute it with the though “I’m on holiday,” and would dwell instead on the more positive fact that it is nearly Christmas and I am indeed on vacation.
While this can be tricky to do effectively at first, once you’ve practised a few times you’ll find that the mind shifts more easily into the area that you want it to.
5. Keep Busy
Perhaps the most effective way of avoiding pointless obsessive thoughts is simply to focus on something else. Ideally, this should be challenging and involved enough to “turn your head off” to the other subject matter, at least for the duration of the time you’re working on it. Anything sufficiently engrossing will do—designing, writing, playing or composing music, learning a language, building a website.
The other advantage of this approach is that you will actually be doing something constructive. Rather than focusing on something uncertain, which you are obsessing about precisely because it is something you can’t control, you are instead working on something that should give you satisfaction, and will thus increase the overall quality of your life.