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 them.
What Causes Obsessive Thoughts
Obsessive 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.
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.
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.