Obsessive thinking, also known as rumination, is like a hamster wheel or a broken record that plays the same bad song over and over again. It’s like you’re hyper-focused on the negative, whether it’s one bad test score, work presentation, or conversation with a friend that didn’t go as planned. It’s as if our brains work to hold on to the negative experiences and totally forget about all the positive. Rumination can be problematic because it rarely offers new insights or solutions on how to handle a situation. Instead, it emotionally hijacks us and intensifies our negative feelings. So, how can we free ourselves from getting obsessive over negative thinking? Read on for five tools for a less negative you.
1. Work on self-awareness
The first step in changing any behavior is becoming conscious of it when it’s coming up. In other words, we have to recognize our patterns before we can change them. Often, when we are stuck in a cognitive loop, we engage in a well-established habit. It’s similar to biting nails or checking social media every few minutes—it happens unconsciously. The next time you catch yourself ruminating, think “Stop!” (say it out loud or in your head as a way to break the cycle). I also have my clients practice visualization by imagining putting a negative thought in a trashcan. Whatever works for you, repeat one word or routine every time you notice yourself obsessing over a negative thought.
2. Name it
When we are caught in the cycle of rumination, generally there is an underlying fear that something bad is going to happen. You might be obsessing over a mistake at work, an unfinished conversation with your partner, a fight with a friend, or not living the life you envisioned for yourself. Whatever the reason, try to sum up your negative thinking into one single sentence like “I am scared that I’m going to lose my job” or “I’m angry at my friend for the way she treated me.” You gain control by being able to address the real situation. If you can identify your greatest worry or fear, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Can I handle that?” Most likely, the answer is yes. You’ll deal with it in the moment just like you’ve always dealt with any hardship. This will help remove some of the fear.
3. Practice mindfulness
We spend so much time dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about future events that we rarely spend time in the here and now. The practice of mindfulness can help us reduce our “thinking” and increase our “sensing.” For example, any time you find yourself in “auto-pilot” mode, like if you’re eating lunch at your desk or checking Instagram while you wait for an elevator, try to just sit and be with yourself. Focus on what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. This can help ground you in the present moment. When you catch your attention wandering into the past or future, gently guide yourself back to the present moment. Eventually, you’ll realize that the obsessive thought is coming from worry about the future or past, and not rooted in reality.
Pause for a moment and identify the source of your worries. A lot of them probably have to do with future projections or past hurts, mistakes, or regrets. Try to accept your situation as it is right now. I know how hard this can be, but I also know that pain and suffering gets worse depending on how we think about it. Accept your current state as it is. Stop wanting things to be different. When you find yourself obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, ask yourself, “Can I do anything about this right now?” If the answer is no, do your best to accept what is. Take a deep breath and do something that brings you joy. If the answer is yes, identify what you can do and do it.
5. Schedule a worry break
For me, falling asleep has always been difficult because of worry. My thoughts bounced all over the place at bedtime: relationships, body image, career, finances, the future, and what I was going to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was exhausting and it kept me awake and anxious. Eventually, I found that allowing myself a short period of time to worry (about 15-30 minutes) helped me have better boundaries. During the “worry time” I write down what’s on my mind. At night when my thoughts keep me awake, I say to myself, “Nothing is going to get solved right now, it’s time to sleep. You can think about it tomorrow.”
Like any new skill, it takes practice, repetition, and self-love. Be compassionate with yourself and remember you don’t have to do it all at once—don’t feel like you’ve failed if you have a fearful or anxious thought. However, if obsessive thoughts are affecting your life or hard to get over, we recommend seeking a therapist who can help.