5 Tips to Stop Obsessive Thinking

  • Copy by: Jodee Virgo

Do you ever feel like a prisoner in your own mind? Do you constantly replay or obsess over negative situations? If you answered yes, then we are here to help. 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.

For anxious folks, even when life is going well, we tend to hyper-focus on the negative. It’s as if our brains work to hold on to the negative experiences and release the positive. Rumination can be a problem 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 ruminating? Consider these tools for a less anxious you:

1. Increase Awareness 
The first step in changing any behavior is becoming conscious of it when it arises. 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 to break the loop.) I also have my clients practice visualization: imagine taking a current thought and putting it in a trashcan. I had one client put a rubber band around her wrist and snap it every time she ruminated to remind her to stop.

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 rumination into one single sentence: “I am scared that I may 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/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.

3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on your present moment experience. We spend so much time dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about future events that we spend very little time in the here and now. The practice of mindfulness can help us reduce our “thinking” selves and increase our “sensing” selves. A good example: any time you find yourself in “auto-pilot.” For instance, the next time you are eating lunch, try not giving into the impulse to check your emails (or other social media). Instead 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 and remember: The future does not exist anywhere but in your mind.

4. Acceptance
Take a moment and think about the source of your anxieties. I imagine a lot of them have to do with future projections or past hurts, mistakes, or regrets. Do your best to accept your situation as it is right now. I know how hard this can be, and I also know that pain and suffering gets worse depending on how we think about it. Try to lean into your feelings and take them for what they are. We often feel sad because we feel sad, are angry because we feel angry, and so on. 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 the following question: “Can I do anything about this right now?” If the answer is no, do your best to accept what is. Take a 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
My clients often report how hard it is for them to fall asleep at night because they can’t quiet their minds. I can really relate to this. For me, for a long time, falling asleep was like a rumination carnival. I would feel fine all day and at bedtime my thoughts bounced all over the place—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. After trial and error, I found that allowing myself a short period of time to worry (about 15 to 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.”

Working on yourself in this way can be exhausting, I know. Honestly, it’s not easy; the concepts themselves are easy. But enacting them? That’s another story. 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. This is not a linear process and frankly, a certain amount of fear and anxiety is normal. However, if ruminative thoughts are interfering with living the life you want to live, consider reaching out for help. Therapy is a great way to learn how to use these techniques with the help and guidance of a professional.

  • tara

    Hi! you have a typo: Working on yourself way can be exhausting, I know.

  • This article is wonderful! So helpful and needed. This sort of cyclical thinking is so common and destructive for one’s happiness and mental health. Thank you for sharing advice on real, relatable, every day issues. Can always count on TheEverygirl!! Thanks,
    jennarosecoloredglasses.com
    jennarosecoloredglasses.com

  • I’ve learned to look at every daunting task as just another thing to get through. It will be over just like yesterday before I know it. Surprisingly it’s also helped my anxiety to to actually think about the worst case scenario and problem solve it before it happens. There’s this saying “It’s only a problem if there’s a solution. If not, it’s reality.” Accept it and live your life 🙂

    http://www.DisforDreamer.com

  • I really, really loved this article. While “Stop thinking/obsessing so much!” may be common advice, rarely is it accompanied by suggestions on HOW to do so. These ideas make sense and I can actually see myself being able to implement them in my life without causing myself even MORE anxiety because I can’t do what I’m “supposed to” to stop making myself think so much!

  • Great piece. After running around all day its hard to just suddenly stop and fall asleep. I’ll definitely be trying these tips out!

  • Lauren Anders

    I feel like I just went to yoga in a very good way. Jodee, I appreciate that you wrote on a topic that is seen as a flaw or something to hide, but in reality this is something I believe a lot of women struggle with. Thank you for talking openly about how to help our mental health.

  • Lucy Lees

    I love this post, thanks for sharing! I’m having some issues at the moment with anxieties and worries. Life can be so loud and tricky. It’s great to see someone writing honestly about mental health issues 🙂
    Life inside the Locket

  • What a great post, Jodee. With my anxiety disorder I do a LOT of obsessive thinking…but I think these days, everyone is guilty of this to an extent. It’s so refreshing that people are gaining greater understanding of mental health issues, and it’s thanks to articles like this.
    For me the key part of stopping my obsessive thoughts is #2 – naming it. Often when I break down my thoughts into what I’m actually stressed about/afraid of, and say ‘so what if that happens?’, more often than not the answer is ‘nothing’.

  • Georgia Christakis

    This is such an incredibly useful article. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts 🙂

  • A brilliant, brilliant post! Thank you for these tips 😀

  • Jessika Garcia

    Hi Jodee! I’m so glad I found this article on The Everygirl. For a few years now i’ve been wondering why i’m always having these negative thoughts take over my brain (especially at night). Sometimes I find myself yelling in my brain – if that makes any sense – to just stop or shut up. I sometimes feel crazy and just wish that I was better and healthy. But, my behavior is hereditary and I sometimes feel helpless. I’m afraid to see a therapist and want to learn how to deal with it on my own. I’ve been practicing meditation for a while now and it’s been helping.

    Every word you wrote rang true for me. It’s like you stole every feeling i’ve wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say it. Thank you for this, and like Jenna said below, thank you for sharing real and relatable content. Have a great day!

  • Alexis

    This was a wonderful read, very insightful and appreciated! as someone who suffers from this…. THANK YOU for posting important material such as this.

  • This is so great!! Thank you for sharing these tips! Sincerely, a worrier. 🙂

  • Katie

    This was an incredibly helpful article for me to read. I do this CONSTANTLY, and although I am well aware it is unhealthy to do, I can’t help it. The way you talked about certain it, like saying it’s a similar unconscious action like biting your nails, it resonated with me. Same with the comment about how the future is only in your mind. Wow, true. It puts a perspective on it that I think will help me to bring myself back to center. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for recognizing the importance of mental health and using this platform to talk about it.

  • Katie Holland

    I needed to remind myself of these…they are great go to methods

  • Bily

    What a wonderful article! Very helpful and well written! Thank you so much.

  • CP

    My anxiety started when I was a young kid and stems from being bullied through my entire school career. I never fit in, people made fun of how I looked, and I always felt I was never good enough to have at least one ounce of popularity.

    Whenever something is said, whether it be directly or indirectly, even if a statement is made by a family member that is posted on social media. I take it to heart. I constantly worry and ruminate over what other people think. I think to myself, “well if they can do that for so and so, why not me? What’s wrong with ME?” I constantly take many things to heart, because I’ve convinced myself in my head, that I’m not good enough for that person to feel an ounce of consideration for me. Yet, I can’t seem to pinpoint why. Which continues the sequence of worrying thoughts.

    I’m currently experiencing these feelings over my niece becoming a new mom. She has basically said she has anxiety over letting people hold her new baby. She’s let the grandparents and great grandparents hold her, and she’s even let a couple of her friends (whom she’s pegged as “aunties”) hold her. Yet, I’m the REAL auntie, and I have YET to hold her. So I can’t help but think – IS IT ME? Yet, I’ve always thought we had such a great relationship. We’ve never fought. So I can’t help but worry and take it personally and worry that she might have adverse feelings towards me, that i know nothing about.

    I wish I could stop feeling this way. But it’s very difficult. It stems back from me feeling I’m not good enough for her own family to get to know her new baby, but yet her friends are? She says how she’s not ready, and I’m having a hard time believing her. But when she wants something? She’s got no problems asking me. Other than that – I have yet to share in the joy of holding her precious daughter and many others have.

    So then I start cycling all these thoughts, and possible reasons, that I really have no proof of. If I confront her about it, she will freak on me (or so I think, but I am convinced I’m right about that). And I’ll lose her. It’s caused me to feel extremely offended, and anxious over the whole thing.

    I truly hate not being able to control the amount of worrying that I do about what others think of me, when all I am is good to them, and for some reason, don’t feel I’m receiving the same courtesy.

  • accepting anxiety is so important – so often we want to fight against it! http://www.calmer-you.com

  • Myles Buchanan

    I loved this article, particularly the recommendation of a “worry break.” These solutions are all ones that I’ve played with in some form, but this article inspired me to redouble my efforts. Here are some signs I look for to know I’m going to the rabbit hole of obsessive thoughts. http://obsessivelythinking.com/2018/03/01/how-i-know-if-my-thoughts-are-obsessive/