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How to Stop Obsessive Thinking

Constantly Obsessing Over Things You've Said or Done? Experts Explain How to Cope

Teenage sad woman sitting on city street

If you're prone to anxiety, there's a good chance you've spent many an hour ruminating and obsessing over things that may seem trivial to others. For example, you may worry that you said something wrong or embarrassing during a casual encounter. And that work email you sent to the entire department — are you absolutely positive there were no typos or mistakes, even though you proofread it at least five times? For some people, it's easy to dismiss these concerns as inconsequential. But for others, the anxious thoughts can play on a loop and disrupt your entire day.

The good news is there are ways to break this pattern of obsessive thinking. These coping mechanisms can help keep you from ruminating and allow you to stay focussed on the present.

1. Write Down Your Worries

Dina Wirick, PhD, a licenced clinical psychologist in private practice and psychology instructor at California State University, Monterey Bay, recommends writing down your concerns as they come up. Then set aside a time during the day when you can review all the worries on your list. "Don't allow yourself to think about them when they come up throughout the day," Dr. Wirick said, noting that "reminding yourself that you have a designated 'worry time'" makes it easier to stop ruminating in the moment.

2. Focus on Your Breath

Realistically, your worries won't immediately disappear the moment you write them down. When they persist, Dr. Wirick's advice is to spend a few minutes focusing on your breath. "Notice the inhale and exhale of your breath without changing it," she said. "Often, just placing your attention on the present moment and anchoring it to your breath can be enough to shift your mindset."

3. Think About Your Concerns Logically

During your designated "worry time," don't simply stare at the list ruminating. Instead, Dr. Wirick recommends assessing whether the concern is something that you can take action on. If the answer is yes, spend some time thinking through possible solutions. "If the worry isn't something you can do anything about, consider the worst possible scenario [and] ask yourself, how likely is this worst-case scenario? If it happens, can I handle it?" she advised. "What would I tell a friend if they were sharing this worry with me?"

If there's an instance when you do feel as though a worst-case scenario is likely and you're not equipped to handle it, don't be afraid to ask for advice from someone whose judgement you trust, like a close friend or a therapist.

4. Try to Get to the Bottom of It

Molly Giorgio, PsyD, a licenced clinical psychologist and adjunct instructor of psychology at University of Hartford, told POPSUGAR that obsessive thinking often has a root and comes from a deeper concern. For example, if you consistently can't stop thinking about work emails, consider the possibility that you're actually anxious about making a bad impression on your boss, or that your coworkers won't like you.

"Once you determine what's actually going on [and what's underneath] the obsessive thought, remember that thoughts are just neurons firing in your brain. You can choose to respond to them," Dr. Giorgio said. "The more you fight against or try and 'control' your thoughts, the stronger they will get." Accepting that your thoughts are there will help release them of their power. And don't forget to be compassionate to yourself — you're doing the best you can.

5. Find Fun Distractions

"Distraction can be helpful once you've identified the thought and what is underneath it," Dr. Giorgio said. She recommends distracting yourself with something positive like having lunch with a friend, getting coffee and sitting and enjoying it mindfully, listening to music, or doing a puzzle. Activities like this can help get your mind off the anxious thoughts.

Using these techniques should assuage your obsessive thought patterns — but there is a chance that you'll continue to struggle with this anxious behaviour. "If you find the thoughts continuing and causing more disruption on your life, seek out professional help from a therapist or psychologist," said Dr. Giorgio.

Image Source: Getty / Martin Novak
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