Stuck thoughts … the brick walls that form a prison around your mind. The harder you try to get rid of them, the more powerful they become. I’ve been wrestling with stuck thoughts ever since I was in fourth grade. The content or nature of the obsessions have morphed into many different animals over the course of 30-plus years, but their intensity and frequency remains unchanged. Here are some strategies I use when they make a surprise visit, techniques that help me free myself from their hold.
1. Don’t Talk Back
The first thing you want to do when you get an intrusive thought is to respond with logic. By talking back, you think you can quiet the voice. However, you actually empower the voice. You give it an opportunity to debate with you and make its case. The more you analyze the obsession –“That is a silly thought because of reasons A, B, and C” — the more attention you give it and the more intense it becomes. In “The Mindful Way through Depression,” authors Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn write, “Sorting things out and forcing a solution will always seem like the most compelling thing to do … but in fact focusing on these issues in this way is using exactly the wrong tools for the job.”
2. Know It Will Pass
I can do anything for a minute. Most things for an hour. A considerable amount for a day or two or three. Most of my intrusive thoughts—the intense phase, anyway—have a life span of two or three days. I find the obsessions much more manageable when I compare them to the cravings for alcohol I experienced in my first years of sobriety. They came with intensity and then they left. All I had to do was to bear with them for 24 hours and refrain from doing anything stupid. Then my brain would be mine again. Your stuck thoughts are not permanent. They will be gone soon enough.
3. Focus on Now
Your stuck thought is most likely based in the past (feelings of regret, etc.) or the future. Rarely are we obsessed about something that is happening in the present because we are too busy living this moment. It can seem impossible to engage with what’s happening in our world in real time when we have a riveting made-for-TV drama unfolding in our heads, but the more successful we are at tuning into the here and now, the less tormented we will be by our stuck thoughts. I try to be around people and have conversations so that I have to concentrate on what they are saying to me, not the text messages of my chattering mind.
4. Tune Into the Senses
An effective way to anchor your mind in the here and now—and away from the obsession du jour–is to tune into the senses. Our five portals to the world — seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing — can transition us from the doing mode to the being mode. For example, I was hanging out with my daughter on her bed the other night as I obsessed about something that had happened that day: theorizing why it occurred and arriving at 342 solutions to solve the problem. My daughter grabbed my hand to hold, which rarely happens these days, and it occurred to me that I was missing out on a precious moment because of some stupid stuck thought. So I made a conscious effort to focus on her soft hand in mind. Concentrating on the texture of her skin and the sweetness of that moment led me out of my head and into reality.
5. Do Something Else
If you can, distract yourself with some other activity. You need not start an ambitious project to change gears. I mean, painting your bathroom walls could definitely do the job, but so could walking around the block or working on a word puzzle.
6. Switch Your Obsession
You might try to replace your obsession with another one that isn’t so emotional or damaging. Example: I was obsessing about something the other day when I headed to Panera Bread to write. I was intent on getting a booth, so I hung out at one of the smaller tables until I could secure one. I studied the people, their gestures … are they leaving? Another woman came in with her laptop and was also scouting tables to set up shop. I panicked. I knew she wanted a booth too. All of a sudden, all I could think about was securing a booth before she did. My old obsession vanished in light of this new, benign obsession.
7. Blame the Chemistry
I experience great relief when I remember that I am not obsessing about something because that thing is crucial to my existence and should replace priorities one, two, and three, but rather because the special biochemistry inside my noggin is wired to ruminate A LOT. The subject of the obsessions isn’t all that important. There is no catastrophic problem that needs to be solved in the next 24 hours. In fact, the unstuck thought might be 100 percent fluff, a made-up story the brain fabricated because it couldn’t find anything interesting enough in real life to warrant ruminations.
8. Picture It
I know a grade schooler who is besieged by stuck thoughts, too. He doesn’t have the life experience or the knowledge to know that these thoughts aren’t real, so when they say, “You can’t do your homework because you’re stupid,” he panics, throws pencils, shouts some crazy stuff, and exhibits bizarre behavior because he is convinced that he can’t do his homework because he is stupid. Watching this temper tantrum is helpful for me because it serves as a display of what’s going on inside my head, and when I can visualize it, I see how ridiculous it all looks.
9. Admit Powerlessness
If I have tried every technique I can think of and am still tormented by the voices inside my head, I simply cry Uncle and concede to the stuck thoughts. I get on my knees and admit powerlessness to my wonderful brain biochemistry. I stop my efforts to free myself from the obsessions’ hold and allow the ruminations to be as loud as they want and to stay as long as they want because, as I said in the first point, I know they will eventually go away.
Posted originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.
I am taking life one minute at a time after attempting suicide by taking 133 klonopin in November. I go to A.A. meetings for a week and then stop for weeks. I am embarrassed for relapsing after having 3 yrs. clean and sober. I see a therapist and psychiatrist. I take a mood stabilizer and antidepressant as well as a non natcotic sleep aid.was diagnosed Bipolar 1 in 1986 at the age of 26. I began self medicating at the age of 13. I am tired of self obsessing but end up doing it anyway. I read your book “Beyond Blue”. I also have read other books such as, “This Close To Happy” by Daphne Merkin,” and An American’s Resurrection ” by Eric C. Arauz. I also have other books that my weekly Mood Disorder group peer counselor recommends. I have not had a drink or drug since October. I have substituted food for drugs and have gained 20 lbs since Christmas. I am obsessed with reading about writers, poets, etc., who have killed themselves. I read “Jacob’s Ladder” which was heartbreaking and brave.
Oops, I guess I pressed submit before word corrections. Oh well, letting go of my obsession for finishing my story. All I know is that I feel useless and undeserving of love. I am not religious. I need to hold tight but I make it difficult. I want to feel good again without being manic. Thank you Theresa.
Hugs to you Elena. You are not alone. xo
Hi Elena, it will be okay. It is a terrible ride but eventually it will pass. Please take one day at a time.
I am always thrilled to get your latest writing on ways to cope or the latest mind drama you are experiencing. You are such an inspiration. And just knowing we all share similar biochemistry is so so reassuring. You well know what it is to suffer. I wish for you less of this as time moves on. One thing that used to help me during the worst of times would be reminding myself to just be love and to just accept what is.
Much gratitude and love,
Seems like this day was a microcosm of many past times when I became unwound. Often over a minor infraction, I sensed was directed at me personally. Anger first response, lash out or tell myself it will pass, either avenue is hard to grasp, so I tell myself to let go and let GOD. My mother loved LET IT BE song , it seemed to come natural for her, and I feel like I am beginning to witness this growth of wisdom in myself. So that said, this particular evening I am content. The best to you all who understand my plight.
Thank you much for this Therese!
Thoughtful comment: People use this to cure mental health with http://bit.ly/2F5kNyQ
I really connected with this article. I’m so glad there’s stuff like this out there, because so many people suffer from obsessive thoughts that get in between them and actually enjoying life. For many years, I would find myself in these outwardly totally ideal, wonderful situations and be unable to actually enjoy them because of thoughts in my head I couldn’t let go of.
I actually just wrote an article about this, for any who are interested: http://obsessivelythinking.com/2018/02/26/how-obsessive-thoughts-ruin-life/
Let’s keep spreading awareness and shine a purifying light on these happiness-killing thoughts.
Spot on! These 9 tips are all perfect and timely. The pain of anxiety in the chest feels exactly like a broken heart. I’ve been married for 18 years to my beautiful wife and we have 5 amazing children, but I’m terribly afraid my wife is done with me. My bouts with stuck thoughts and my crazy imagination of negative storylines has plagued me my whole life and now 18 years of marriage. We have had so many amazingly happy times in our marriage, but the rough times seem to be outweighing all the good, which is taking a greater toll on my anxiety/broken heart. With increased pain comes deeper ruts and thicker mire for my stupid imaginations to get even more stuck. It is a vicious cycle with no happy end. I know I can utilize these 9 tips for managing my heart ache and “stuck thoughts”. Thank you Therese for using your hard fought battle of life to help others.
Hello Therese, I am a first timer to your site. I have struggled with depression for over 20 years and the posts, information, and the empathy that you express on this site are such a treasure for a person who is looking for guidance, hope. I will even admit that I use it for distraction which when one is depressed is a valid way of getting through part of the day. I am so thankful for your efforts and know that it does help people, myself and others, on a daily basis.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and your wisdom and new information.
Depression is real.
Hi Theresa, I really need your help. This stucking of thoughts and faces in my head doesn’t seem to go away. To an extent that they now influence me in social gatherings, and even workplace. I feel so embarrassed. Is there any medication that can help.