Obsessions are a glitch in the brain whereby a thought gets stuck. They are somewhat like a record on old-style record players where the needle would get caught in a groove and the same patch of music would play over and over until you moved the needle. We can think of obsessions as doubts or worries that get caught like that in an endless loop playing on and on in our mind. It’s a miserable, but common occurrence for people who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or when someone becomes overly anxious, worried or depressed. Highly sensitive and perfectionist individuals are also subject to obsessing. Here are a set of tools we can use to circumventing these brain glitches and STOP OBSESSING. They have helped many others; I hope they help you too.
1. Move the needle.
When you notice that you are obsessing, call to mind the metaphor of the record player needle that’s stuck in a groove and notice that you need to move the needle onto the next groove. It’s like a hiccup, and usually there is some particular trigger, a particular fear or doubt, that has stalled your thinking. What was it? Once you notice what sparked this brain glitch, ask yourself:
– Is this actually something to be concerned about? Sometimes the answer is yes. There is an actual problem you need to do something about or take care of. Figure out what you need to do and do it. If you don’t have enough information to do what needs to be done, seek out whatever you need to know and then take care of it. If the obsession returns after you’ve done what you can, remind yourself as many times as needed that you have taken care of your concern.
Often of course there is not actually anything that needs taking care of. Instead your worries are the result of thinking errors. Dr. David Burns identifies 15 common thinking errors that can lead to obsessions. These errors are distortions like the scratch on a record or CD. We can never make enough sense of them because they truly don’t make sense, no matter how much we obsess about them. Check out these Common Thinking Errors) to see if any of them apply to what you are obsessing about. If so, admit your error and correct your thinking. If you can’t find a way to do that, ask your counselor to help you.
– Is it something I can do anything about? Sometimes we obsess about things we can do absolutely nothing we can do about. We cannot prevent there ever being an earthquake, for example, or undo something that happened in the past like not having paid attention, slipping and breaking an ankle and not being able to attend an event we were expected at. We can take precautions and we can make corrections and amends. So do what is possible to safeguard against disasters and correct past errors; then if obsessions reoccur, repeatedly assure yourself you have done what you can and need not concern yourself further. Be insistent about it.
Simply put, if something needs to be done and you can do it, take action. Do it. If not, it’s time to move the needle to the next groove and get on with your life. The ideas that follow are ways to help do that.
2. Rename and reframe.
When you notice that you are stuck on a repetitive thought, concern or worry that goes nowhere, assertively rename` it for what it is, “This is an obsession speaking. It is a symptom of my brain. It is not me.” Then refocus your attention to engage in something pleasant or constructive in the here and now. Do this repeatedly if the obsession recurs. If you find this difficult to do, try setting a time limit on how long before you’ll let yourself engage in that thought again (i.e. 15 minutes, until lunch, etc.), switch to one of the other approaches below or ask your counselor for help learn to use this approach. It’s called Response Prevention and research has shown it to be an effective way to master obsessions.
3. Set up a “Worry Time.”
Obsessions are like rude unwelcome visitors. They tend to intrude and interrupt at times we don’t want them around. They interfere in our lives and keep us from concentrating and focusing on normal daily activities. So one way to manage obsessions is to schedule a time of day to address worries and ruminate without disrupting your life, just as you would make an appointed time for visitors to come by instead of just dropping in. When you begin obsessing at other times, you can tell yourself, “Sorry, this not the time for that. You’ll have to wait until 8 in the evening, when I’ll give you, My Brain, 15 minutes to obsess your heart out.” If you fear you won’t remember what you need to worry about, jot it down so you can bring it back to mind if you wish at the appointed time. This is especially helpful at night when you want to sleep. You can make a note of anything you might otherwise dwell on and if it pops up repeatedly remind yourself it’s on the list to take up at the set time tomorrow so you can put your mind to rest for now. Sometimes by putting worries off like this somehow they aren’t worries when you get back to them.
4. Humor yourself.
Humor is a wonderful tool for redirecting our thoughts and lifting ourselves out of depression, anxiety and negativity. It eases our fears and relaxes and comforts us. If we shift our perspective just a little, it’s possible to see that there is something somewhat humorous about a broken record playing in our brain. If we can laugh at our brain glitches, they can’t drive us insane. So make a game of it. “Opps, it’s heeeeeeeeeeeeerrre again! The needle just slipped.” Joke with the obsession “Caught you this time!” Exaggerate it a bit until it’s really silly. Or set it to a goofy lilting tune that makes you smile. Next thing you know you may find you mind has gone on to something else.
5. Zap it, dump it, or dead end it.
To cut off obsessions some people find it helpful to literally zap” them away by wearing a rubber band around their wrist, and giving the band little snap every time an obsessive thoughts pops up. It becomes a reminder to let that thought go. Another technique some people like is to write out the obsession on a piece of paper. Then crinkle it up and literally throwing it out. Or, when you notice the obsessive thought reoccurring, try visualizing a big red stop sign superimpose over the thoughts in your mind. Look at the sign! Notice “This is a dead end.” Then stop.
6. Find the lesson.
Often our obsessions focus on mistakes we’ve made. We think we’ve messed up and start berating ourselves over and over again for not having doing it right. This is especially true if our boss, loved ones or other people were involved and hurt unintentionally. When this is what lies at the heart of your obsession, ask yourself: What is the lesson here? What can I learn from this? Describe the lesson in a simple one sentence, i.e. “When I came in with my complaints I didn’t think about the fact my boss had been ill before dumping them all on his desk.” Then decide if you ever want to do what you did again. If not, identify how you’ll never do and apologize, of course. With those two things done, should you begin obsessing again, remind yourself repeatedly “I took care of that. I know how I will handle that from now on.”
7. Forgive yourself.
After you’ve learned a lesson from something you were obsessing about, it’s time to forgive yourself for whatever you did, knowing you will not be doing it again. No one can be perfect. Of courses that is hard for perfectionists to accept. Perfectionists tend to be natural ruminators. In fact perfectionism has even been defined be some as a refusal to let oneself move ahead. It can become a endless, dead end loop in many a brain glitch. So if you’ve taken care of the matter and learned a lesson from it, concentrate on the insights gained and to let go of the rest. To do otherwise is to being mean to yourself.
8. Imagine if you had to live with the worst.
Often our worries are about the future, something we fear might happen, and we get stuck in the fear. Of course we can take steps to avoid undesired outcomes in the future but we can never be absolutely positive something negative won’t happen. That is why telling ourselves that everything will be alright is usually no help at all. Taking a minute to ask, “What’s the worst that can actually happen? How could I live with that?” can often relieve the fearful trigger fueling your obsession. For example, let’s say you are obsessing about whether you might have to go to the hospital again if your illness returns. What is the worst thing could happen? You could lose your job; then lose your home? That would be very sad, but as you think about it even if that did happen, you could go on. You could find another less stressful job. You might qualify for disability. You could sell your home and move elsewhere. Even the worst could be alright.
10. Reel it in.
Sometimes an obsession can take on a life of its own. A slight event can become a something insurmountable, a small detail, a huge issue, a minor mistake or criticism a 150-page dissertation on your flaws and inadequacies. There may be usually some cornel of truth in there but the obsession flies off into sci-fi fantasyland. When you hear your obsessions flying off into sci-fi territory, reel them back to fit into reality.
11. Interrupt and out do.
One up your intrusive obsessions. Be equally rude and interrupt them. Talk back to them, i.e. “Excuse me!” Sling questions at your obsessive thoughts. “How specifically do you know that?” “According to whom is that true?” “Always?” “Never?” “As compared to what?” “What prevents you from seeing things differently?” Toss out such interrogation forcefully. Throw them back with momentum. Become a good debater. Out debate your obsessions with facts, logical arguments, and rational conclusions.
12. Stay here and now.
Obsessions are in our mind not in the outside world. They are thoughts and thoughts are not real. They dwell in the past, future or imagination. They take our attention away from the present and prevent us from thinking and living in; the NOW. When our attention is riveted in the moment, we’re not thinking of what bad things did happen or could happen in the future. To get out of your head and into the present, turn to your senses. Start with taking a deep At-Ease or belly breath. Then direct your attention to what you can see, hear and touch in the immediate environment. Listen for the sounds around you. Observe the specific objects or people around you. Notice colors, light, movement. Experience the feeling of your feet on the floor, the texture of the chair cushion beneath your hand. Let you attention drift to the things around you that you find most interesting or appealing. Become curious about or engaged with something present and pursue interacting with what attracts you.