For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with obsessive thoughts, with severe ruminations that can interfere with daily life. My thoughts get stuck on something and like a broken record, repeat a certain fear over and over and over again until I scream out loud, “STOP IT!”
The French call Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder “folie de doute,” the doubting disease. That’s what obsessions are — a doubt caught in an endless loop of thoughts.
But even those not diagnosed with OCD can struggle with obsessions. In fact, I have yet to meet a depressive who doesn’t ruminate, especially in our age of anxiety. Every day gives sensitive types like myself plenty of material to obsess about. So I’m constantly pulling out the tools that I’ve acquired over time to win against my thoughts, to develop confidence — the antidote for doubt — to take charge of my brain, and to stop obsessing. I hope they work for you too.
1. Name the beast.
My first step to tackle obsessions: I identify the thought. What is my fear? What is my doubt? I make myself describe it in one sentence, or, if I can, in a few words. For example, when I was released from the hospital’s psych ward the first time, I was paranoid that my co-workers would find out. I obsessed about it and obsessed about it and obsessed some more. Finally, I named the fear: I am afraid that if my co-workers find out that I was hospitalized with severe depression that they won’t respect me anymore, and they won’t assign me any projects. There it is. There’s the beast. Phew. I named it, and by doing so, I can rob it of some of its power over me.
2. Find the distortion
Once I have named the fear or doubt, I try to see if I can file it under any of the forms of distorted thinking that Dr. David Burns describes in his bestseller “Feeling Good,” like all-or-nothing thinking (black and white categories), jumping to conclusions, magnification (exaggeration), or discounting the positive (none of my accomplishments count). My obsession almost always involves at least three forms of distorted thoughts. So I then consider his 10 ways of untwisting distorted thinking to help me to undermine my obsession. For example, using his “cost-benefit analysis” method, I examine how my fear of my co-workers finding out abound my depression is benefiting me in some way and how it is costing me. In the end, I decided to tell them because I realized that I wanted to write about my experience, and that was worth the risk of having them reject me based on my diagnosis of manic depression.
3. Pencil it in.
Awhile back, when I was especially tormented by some obsessions, my therapist told me to schedule a time of day where I was free to ruminate. That way, she said, when you get an obsession, you can simply tell yourself, “Sorry, it’s not time for that. You’ll have to wait until 8 in the evening, when I give you, My Head, 15 minutes to obsess your heart out.” I remember recording in my journal everything I was dwelling on for 20 minutes every night: that I was a horrible mom, an inadequate writer, that no one liked me, and so on. Eric was reading a book next to me and asked me what I was writing. I handed over my journal and he shrieked: “Yikes and I was just thinking about what to have for breakfast tomorrow.”
4. Laugh at it.
Alas, that story brings me to another tool: humor. As I wrote in “9 Ways Humor Heals,” laughter can make almost any situation tolerable. And you have to admit, there is something a little funny about a broken record in your brain. If I couldn’t laugh at my depression and anxiety and severe ruminations, I would truly go insane. I mean, even more insane than I already am. And that’s way insane. I have a few people in my life who struggle with obsessions in the same way I do. Whenever it gets so darn noisy in my brain that I can’t stand it, I call up one of them and say, “They’re baaaaaack…….” And we laugh.
5. Snap out of it.
I mean literally snap out of it. That’s what I did for a few months when I couldn’t take the obsessions. I’d wear a rubber band around my wrist, and every time my thoughts would turn to an obsession, I’d snap it as a reminder to let go. By bedtime my wrists were a tad red. Another behavioral technique you could try is to write out the obsession on a piece of paper. Then crinkle it up and throw it away. That way you have literally thrown out your obsession. Or you could try visualizing a stop sign. When your thoughts go there, remember to stop! Look at the sign!
6. Pull over.
One of the most helpful visualizations for me has been to imagine that I am driving a car. Every time my thoughts revert back to an obsession, I have to pull over on the shoulder, because my car is misaligned. It’s dragging right. Once I’ve stopped, I ask myself: Do I need to change anything? Can I change anything? Can I amend this situation somehow? Do I have anything I need to do here to find peace? I spend a minute asking myself the questions. Then, if I don’t have anything to fix, it’s time for me to get my car back on the road again. This is basically a visualization of the Serenity Prayer. I am trying to decipher between what I can’t change and what I can. Once I have made the distinction, it’s time to start driving again.
7. Learn the lesson.
I often obsess about my mistakes. I know I messed up, and I’m beating myself over and over again for not doing it right the first time, especially when I have involved other people and hurt them unintentionally. If that’s the case, I will ask myself: What is the lesson here? What have I learned? Just like the first step — naming the obsession — I will describe the lesson that I have absorbed in one sentence or less. For example, I recently reprimanded David for something he didn’t do. I automatically believed a fellow mom’s appraisal of the situation. I didn’t think to ask David first. As I discovered more details, I realized that David didn’t do anything wrong. I felt horrible. I jumped to conclusions and didn’t believe the best about my son. So here’s the lesson: I won’t jump so fast the next time someone accuses my son of something; I’ll get the facts first.
8. Forgive yourself.
After you take away the lesson, you have to forgive yourself. That’s the hard part. Especially for perfectionists. And guess what? Perfectionists are natural ruminators! Julia Cameron writes in this “The Artist’s Way”:
Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.
Forgiving yourself means to concentrate on the insights gained from mistakes, and to let go of the rest. Um. Good luck with that.
9. Imagine the worst.
I know this seems wrong — like it would produce even more anxiety. But imagining the worst can actually relieve the fear triggering an obsession. For example, when I was hospitalized the second time for severe depression, I was petrified that I would never be able to work again, to write again, to contribute anything to society. Done. Let me get into my nightgown and bury myself somewhere. I was literally shaking with anxiety I was so scared of what my illness could do to me. I called my friend Mike and rattled off to him all my fears.
“Uh huh,” he said. “So what?”
“What do you mean, ‘So what’? My life as I know it might be over,” I explained.
“Yah, and so what,” he said. “You can’t write. No biggie. You can’t work. No biggie. You have your family who loves you and accepts you. You have Vickie and I who love you and accept you. Stay home and watch ‘Oprah’ all day. I don’t care. You’d still have people in your life who love you.”
You know what? He was right. I went there in my mind: to the worst case scenario … me on disability, hospitalized a few times a year, unable to do so much of what I did before. And there I was. Still standing. With a full life. A different life, yes, but a life. And I was okay. Really okay. I felt such freedom in that moment.
10. Put it on hold.
Sometimes I start to obsess about a situation for which I don’t have enough information. Example: Awhile back I was worried about a family member in a dangerous situation. I dwelled and dwelled on it, and didn’t know what to do. Then Eric said, “We don’t have all the information yet that we need to make a decision or pursue a plan. So it’s useless to worry.” Therefore I put my obsession “on hold,” like it was a pretty lavender dress at a boutique that I saw and wanted but didn’t have enough money to buy. So it’s there, waiting for me, when I get enough dough–or, in the case of my family member, enough data.
11. Dig for the cause.
So often the object of the obsession isn’t the real issue. That object or person or situation is masking the deeper issue we’re too afraid to face. A friend of mine obsessed and obsessed about his fence in his backyard because — unlike his wife’s illness, a problem over which he has no control — he could manage the fence. So he went out with his measuring stick day in and day out until he could finally surrender to his situation. A woman I used to work with fantasized about a colleague whom she was attracted to. It was an especially stressful time for her — she was caring for four young kids plus her mother–and daydreaming about running away with her co-worker gave her the escape she needed. Her obsessions weren’t about her co-worker, however, as much as they were about her need for some fun relief in her life.
12. Reel it in.
We all know how fast obsessions can take on a life of their own. A slight hitch in a project becomes a massive hurdle, a friendly gesture by a friend turns ugly and threatening, and a minor criticism from a colleague turns into a 150-page dissertation about your flaws, inadequacies — you know, everything that’s bad about you and why you shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Granted, buried within an obsession are usually pieces of truth — part of the rumination is based in reality. But other parts are way off in fantasyland — with about as much accuracy as there is in a juicy celebrity tabloid story: “Celine Dion meets ET for drinks.” That’s why you need some good friends that will help you separate fact from fiction. When I call up my friend Mike and tell him my latest obsession, he usually says something like this: “Wow. Reel it in, Therese. Reel it in…You are way out this time.” And then we laugh at how far out I got.
13. Interrupt the conversation.
Here’s where a bad habit can come in handy. Are you always interrupting people? Can’t help it? You get curious about a detail in someone’s story, and you want to hear more about that, not the end of the story? That’s how an obsession works in your brain — like a conversation over coffee: “This is why he hates me, and this, too, is why he hates me, and did I mention why he hates me? I’m sure he hates me.” Practice some of your rude manners and interrupt. You don’t even have to say, “Excuse me.” Ask a question or throw out another topic. By doing so, you catch the snowball as it’s accumulating matter, and you throw it back with momentum because, as most of us learned in physics, a body in motion stays in motion. Now the conversation goes something like: “These are the reasons he should like me, and this, too, is why he should like me, and did I mention that he probably likes me? I’m sure he likes me.”
14. Stay in the present.
I grit my teeth when people tell me this. Because I’m a ruminator and we ruminators operate in past and future. We don’t think NOW. But, this advice is SO true. When you are grounded in the moment, you’re not thinking of what bad things can happen to you in the future, or dwelling on the mistakes of your past. To get me into the present, I start with my senses. I try to hear only the noise that surrounds me — cars, birds, dogs barking, church bells — because if I give myself the assignment of listening to the actual sounds around me, I can’t obsess on a fear. Likewise, I concentrate on seeing what’s in front of me. At the very moment. Not in 2034. If I’m supposed to be playing baseball with David but my mind is on work, I try to bring it back to the baseball game, where it should be.