How to Deal With Repetitive, Obsessive Thinking

Stop punishing yourself. You don’t deserve it.

Jim Sullivan
Feb 3 · 12 min read
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Obsession is a double-edged sword…

With the right mindset, it can help build great cities, produce stunning pieces of art and change the world for the better.

With the wrong mindset, it has the power to destroy people’s happiness, radically change your personality and even kill you.

I wish I could say I was one of those obsessively-minded people that used his curse (and that’s exactly what it is, a curse) to help change lives for the better. Perhaps invent something that helps brings mankind back from the brink of destruction.

I wish I was that guy.

Unfortunately, when you’ve been dealing with obsessive tendencies for as long as I have (from the age of 12 or 13) and you get stuck in a very specific train of thought, it can be hard to change the direction of your pain to something much more positive and productive.

Instead, it consumes you on a daily basis.

But before I go any further, I want to clarify exactly what I mean by Obsessive Thinking.

The emphasis is on the Thinking part — I’m lucky enough not to have been burdened with any form of physical OCD. Not that I’m aware of, anyway.

So there’s no flicking light switches on and off 57 times in my world and, if this is something you have to deal with in your own world, I’m truly sorry.

But my issues with obsessive thinking are purely of the mental kind.

In short, Obsessive Thinking it is the repetitive mulling-over of past events that stand out in our minds.

They can stand out for any number of reasons, there’s no set of specific circumstances that define what one person or another obsesses over.

But for some context, here are a few of the real-life circumstances that always catch me out:

  • Someone says something that you suspect may have held a double meaning, one intended to act as an insult.
  • Someone says something you know for a fact was meant as an attack and you can’t let it go.
  • Someone does something that causes you harm or distress that you know could have been easily avoided. Or…
  • You do something stupid or harmful and can’t let it go.

This is when the repetition sets in…

You begin thinking about the event over and over and over again. To the point where you probably even forget the context of the original situation. It just becomes a set of words, sounds and images in your mind that play continuously, on-loop, like a broken film reel.

At its worst? It’s a living hell.

There have been times when I’ve not been able to sleep properly for days because of obsessive thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been times when I’ve not wanted to sleep for days because I know the worst of the thoughts and images arrive the second I close my eyes.

On top of this, usually the only time I’m able to let go of an obsessive thought (at least temporarily) is with it being replaced with another, more intense, more significant event and/or thought.

Like clockwork.

If this is all sounding very familiar to you, then you’ll probably know that this kind of thinking has very close ties to another very well-known mental health problem:

Anxiety.

While I’ve grown weary of using the word (It’s overused to death) it’s just about the most accurate word to use to describe the precursor to obsessive thinking.

We think and overthink about similar events or situations because of their personal effect on us. We take things too seriously, take them to heart, when we really have no need to.

I’d be lying if I said I believed there was a be-all-end-all cure for these types of thoughts.

There’s not. But there are ways we can soften the blow.

So, if you are in the same boat as me and find yourself struggling with obsessive, repetitive thoughts daily, here are just a few methods that I’ve found in my own experience that might help you to put them to the back of your mind, at least, for a little while.

Spend more time on enjoyable activities

“Time flies when you’re having fun!”

I have absolutely no idea to whom this quote belongs, but they hit the nail on the head.

How many times have you been in the middle of a good book, engaging movie or mind-blowing video game, only to find that a solid 3 hours have passed in virtually no time at all?

We’ve all been there because it’s more than just a famous quote. It’s a scientific truth.

When our minds are occupied with doing something we enjoy (specifically, something we enjoy which leads to an accomplishment or achievement of some kind — like finishing a good book, or completing a video game) our brains’ sense of time totally flies out the window.

A study in Psychological Science concluded that people are far more likely to take less notice of the passage of time when focused on “goal orientated” activities, as highlighted in this article from Medical News Today.

Philip Gable, a Psychological Scientist from the University of Alabama, concluded:

“Although we tend to believe that time flies when we’re having a good time, these studies indicate what it is about the enjoyable time that causes it to go by more quickly. It seems to be the goal pursuit or achievement-directed action we’re engaged in that matters. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly, but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can.”

If this is the case, and I think it is, whenever a spell of obsessive thinking strikes, diving into an enjoyable activity is an ideal way to dissolve these thoughts and replace them with something much more welcome.

Hopefully whatever thought is pestering you will fade into obscurity and will be replaced with some much-needed endorphins, helping you return to a happier, less worrisome state of mind.

My personal favorite activity to kick these thoughts to the curb is heading to the gym, lacing up a pair of boxing gloves and hitting the heavy bag.

Hard. Hundreds of times.

This kind of physical activity isn’t just great for encouraging your brain’s positive chemical processes to take over (the release of adrenaline is particularly relieving), but it also requires a good balance of focus between both you’re stamina and amount/variety of punches thrown; All coming together to create the ultimate nasty-thought killer.

Give it a shot.

Meditation & Self-Reflection

Meditation has been steadily rising in popularity since its explosion way back in the 1980s.

What was once a regionally exclusive practice (originating in India around 5000–3,500 B.C.)has become one of the top methods of dealing with and eliminating stress and anxiety the world over.

In fact meditation has become such a powerful and widely-used tool that the meditation market is now estimated to be worth $2.08 Billion by the year 2022.

Plus, with the advancement of modern technology, there are now more meditation tutorials, both home video and online, and apps than you could ever possibly hope to work your way through.

In a traditional sense, meditation is limited to remaining in a seated position, focusing on your breathing and repeating a mantra to yourself several times until you reach a relaxed state.

“Om”, anyone?

Personally, I like to think meditation can be defined as whatever you want it to be. And it should certainly be defined as whatever method you find most helpful.

So, fear not: If crossing your legs and making a bunch of sounds you don’t understand doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in the clear.

I have found meditation infinitely helpful in my quest to quash unwanted obsessive thinking. But I’d never call my style of meditation “traditional” in any sense of the word.

Apart from focusing on my breathing. That tends to help.

Rather, I’ll lie myself down on my bed (No, not sit) and play a podcast or an audiobook on low-volume in the background whilst getting into a slow, steady rhythm of breathing and clearing my mind.

“Hey, isn’t that just listening to something to avoid thinking? That’s not meditation!”

Valid point. Although, in my case, the purpose of the podcast or audiobook is not to avoid noise (both the real and mental types of noise).

It is to reach and maintain a level of mental relaxation and emptiness with external distractions.

If you can calm your mind to the point where it is completely void of all thoughts, especially negative thoughts, even with a consistent commentary running in your ears, that’s real mental control.

I’ve found this works wonders for jamming out unwanted noise in your everyday life as well.

The world is so busy and loud nowadays, with stimulus coming at us from every direction, 24 hours a day, it’s an almost impossible task not to soak up at least some of the rubbish we don’t need or don’t want to hear.

This method will help you trim the fat.

Or, if you’d rather have something positive to focus on while you find yourself in this serene state, instead of emptying your mind completely use this time for a little self-reflection.

No dwelling on past events or the path untaken, though. Remember: This is all about relaxation and, more importantly, ensuring you maintain a healthy and positive state of mind.

Think about the things you did today. What made you happy? What made you feel good? How you can make tomorrow an even better day?

I spent way too many years continuously reflecting on all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, to the point it probably contributed to me becoming the way I am now more than any other factor.

When it comes time for meditation and self-reflection, which I recommend you do every day (even several times a day) for maximum results, make a conscious effort to focus on the positive and positive will become your natural state.

Speaking of focus…

Focus on the environment or intricate objects

In Better Call Saul, AMC and Netflix’s critically-acclaimed spin-off to the iconic and irreplaceable Breaking Bad, Chuck McGill (played to perfection by veteran American actor Michael McKean) believes he suffers from a very specific disorder which makes him physically vulnerable to electricity and electrical sources.

While this is in all likelihood attributable to a psychological issue rather than a physical one (I won’t spoil the true answer for you — watch the show!) in later episodes he adopts a tried and tested method to avoid acknowledging the presence of nearby electricity.

He chooses inanimate objects and focuses on their intricate qualities, listing them to quash the effect the electricity has on him or the effect he believes it has on him.

In reality, this is a very common practice used to help people dealing with repetitive, intrusive thoughts (specifically those of a traumatic nature) and those suffering from severe, debilitating anxiety.

It’s particularly helpful in helping those with anxiety disorders calm themselves in busy, public places.

While Chuck may be dealing with a condition that’s featured in a fictional setting, the positive effect this technique can have in calming your mind is very real.

I speak from experience and I can vouch for its success.

But it’s less of a distraction and more of a replacement — our brains are computers and, like all computers, can only manage so many primary objectives at once.

If one action begins using up power at the same time as another, your internal CPU will divert its attention away from one and onto the other.

That’s the best way I can make sense of it, anyway.

When your thoughts are becoming too much to bear and other techniques aren’t getting you anywhere, choosing a nearby item or items and honing in on their specificities won’t necessarily distract you, but will give your brain something else to focus its efforts on.

Think about its texture, how it feels, its weight, the sounds it makes, the size of it. As much as you can squeeze out of your object of choice.

Objects with fine, intricate details always work best.

In the past, I’ve used cars, paint cans, Christmas decorations, and countless others to bring myself back to calm focus.

If unwelcome thoughts begin troubling you, choose something close to hand and begin making your mental list to help get you through the spell.

It doesn’t work for everyone but, given enough mental devotion, it will push your negative thoughts elsewhere for the time being.

Consume visual media

This links directly back to our first point but is a valid inclusion on this list in itself.

The human mind is the single-greatest storytelling machine known to mankind.

(Sorry, Mr. King.)

The only problem is we don’t always have full control over the stories it tells us.

Anxiety, obsession, self-doubt, self-hatred, second-guessing, depressive episodes, and countless more thought processes are all things we’d usually like to avoid.

Yet these are often the feeling and emotions that hit us the hardest.

It’s a shame that the harshness of life always seems to have a greater impact than happiness, right?

Obsessive thinking occurs when we begin to lose ourselves in events that have already passed. Most of the time, events we’d like to permanently forget.

Thankfully, you have two prime weapons, already locked and loaded, ready to take obsessive thinking to war…

Your eyes.

The information our eyes acquire is the biggest contributing factor to our thought processes.

We’re inquisitive, interpreting machines by nature. So in times of great mental difficulty, keeping our eyes occupied can help keep our mind off of other, less-pleasant things.

Watching a movie, playing a video game, reading a book, walking the dog or even just enjoying a beautiful view.

All of the above and more can keep your peepers busy, so the stuff that’s going on behind your peepers keeps busy, too.

Movies have been said to have been particularly effective at creating welcome distractions from negative thoughts and emotions, including obsessive episodes.

Being a massive film buff, I’m definitely on-board with this theory.

As I said, our minds are story-telling machines. Which is perhaps why they’re able to both create and appreciate good storytelling.

When we become totally engrossed in a good story, all of our troubles become non-existent and the relief can even continue after the credits begin to roll.

Maybe that’s why so many people enjoy regular trips to the movies? Who knows.

Well, Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D. explores just how movies can help alleviate depressive episodes in this article from Psychology Today. She says:

“The visual and auditory components can stimulate emotions in powerful ways, providing the opportunity to engage fully with story, to get emotions out of your system, to stir empathy for the characters (and possibly for oneself) and perhaps even feel less alone in your situation.”

She offers a list of her personal recommendations. But given there’s so many movies out there with so many different themes, characters and meanings, there’s bound to be something to help you escape from whatever thoughts might be causing you pain. It’s all down to the individual.

In other words, I just gave you an excuse to start a Lord of the Rings marathon the next time you start overthinking…

Thank me later.

Seek professional help

This point speaks for itself and is about as obvious of a point you’ll find on any mental health article anywhere, so I’ll keep this short.

Reading all the self-help books in the world won’t do you any good if you’re like me and tend to respond well to the direct advice of another human being.

In-person, not in print.

I’m currently on a waiting list to see a counselor for the second time. My first round of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) was helpful, but it’s not always a permanent fix.

And that’s ok. Good things take time.

If the phrase “waiting list” sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you, depending on where you are in the world and the state of your country’s current relationship with mental health treatment, those who have the money to pay well for their treatment usually make their way up the ladder faster.

It’s sad but true.

But if you aren’t blessed with the appropriate funds for professional treatment right now, I’ve found great solace interacting with people suffering from similar conditions on social media groups, forums, and mental health charity websites.

There’s an avalanche of support online if you’re willing to reach out and grasp it with both hands.

If you’re coping with a similar mindset to me (which I’m guessing you are, if you’ve read this far) I hope you can use at least some of my advice to find some mental peace.

It’s worked for me in the past and I hope it can bring you the same comfort.

But I must warn you: Negative thoughts will never truly go away. But we can attempt to control how they affect us. It’s how we relate to them, and how we deal with them, that’s the true difference-maker.

The solution starts with you.

Best of luck.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Jim Sullivan

Written by

Full-time Content Writer. Mental Health, Self-Improvement, putting one word in front of the other. Coffee and cake tends to help!

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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