If you’re prone to obsessive thoughts there’s a good chance you’ve spent many an hour ruminating 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? Well, even though you proofread it at least five times before sending, you find yourself reading it over and over again for typos or mistakes.
For some people, obsessive thoughts are easy to dismiss as inconsequential. But for others, the anxious thoughts can play on a loop and disrupt the entire day. But how do you stop obsessing over certain thoughts? The good news is experts have advice for ways to break the pattern of obsessive thinking. Ahead, psychologists weigh in on useful tips and strategies for how best to stop obsessive thoughts. These coping mechanisms can help keep you from ruminating and allow you to stay focused on the present.
1. Write Down Your Worries
Dina Wirick, PhD, a licensed 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 judgment you trust, like a close friend or a therapist.
4. Try to Get to the Bottom of It
Molly Giorgio, PsyD, a Connecticut-based licensed clinical psychologist, 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. But remember, you don’t have to do it alone. Seeking out help from a mental health provider or therapist can be crucial in unpacking your obsessive thoughts and finding specific coping mechanisms that work best for you.
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 obsessive thoughts. But they may not work for everyone. When it comes to dealing with obsessive thinking, the right coping mechanisms can vary from person to person. “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.