controlling impulses

Stop Obsessing! Taming the Worry Wart and Rumination

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide March 12, 2008
  • It makes sense, doesn't it, that we often see obsessing and ruminating as part of living with ADHD? After all, most of us have hyperactive minds, if not bodies to match, and our brain needs to be in hyper mode much of the time. So if there's nothing particularly pressing to think about, then what's an ADHD brain to do? Obsess, of course!

     

    Having trouble making decisions is also a related ADHD brain torment, because once there's a choice to be made, we pull up every possible option to ruminate over. Just like we have a tendency to clutter our environment, we also find a way to clutter our minds.

     

    This is a true story- it took me six weeks to decide what color car to purchase. I agonized and obsessed over that decision, weighing the pros and cons of the final three choices I was considering. I'd ruled out black (boring), blue (too conservative), beige (see black) and red (police magnet). I was left with white, silver or grey.

     

    However, my last two cars were silver tones, so I needed a change. On the other hand, I only had to wash those cars three times a year, since it hid the dirt so well. On the other hand, every car on the street seems to be silver. On the other hand...well...you can see the obsessing process, right?

     

    I'm fortunate that my family is pretty easy going with my little quirks, for I forced them to look at my final choices at least three times. Well, maybe four. There they were, all lined up on the lot, those little shining beauties. The car salesman was pushing for the grey car, which I later found out was because it had been sitting on the lot the longest. When I nixed that one (give me some applause here- I got down to two choices!), he zeroed in on the white. So now it was between the white and the silver.

     

    My older daughter piped in that silver was totally boring. My younger daughter was more interested in which color interior would hide her future messes the best. But the consensus was to go with the white because the black details lent a nice contrast; a sharp, modern look.

     

    I made my final decision and with all the energy that went into that, you would have thought it was about whom I was going to marry. Three days later, I drove away in the sparkling white car- that- will- never- look - this -clean again - and within 24 hours, I cursed my decision. Why? Because white cars show every speck of dirt that lands on them. The salesman lied when I asked about that possibility, muttering something about how road dirt dries whitish grey and would not be noticeable on this white beauty. I think he was referring to Texas mud. However, I live in Michigan where dirt turns to dark and darker shades of brown. I bought the car three months ago and already have had to wash it more than three times. I think I'll report this guy.

     

    The point is, that the amount of energy I put into obsessing over the COLOR OF A CAR is, well, rather crazy. But I get into that mode all the time. When I used to cook (yes, "used to"), I'd obsess every day as to what I was going to prepare for dinner that night. That was one reason why I stopped cooking. The other was because no one would eat what I'd prepared.

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    Dr. Ned Hallowell and Sari Solden, ADHD authors and experts, write about the relationship between ADHD and obsessing. And I, too, see it all the time; not just in myself, but from many years of talking to adults with ADHD. Besides the fact that our brains seem to be in either full throttle speed or in a dazed, sluggish and sleepy mode, there's also the fact that we tend to hyperfocus. If we're lucky, hyperfocus mode allows us to put 1 million gazillion percent of our cognitive energy into doing something productive, like finishing a paper for school (the night before, of course- thank you adrenaline!), or getting lost in a novel. Or learning to play a new instrument. You know, doing something to the point where you have no clue what century you're living in or when you'd eaten your last meal.

     

    That's the plus side of hyperfocus.

     

    The down side is getting stuck in negative thoughts or, as I call it, "looping", like the car scenario above. "If I buy the silver car, I'll get bored. If I buy the blue car, I might hate it," etc.

     

    Obviously, the example above is quite minor in the scheme of things. But what about when we obsess over our hurt feelings? Or the idea that we could have made better decisions in life? Or getting stuck over broken relationships? One of the more common obsessions I see is getting sucked into our emotional state; getting stuck in our own anger, for example, until it literally eats us up alive. And even then, we can't seem to step out of that negativity.

     

    Dr. Hallowell, in his article, "Adult ADHD: 50 Tips on Management" explains it this way: "Something 'startles' your psychological system, a change or transition, a disappointment or even a success. The precipitant may be quite trivial. This "startle" is followed by a mini-panic with a sudden loss of perspective, the world being set topsy-turvy. You try to deal with this panic by falling into a mode of obsessing and ruminating over one or another aspect of the situation. This can last for hours, days, even months."

     

    How To Stop Obsessing

     

    First, it's important to recognize what is normal obsessing in the context of having ADHD- the whole "getting stuck" scenario- VS a comorbid condition seen with ADHD that might be a more serious form of obsessing/ruminating, such as in OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), anxiety or depression. In the latter examples, it would be important to bring this to the attention of a clinician who can help you with this, either through cognitive behavioral therapy or medication, or both. But with every day obsessing seen in ADHD, try:

     

    • Setting aside time once a day, if necessary, to allow yourself to obsess. Really get into it with all of your energy, even writing down your worries, if you'd like. The important part, though, is recognizing that once your time is up, you must promise yourself to let go of these thoughts till the next go-around.
    • Making lists of pros and cons when trying to make a decision.
    • Writing down your obsession, then having a ceremonial ritual of ripping the paper up and burning or burying it.
    • Finding other activities that you can turn to when you find yourself obsessing.
    • Examining the triggers and learning new strategies for stopping yourself before getting into a looping behavior.
    • Taking up meditation. In some forms of meditation, you are forced to repeat certain words- or mantras- which will make it almost impossible to obsess over your worries.

    All in all, know that obsessing and ruminating are simply part of having an ADHD brain. And if it becomes more than a bit irritating or causes conflict, consider getting professional advice to help you in dealing with this often maddening behavior.

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