I recently went through a personal crisis and found myself obsessing about it. Every waking minute was consumed with thoughts about the situation. I went over it and over it, all day, everyday until I thought I was losing my mind. While individuals with generalized anxiety disorder are prone to constant worry, everyone can fall prey to ruminating or obsessing when faced with a difficult situation. You may replay and conversation over and over, thinking about what you could have said. You may focus on a situation, going focusing on what you did wrong. You may spend every minute worrying about how a situation is going to end.
While in my situation there was a specific event that precipitated my obsessions, it was no less debilitating. I started making careless errors at work because my ability to concentrate was gone. I was irritable, snapping at my family because I couldn’t focus on anything except my own intrusive thoughts. Somehow, I knew, I had to get a handle on my ruminating, to get back to being able to think of something, anything else. While the following is not necessarily reflective of any medical science or research, these steps helped me to refocus my thoughts and energies and may help you as well.
Decide what you are ruminating about. Often, as you obsess about a situation, your thoughts wander and your worry moves from topic to topic. However, normally, your obsessing revolves around one single item. Although it is hard to narrow it down, figuring out what that one item is can help. For example, imagine you are worried about losing your job. You might obsess over a mistake you made, a conversation with your boss, the financial stability of the company. But your real worry is that you may lose your job. Try to sum up your ruminations into one single sentence. “I am worried that I may lose my job.” By doing this, you gain control by being able to address the real situation.
Examine your thinking process. What types of anxiety producing thought processes are you using as you obsess about your situation. For example, many people with anxiety use an “all or nothing” type of thought process. Using the example of being worried about losing your job, you may be focusing on one specific problem, assuming that the sum of all your years of work is defined by that single event. By doing so, you are ignoring all of what you have accomplished. Remember, most situations are not defined by one single moment but instead a result of cumulative events. Try to balance your thinking by writing down a list of what you have accomplished.
Allow yourself time to ruminate. Your obsessing thoughts aren’t just going to disappear no matter how hard you try. Instead, accept that you have the right to worry about your situation, but limit the time you will do so. Give yourself a short period of time, maybe 15 or 30 minutes, a day to worry. During this time, write down your obsessive thoughts. If you find yourself worrying about the situation at other times of the day, remind yourself that it needs to wait until your specified worry time.
Use a journal. Writing down your thoughts can help you gain control over your ruminations. Using a “Worry Script” may help you to relieve your anxiety, especially if you are worrying about events that have not yet happened.
Write down pleasant thoughts. When you find yourself ruminating and tell yourself “STOP” what are you going to think about? Sometimes you need specific direction. Having a list of pleasant thoughts can help you move from the rumination to thinking about something else. You might list things like an upcoming vacation, spending the weekend with friends, going out to dinner with your partner. Make sure your list includes situations you are looking forward to or pleasant memories. When ruminating, it is hard to “change the subject” and using a list gives you specific topics to think about.
Use behavioral techniques to help stop ruminating. One woman I know kept a rubber band on her wrist and would snap it every time she began ruminating to remind her to stop. Another used visualization, imagining herself driving and getting to a stop sign. When she reached the stop sign, she needed to stop ruminating.
Focus on the lesson learned. Every situation we go through has the potential to teach us something. Think about what you are ruminating about and see how to use it to improve yourself. For example, if you are ruminating about a mistake you made at work, think about steps you can take to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen again. By looking at how you can improve, you begin focusing on the positive of the situation rather than the negative.
Talk about your worries with a trusted friend or relative. Often, when we talk out the worries, we can begin to see it from a different perspective. Looking at the situation from different points of view can help you find options for solving your problem.
Seek professional help. If your obsessive thoughts are interfering with your daily life, it may be time to talk with a professional therapist or medical professional.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.