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How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts

Is Your Brain Being "Hijacked" by Stress and Anxiety? Here's How to Know For Sure

Your brain should not be your own worst enemy, but stress and anxiety can often make this the case. If you're constantly stressing about even the least worrisome things, Cheryl Gerson at YourTango lists ways to calm your mind and ease the vicious mental cycle of rumination.

You don't have to be a victim of your own mind.

The mental health issues of anxiety, stress, and depression go hand-in-hand with overthinking and rumination, which is where your brain puts your fears, worries, and anxieties on an endless loop. The word rumination comes from Latin, meaning "to chew over." Some animals, like cows, are called "ruminants" because they chew their cud after regurgitating it. Picture that.

Imagine an attractive, capable, artistic woman who cannot stop her obsessive, self-loathing thoughts. She is in agony. And any attempts to reason with her don't relieve her never-ending cycle of negative thoughts. Whenever she looks inward, the litany of her flaws expands, and she's unable to stop overthinking them.

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Does this sound familiar?

Part of the problem with rumination is that when you suffer from it, you can't recognize it as a symptom — you see it as meaningful thought.

There's always a grain of truth in the problem. You can almost solve your dilemma, which makes it easier to fall back into the loop and keep worrying about it.

You don't recognize that the swirling thoughts are the problem. Your own hijacked thinking patterns are making you feel crazy.

Your mind is never entirely quiet. It's full of drifting thoughts about yourself. A piece of memory, the sound of a car on the street, what's for dinner, the party next week . . . When you're not focused on a task, your mind does a kind of ordinary housekeeping, both conscious and unconscious.

Some of this can be a creative "percolating" that makes useful connections (those "Eureka!" moments). Some of it is worry, when you torture yourself with fears for the future based on painful memories of the past.

It's something everyone does from time to time, but for those who regularly ruminate, it's a real problem.

Is it a problem with a solution? Yes and no. It's like a chronic disease that is always there, in the background, even when it's basically in remission. What you can do is learn to live with it more comfortably.

First and foremost, you have to recognize your rumination as a symptom. It's something you suffer from when your anxiety or depression is active. It's hard to recognize that, though. It just seems so . . . reasonable. So real. So much a part of yourself.

Recognizing rumination as a symptom begins to separate it from your picture of your true self. It becomes something you "have," rather than something you "are." Once you know it's something you have, you can begin to work with it.

The wandering mind is fertile ground for rumination. A recent study demonstrated that people are happier when they're thinking about what they're doing.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But mental habits are very hard to break, and even your brain needs some "down" time to wander around, to do that "percolating" and other mental housework.

To accomplish a better balance, you have to retrain your brain, and retraining your brain begins with noticing.

Practice paying attention — to the task at hand, the people you're with, the thoughts in your head. Notice what's going on. Notice how your different brain states feel. Notice your mood when you're focused, and when you're day-dreaming.

When you notice, give yourself credit. Never, never take progress for granted. Every step is hard-won and worthy of attention. If all you can do is say to yourself, "I'm ruminating," that's a big step.

Enlist family and friends in the effort. You may be surprised at how aware they are of your rumination. You're not really "there" when your mind is hijacked. Tell them that they can help by noticing when you go down that rabbit hole. Try to take them at their word when they remind you of times when everything worked out just fine.

Pay attention to physical sensations. Your body is stored with memories of times when you felt pleasure and joy. You can access those memories with taste, touch, and smell.

Hear the birdsong. Listen to "your" music. Better yet, sing along. Singing affects the brain differently than ordinary speech and is rich with authentic emotion. When it's meaningful to you, it also takes you to true memories and keeps you away from the torture of scary, unknown predictions of the future.

Develop a compassionate attitude toward yourself and your efforts. I promise, you came by rumination honestly. Perhaps it was a condition your mother had, or you were dealing with someone so critical that you began to focus on being perfect. Treat yourself as well as you would treat a beloved child.

And always remember that the life you long for comes with patience and kindness.

Cheryl Gerson is a licensed clinical social worker and board-certified diplomate, specializing in treatment for anxiety. She has been in private practice in New York City for over 25 years. Call her for an in-depth conversation about the right treatment for you.

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Image Source: Pexels / Kat Jayne
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