Breaking the сycle: overcoming obsessive thoughts and ruminations

Rumination is like hitting the replay button on anxious or gloomy thoughts or memories in your head, over and over. Even if nothing's really wrong, these thoughts can still stress you out. It's like chewing mental gum, but it only makes your mood worse.

Here are some typical examples:

— You keep going over a crummy chat you had with your boss, friend or family member, and you feel just as bummed as you did then;

— You're stuck thinking about what went wrong in your past relationship with an ex, and it's like you can't move on;

— You're freaking out about flunking that next test, even though you've been hitting the books like crazy;

— You're convinced your headache is a sign of a brain tumor, even after the doc gave you the all-clear and you got a clean bill of health from the MRI.

Here are a few techniques that may help you to ease the tension on the spot. You can try all of them or choose something that work best for you:

  • Set aside some time for overthinking. If you catch yourself dwelling on stuff for too long, it might start to bug you that you're doing it. That's what they call meta-worry. It just amps up the overthinking and stress. Don't go all out trying to avoid overthinking. Give those negative thoughts like 10-30 minutes to roam around your head. Who knows, you might feel a tad better afterward. It sounds weird, but letting yourself feel the bad stuff – worrying, freaking out, whatever – actually eases some of the inner tension. But don't let it drag on forever.

  • Focus on what's happening right now. What do you see? How's the room temperature? Any smells? Any sounds? Got any snacks nearby you can munch on and focus on the flavor? This trick's part of the mindfulness game. It's handy for putting overthinking on pause since those thoughts usually deal with the past or future. Tuning into the present sensations helps you get into the now.

  • Postpone thoughts. This technique is most often used when dealing with anxiety. You have a pain in your side, and thoughts about "That Disease That Must Not Be Named" start creeping into your head. You look for symptoms online and listen to your body. Try setting a time for worry: "At 7:00 for half an hour, I'll think about my ailment, but until then, I can..." – here you switch to an attention-shifting technique.

  • Paradoxical intention. Deliberately think forbidden thoughts. It works well with insomnia: instead of lying in bed and trying to fall asleep at all costs, try getting up and doing something. That is, meet the lack of sleep with open arms.

If you're considering seeking professional help, there are a few psychotherapy approaches worth looking into:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This approach focuses heavily on tackling thoughts. It helps identify and challenge negative thought patterns, replacing them with healthier ones.

ABC Journal:

One popular CBT technique, championed by founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman, is keeping a special ABC diary and tracking events (A), related beliefs (B), and the consequences of these beliefs (C) in it. You can write in a physical diary or make notes digitally. Although the diary is called ABC, psychiatrist Richard Ragnarson's technique advises keeping it in a different order: as a sequence of C→A→B. Write down the consequences that bother you. Then recall and describe the event that, as you think, caused them. And only then analyze which specific thoughts and beliefs led you to these consequences.

Your descriptions should be: 1) Falsifiable – meaning that you need to describe facts, not opinions. 2) Without judgments – when describing events, your reflections and emotions, try to avoid judgments regarding their nature and acceptability. 3) Detailed – when you describe in detail what happened, it allows you to objectively view the situation from a distance, without making hasty conclusions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Here, you can delve into cognitive defusion and more. ACT emphasizes accepting your thoughts and feelings, then taking committed action toward your values, rather than trying to control or eliminate them.

Cognitive defusion is the process of distancing oneself from thoughts. As if your thoughts exist separately from you and you can observe them. Try this exercise:

«Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful, slowly flowing stream. Large leaves fall into the water from time to time and float downstream. You are sitting by this stream on a warm, sunny day, watching the leaves float by. Now start noticing your thoughts. Every time a thought comes into your head, imagine it on one of the leaves. Let it be written on it if you think in words, or drawn if you think in pictures. Your goal is to stay by the stream and allow the leaves to float past. Do not try to make the stream flow faster or slower. Do not try to change what appears on the leaves. If the leaves disappear or if you mentally find yourself elsewhere, notice it and return to the stream. Observe how the thought comes into your mind, lands on a leaf, and then the current carries it away. Keep doing this for a while, simply observing how your thoughts float by until the leaves run out and you feel calm». This exercise will help you notice that thoughts can come and go, or replace each other, and you can observe them, like watching the brain at work.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

EMDR therapy, pioneered by Francine Shapiro, has shown effectiveness in treating complex traumas. It is based on bilateral brain stimulation – alternating activation of the right and left hemispheres through rapid eye movements from side to side. This aids the brain in reprocessing traumatic experiences and painful memories. This method is particularly effective for dealing with traumatic memories. It can also be beneficial for addressing grief and loss, like the pain of losing a loved one. Besides eye movements, EMDR incorporates other methods such as tapping to achieve bilateral stimulation and help reprocess distressing memories.

Learn more about EMDR on the American Psychological Association website.