The conscious mind has the capacity to process 50 bits of information per second, and the unconscious mind, 11 million bits. Every day, the average person can have up to 6,200 thoughts, and according to the US National Science Foundation, 80% of these thoughts are negative. What’s more, 95% of negative thoughts are the same as those from the day before.
Throughout the average day, we think about our loved ones, about what we’ll have for dinner, we daydream about the perfect vacation, and we can have brilliant ideas. However, in between these positive or constructive thoughts, we can also have negative, obsessive thoughts about our health, work, and relationships:
What if I don’t finish this project on time?
I have too much to do!
All my friends secretly hate me.
Is my partner cheating on me?
What if my loved ones get sick?
At a surface level, ruminating may give you the illusion that you’re gaining some deep insight into your life, but, in the long run, it can affect your self-worth, interfere with your wellness, and increase your risk of anxiety and chronic stress.
Obsessive thinking is more common in people who have a history of mental health disorders or struggle with mental health themselves. However, you can also be prone to obsessive thoughts if you’re going through a stressful period, are a perfectionist, or you tend to care a lot about your relationship with others.
Having random negative thoughts is normal. However, when these thoughts keep repeating, they gain power over you and might even interfere with your ability to function normally.
Here are six strategies to stop obsessive thinking:
Most of the time, obsessive thoughts don’t happen randomly; they’re triggered by something or someone. Pinpointing these triggers is very important because you can then work on avoiding them or at least reduce their power over you.
Next time you have an obsessive thought, take a mental note of what triggered it (journaling also helps here). Were you with a certain person or in a certain place? For example, if you get obsessive thoughts about not being good enough at your job when you’re around overachieving or burnt-out colleagues, you may want to reduce contact with them. If you worry about not having an interesting enough life after scrolling on Instagram, you should consider using social media less or unfollowing certain people.
Obsessive thoughts are strongest when we’re bored. Finding something engaging and pleasant to do instead of ruminating can break the negative thought cycle and eventually stop the obsessive thought. There are many ways you can distract yourself, from messaging a friend and watching a movie to going for a walk or playing with your pet.
Mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment and observe your thoughts without overacting or being overwhelmed by them. It can be achieved through meditation, and numerous studies have shown that it can enhance the effectiveness of certain types of psychotherapy. When obsessive thoughts appear, find a quiet, comfortable space and try deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. These will bring you back into the present moment and keep you grounded, clearing your head from obsessive thoughts. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work from the first try; take small steps every day, and try different meditation techniques until you find the one that works for you.
Quite often, our obsessive thoughts aren’t caused by stressful events but by the expectations we have of ourselves. If you have low self-esteem, deny your self-worth, and are overly perfectionist, you’re much more likely to have obsessive thoughts. Instead, try to boost your self-esteem, accept that mistakes are normal, love yourself for who you are, and be proud of your achievements.
Most obsessive thoughts aren’t grounded in reality. They’re based on worst-case scenarios, insecurities, hidden fears, and unrealistic expectations. We also tend to obsess the most over things we have no control over.
When you’re having an obsessive thought, ask yourself: Is there something I can do to fix or prevent this issue?
If the answer is Yes, then do it. Even the smallest step matters because you’re working on solutions. Having a plan and being proactive will put your mind at ease, and you will eventually stop obsessing over that thing.
If the answer is No, learn to accept the situation and understand that you should not worry about the things you can’t control. You can’t change things like natural disasters, recessions, loved ones getting sick, or your company going out of business. You can, however, adjust your reaction to them and develop healthy affirmations.
Ruminating thoughts are more likely to appear when you’re alone, and they can make you want to isolate yourself. This is why it’s important to create a support system of friends and family and talk to them when an obsessive thought is giving you trouble. More often than not, the very fact of verbalising obsessive thoughts can help you put things in perspective and realise that you have nothing to worry about.
If you don’t have a support system, or perhaps if your friends and family are one of the factors behind your obsessive thoughts, consider reaching out to a professional therapist. They can offer you the help you need to identify negative thought patterns, stop ruminating, and boost your self-esteem.