Have you found yourself, anxious, stressed out or hopeless because you’re stuck on a thought? Have you addressed the thought by telling yourself to STOP, avoiding the thought, or trying to change your thinking? Has this worked? My guess is it’s worked well enough to have tried it more than once but not so well that you weren’t compelled to read this blog. The truth is controlling, avoiding and rationalizing thoughts often leave us feeling more out of control; giving our inner critic a voice.
– What are thoughts? Well, the Oxford Dictionary Definition says:
an idea or opinion produced by thinking, or occurring suddenly in the mind.
“Maggie had a sudden thought”
Similar: idea, notion, line of thinking, belief, concept, concentration
Did you notice the definition’s example, “Maggie had a sudden thought.” When it comes to obsessive thoughts, sudden is often how people explain these thoughts. Obsessive thoughts come on with a flick of a switch, a sound, an image or may
be a sensation.
These triggers don’t actually have to be pertinent to the present moment, they don’t have to be true, or really have any meaning at all. Then what’s worse these unhelpful thoughts start to circle around and before we know it they are an obsessive thought. To keep it simple an obsessive thought is repetitive, persistent and unwanted.
Well, when it comes to the definition of obsessive thoughts, there is one more important piece of information… These thoughts aren’t always based on truth, correlation, experience or even the present moment. You heard me right, thoughts sometimes are just thoughts; language applied to experiences (memories) and/or sensations (feelings we have in our body). Obsessive thoughts become a problem when they circle around so often they start to influence what we are doing in the now and in the future by getting us hooked on the past or something unrelated to what we need now.
The power you have over your thoughts!
Have you driven down the street and seen an advertisement for a local taco place? Have you thought, taco’s sound good? I like tacos! Tacos yum! Maybe I should get some? Have you ever ignored that thought or thoughts, barely noticed the thought and continued with your day? Of course you have, just like there are times you think about how you’ve done something, said something or felt something and then let that thought go too. But then there are times that you have seen the taco billboard and you think, tacos, tacos, tacos, why not tacos, no I shouldn’t get tacos. These thoughts persist, we try to think of something else, we try to work, we bargain with ourselves. This situation can at times lead us to say “I have no control”, “Why can’t I just stop it” or worse we might criticize, judge ourselves and these obsessive thoughts can trigger sensations in our physical body and/or finally we might act on the obsessive thought.
So what do you do when you can’t get tacos- I mean obsessive thought off your mind?
Here is a 3 step strategy to address obsessive thoughts:
- Don’t control your thoughts, name your thoughts. If your thoughts are obsessive, spend 60 seconds naming your thoughts. If you’re having the thought, “I can’t stop my obsessive thought!” state to yourself, “I am having the thought that I can’t stop my obsessive thoughts.” Name/label this thought- distraction, fear, worry, anticipation, etc… Next time that thought comes around you can just name it- now it’s the enemy you know…
- Ask yourself is this thought helpful? A thought is helpful when it supports value-informed behaviors and behaviors that help you meet your goals (even small goals like only eating 2 taco’s). Try labeling your obsessive thoughts as ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’.
- Do you only believe your obsessive thoughts if they are true? Just because you think it doesn’t make it true. When we support our thoughts with truth it’s called justification and when thoughts are justified they often hold more power. We start to believe that our thoughts are worth our attention at all times, that they are showing us a hidden truth or that we must trust them. Try saying to yourself: Just because it’s true doesn’t make it helpful. Now find something that is helpful right now…
Obsessive thoughts can be distressing, anxiety provoking and at times make us feel bad about ourselves. At MUV counseling we explore your individual experience using evidenced based cognitive behavioral tools and acceptance and commitment therapy. With coping skills and strategies like the above you can learn to come in contact with your obsessive thoughts in order to move beyond temporary relief into living.