Mason Cooley once wrote: “The cure for an obsession: get another one.”
That’s about as good advice as any that I’ve heard on how to quiet the annoying voices inside your head. They nag, persist, harass, and endure longer than your patience or composure.
I haven’t been very successful at managing mine, as I’m usually processing three obsessions at a time. But a few of my strategies have helped me from time to time. Here they are.
1. Get back on track.
One of the most helpful visualizations for me to employ when I’m obsessing is to imagine that my mind is a car driving along the highway. When I get going on an obsession — can’t let go of a regret, insecurity, or, God forbid, a mix between the two — I simply acknowledge that I am off the road: perhaps on the shoulder of the lane, or going up a ramp, or off to a new adventure altogether. I need to direct the car back to the highway. When I’m in an obsessive state, I do that exercise once, say, every five seconds.
Another visualization technique I use is simply to visualize a stop sign. Not creative, I know, but you don’t need fancy images to get the buggers out of your head. Whenever my thoughts take on a life on their own, I visualize the stop sign. Some OCD experts recommend a ritual that you can do to remind yourself to stop (as you visualize the stop sign), like snapping a rubber band on your wrist — something to indicate that you need to direct your thoughts back to reality. I did this for awhile, but the red marks clued too many people in on what was going on inside my noggin.
3. Keep moving.
Say you’ve employed visualization technique after visualization technique, and your mind keeps going back to that spot — analyzing every angle of the issue. You can’t take it anymore. When I’ve reached my threshold, I get moving… in any way possible.
If I’m at work, I take a bathroom break. If I’m at home, I walk around the block. If I’m in a conversation at a party, I’ll excuse myself and walk to another part of the room. I try my best to change my scenery in any (socially acceptable) way I can, because the shift can sometimes distract me from my thoughts. Sometimes.
4. Get mad.
Some folks say anger isn’t becoming, but new research published in the journal “Emotion” indicates that anger can, at times, contribute to happiness levels and well-being. In the study, participants who chose angry music before a confrontational task showed greater psychological health than the participants who chose happy music. The first group reported greater satisfaction with life, better grades, and a stronger network of friends. It’s okay, then, to yell at your obsession, at your brain, or both. They deserve it.
5. Beware of old baggage.
Much of what we can’t let go — or the fact that we can’t let it go — has roots in past issues. We can’t go back and change it, but the understanding of why we are doing something sometimes offers clues as to how to break obsessive patterns. “So what do we owe our personal histories?” writes psychiatrist Gordon Livingston, M.D., in "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart." “Certainly we are shaped by them and must learn from them if we are to avoid the repetitious mistakes that make us feel trapped in a long-running drama of our own authorship.”
6. Identify the distortions.
In their book, The OCD Workbook, Bruce M. Hyman, Ph.D., and Cherry Pedrick, RN, catalog some typical cognitive errors of worriers and persons with OCD. Take note of these:
- Overestimating risk, harm and danger
- Over-control and perfectionism
- Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking
- Persistent doubting
- Magical thinking
- Superstitious thinking
- Intolerance of uncertainty
- Pessimistic bias
- What-if thinking
- Intolerance of anxiety
- Extraordinary cause and effect
7. Apply some humor.
Humor is your best friend. It’s the only voice that confirms that you’re not a freak, that you just are in the midst of one of your regular wigouts, and things will be just fine if you don’t take this thing you are so fixated on so seriously. Humor inserts some much-needed room between your emotional center, your brain’s limbic system, and your issue.
** If you or someone you know is struggling with obsessive thoughts, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.