Monday, August 22, 2016

Handling Obsessional Thoughts

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

Some of us suffering from depression and anxiety also experience repetitive or obsessional thoughts. These are thoughts which come upon you with remarkable clarity and power, with incredible insistence, and which defy attempts to stop their recurrence. They are intrusive, meaning you are not consciously choosing to think them. They repeat themselves, or simply take hold and 'stay'. They rarely respond to conscious attempts to rationalise them, or 'argue them out' - in fact, the more you think about them, the worse the spiral gets. They can take on a life of their own. Some of them are powerful enough to seem like actual 'voices' in your head. And for some reason, obsessional thoughts are rarely 'happy' or 'good' thoughts, being disturbing, dark and discouraging more often than not.

Mental health advocate and Project Beyond Blue founder Therese Borchard, herself a long-time sufferer of obsessional thoughts or 'stuck thoughts', as she calls them, offers some advice for dealing with them. Borchard is the author of three books on the topic of depression, and the recipient of the 2014 Ray of Light Award from the Dave Nee Foundation.1

Here are 14 of her personal tips to help alleviate the persistence of obsessional thoughts:

  1. Don't Talk Back.
    Trying to respond with logic to an obsessional thought can actually empower it instead of quieting it. The more you try to analyse the obsession, the more attention and focus you give it, and the more it achieves central placement in your mind. Do not dwell on it. Do not argue with it. Do not feed the thought.
  2. Know It Will Pass.
    According to Borchard, her obsessional thoughts can last two or three days. During this time, she "bears with them and ... refrains from doing anything stupid", and eventually, she says, "my brain would be mine again".2 Obsessional thoughts are not permanent. Keep telling yourself they will be gone soon enough.
  3. Focus on Now.
    Borchard says that obsessional thoughts are very often based in the past, as with feelings of regret, etc., or focused on the future. She says that stuck thoughts rarely obsess about things happening in the present, "because we are too busy living this moment."3 So the more we are able to focus on what is happening to us NOW, such as being around people and holding a conversation with them, the more we are able to escape the obsessional thought.
  4. Tune Into the Senses.
    For Borchard, our five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching are powerful tools which can help break the chain of obsessional thinking. She describes how the sudden grip of her young daughter's hand helped her refocus during a moment of obsessional thought.4 By concentrating on the very immediate, tangible and attention-holding powers of sound, sight, taste, smell and touch, we can push aside a stuck thought.
  5. Do Something Else.
    Distraction is a good tactic for moving stuck thoughts to one side. Read a good book. Watch a riveting film. Work on a puzzle. Listen to some music and sing along. Engage in something you LIKE, that allows your mind to change gears and escape from the obssession.
  6. Change Your Obsession.
    If necessary, replace an undesirable or damaging obsession with a different and less destructive one. Borchard cites an example where a "benign" obsession with securing a restaurant booth in the face of competition took the place of another stuck thought which had been plaguing her.5 Redirection of this sort can help steer the brain away from more destructive obsessions to less worrying ones, if nothing else works.
  7. Blame the Chemistry.
    Remind yourself that obsessional thoughts are, like Borchard says, the result of "special biochemistry inside my noggin [which] is wired to ruminate a LOT."6 Reminding yourself that YOU are not to blame for these thoughts, but rather your biochemical genetics, can help you box up the obsessive process and push it away from you. As Borchard notes, remembering that it is really the fault of her chemistry gives her "great relief".7
  8. Picture It.
    In her article, Borchard describes how watching her young son, who also suffers from obsessional thoughts, can help her. Believing his stuck thoughts to be 'real', her son reacts with bizarre behaviour and language. Borchard says watching his temper tantrums are helpful to her because they serve "as a display of what's going on inside my head, and when I can visualize it, I see how ridiculous it all looks."8
  9. Do the Thing in Front of You.
    When panic engulfs her, and her thoughts spin out of control, Borchard concentrates on the task right in front of her.9 That could be crafting a single sentence, or helping the children with their homework, or making a snack. Concentrating hard on the immediate task before you helps to narrow your mind's focus and to block out peripheral intrusions by unwanted thoughts - a form of protective tunnel vision for your brain.
  10. Rely on Other Brains.
    When your mind is deep in the grip of obsessional thoughts, it is not reliable as a gauge of what is accurate or not. During episodes of stuck thoughts, logic and perspective go out the window. At such times, trust the perspectives of your friends and loved ones. Believe them when they say, "It's NOT you, it's just faulty wiring!" Borchard writes down what her friends tell her, and uses the information to refute her own obsessional mislogic. As she says, "I try to trust them because I know I can't trust my own brain."10
  11. Investigate the Thought (briefly).
    Although Borchard tells us at the beginning that arguing with a stuck thought can be the worst thing you can do, she also acknowledges that sometimes simply asking yourself the question, "Is this true?" can remind yourself that the obsessional thought is a complete fantastical construct of your brain.11 Sometimes that is enough to break the cycle and let reality back in.
  12. Visualise the Thoughts as Hiccups.
    Borchard reminds us that obsessional thoughts are symptoms of a condition as much as nausea or fever, or even bad hiccups. So when obsessional thoughts hit, remember not to berate yourself for them, or feel that they are the result of a character weakness. Blaming yourself for such thoughts is a common reaction to the madness and despair of the moment. Do not beat yourself over the head. Do not feel it is YOUR fault. Remind yourself that these thoughts are a symptom of an illness, a biochemical hiccup.
  13. Use a Mantra.
    Some people find that repeating a mantra helps them diffuse and disempower obsessional thoughts. It can be anything that holds meaning or power for you - such as a phrase from a religious text, or words from a favourite song, or a quote that resonates with you. As a friend of Borchard says, "When my thoughts become intense, I will use a mantra as a kind of racket to hit the ball back."12
  14. Admit Powerlessness.
    Borchard writes that when she has tried every technique and is still tormented by the voices in her head, she lets them be. She admits "powerlessness to my wonderful brain biochemistry." Borchard stops fighting the voices and allows them to "be as loud as they want and to stay as long as they want", because she knows "they will eventually go away."13 As long as you remember you are not to blame for your obsessional thoughts, conceding to them for a short time is not a failure on your part.


1 About the Author, Therese Borchard

2 9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

3 ibid.

4 ibid.

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 5 Ways to Free Yourself from Dark and Obsessive Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck Thoughts, Therese Borchard, Everyday Health

Images from Morguefile and Pixabay.

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