If we tell ourselves not to think of a pink elephant, the first thought that comes to our mind is a bright pink elephant. Humans are quick to be intrigued by that which we are not supposed to be intrigued by. We are curious creatures by nature, even if we know the actions we take are causing us harm.
Unfortunately, some of us struggle to control our looping thoughts. We tell ourselves not to think of something, and so we think of it. Looping thoughts are usually distressing and unrealistic. They cause us to live in pain and fear. The thought may be real or imaginary, but we still cannot stop thinking about it. It replays in our minds over and over again until we are desperate for relief.
So, what exactly are looping thoughts and how do we stop them? Here is what we know.
The Psychology of Looping Thoughts
A reoccurring thought loop is a fixation on fears, motives, or how we feel we should have acted or not acted. While looping thoughts are a bi-product of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), other individuals with anxiety can also have looping thoughts. Case studies have shown Photo credit: Pexels that 94% of all individuals have experienced obsessive thinking, particularly during times of immense stress or pressure. Those with bipolar disorder are also more likely to struggle with OCD, and therefore, looping thoughts.
While psychologists are not entirely sure why some people have looping thoughts and others do not, they agree that some brains are wired differently than others. Those with looping thoughts tend to come from perfectionist families, struggle with trauma, have anxiety disorders, or depressive symptoms.
A looping thought is a coping mechanism. It is a subconscious tool to help a distressed individual escape from the present moment. While it does not seem plausible that anyone would want to have a looping thought, the practice provides some secondary gains. It is used as a way to distract ourselves from something we don’t want to confront.
For example, the death of a family member may cause someone to obsess about hurting another person. While the individual knows that he/she would never actually hurt another person, they continue to think about this thought over and over again. The person is using the looping thought to distract himself from the pain of losing a loved one. At times, life can bring such enormous pain that our minds find strange ways to cope.
The reason looping thoughts continue is because we tell ourselves not to think of them. We obsess about the thought and are afraid of it, which only makes it come back. This is how panic disorder and other anxiety disorder symptoms work. When we are afraid of panic attacks, they come back. When we no longer fear them, they tend to dissipate. That is how a negative thought becomes a looping thought. We obsess over diminishing and eliminating the thought, which causes an enormous amount of fear. Then we try not to think of the thought anymore, which only exacerbates the thought. The only way out of this cycle is to change the attitude towards the thought.
Thoughts, Only Thoughts
There are a series of best practices we can use to minimize our obsessive thoughts. While we may not ever be able to eliminate a specific thought, we can learn to be less afraid of it. We can find ourselves thinking about the thought less and less over time until it is no longer a major concern. Here are some best practices –
· Observe the Thought – Rather than obsess, simply observe the thought. Acknowledge its presence. Say to yourself, “I am having a scary obsessive thought right now. It’s not real, nor am I going to act on this thought. I am just going to observe the thought from a distance.”
· Change Your Focus – Engross yourself in some other type of activity that requires brain power or concentration. Read a book, clean the house, watch a very intense (but not frightening) movie. Do whatever you need to do to get out of your head and be involved in something else. If the thought continues, simply acknowledge it and continue with your project.
· Make it Humorous – Because we will never act on these thoughts, the least you can do is to see the humor in it. If you have an obsessive thought about having a panic attack in front of your friends, imagine yourself making silly faces and dancing in front of a friend. Lighten the mood a bit.
· Tell Someone Your Thoughts – People are often too afraid to tell their thoughts to someone else because the thought is often disturbing. Pick someone you feel comfortable enough to tell a thought to. Relinquishing the thought from inside can bring it to light and make it seem less serious. It loses Its power over you. You will be surprised at how many people have also had strange thoughts. They probably won’t think it’s as odd as you do.
· Plan a Time to Obsess – Plan a time when you will obsess. Throughout the day, if the thought arises, tell yourself you will think about it at your allotted time. While this does not always work, it can help to permit yourself to think of it later. When that allotted time comes, allow yourself to obsess for a certain time frame. Instead of keeping it inside, write down the thoughts and your feelings. This can help tremendously.
· Find Help – If you cannot get control over your thoughts, you may have obsessive-compulsive disorder or another form of anxiety disorder. Contact a counselor to learn coping mechanisms that will minimize the distressing thoughts.
Do you struggle with obsessive, scary thoughts? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.