How To Break “Obsessive Thinking” Cycles


We just can’t stop ourselves, sometimes, despite our best efforts. You’ve been there, I’m sure—when you’re tired, angry, or just been alone for too long. When no matter what you do, you simply can’t switch off your thoughts.

Even worse, your brain seems to go over the same few things. Ruminating—obsessively.

Questioning: “What if I’d said this, instead?”
Overanalyzing: “I should have done it differently.”
Or beating yourself up: “I’ve embarrassed myself.”

If you’re familiar with this never-ending loop of thoughts, you might not be surprised to learn that it often comes down to stress.

Today, I’ll unpack my Obsessive Thinking Coaching Card to show you how it works and what it looks like in various disguises.

I’ll also introduce three helpful exercises that will help you, or someone you know, from revisiting the same negative thoughts over and over, and over again.

Why We Obsess When We Stress

Obsessive thinking, or rumination, is a very common reaction to feeling under pressure, overwhelmed, or simply a sign that our mental resources are stretched beyond healthy limits.

It can be triggered by a few things, and everyone’s stressors can be different. For example:

  • Specific events, like arguments with a co-worker or friend
  • Anticipated stressors (aka ‘impending doom’), like an important interview
  • Confronting our fears – think public speaking for a shy person, or
  • Uncertainty around key life events, such as a medical diagnosis or big move.

We all suffer from obsessive thinking to some degree, but in excess, it can be distressing.

Unchecked, rumination can be like swimming in circles—we end up stuck on what’s gone wrong, rather than finding a solution to escape the swirling current.

3 Ways To Beat Obsessive Thinking

Fortunately, there are a few ways to break the vicious downward circle.

Because obsessive thoughts tend to snowball, learning to recognize rumination in its early stages is the best way to maximize the impact of these three exercises.

This way, you can stop negative thoughts in their tracks before they get out of control.

1. Distract Yourself

Distracting yourself is a great way to get rid of unhelpful thoughts for good, before the current starts swirling too fast.

As soon as you catch yourself starting to obsess, turning your attention elsewhere can stop your brain from heading toward rumination.

Just turn your awareness outward, rather than internally, and start doing the first activity you can think of in your surroundings. Like:

  • Tidying your workspace
  • Grabbing a drink
  • Popping out for a quick stroll
  • Ringing a relative or friend
  • Turning on your favorite music (a “distraction playlist” is a good idea), or
  • Tuning into an interesting podcast.

After you’re done, take a moment to debrief. How effective was distracting yourself? Did you manage to break the vicious cycle?

If not, try a different distracting activity instead.

2. Broaden and Build

We often think we’re problem-solving when we ruminate, but paradoxically, it leads nowhere.

Rather than delivering a solution, obsessive thinking magnifies the negative aspects of a perceived problem.

This leaves us with fewer mental resources for genuine problem-solving.

This exercise is based on psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory; it’s a way to help you reverse this excessive focus by concentrating on what’s positive, instead. This broadens our perspectives and opens us up to new possibilities and ideas.

It’s as straightforward as practicing gratitude. Ask yourself: What am I grateful for?

Try to find three good things about your day, list them on a piece of paper, and repeat the exercise daily. If you like, you can even share your list with loved ones; they might be inspired.

3. Use Positive Affirmations

Affirmations are simply positive phrases that when repeated, are a useful way to combat negative thoughts.

Rooted in psychologist Steele’s Self Affirmation Theory, they’ve been found to help in decreasing stress levels and dismissing negative thoughts.

Rather than physical activity, affirmations can stimulate our body’s ‘happiness’ hormone production, increasing the activity in our ‘positive’ neural pathways instead.

Because our thoughts, speech, and behaviors are linked, they can help us break the repetitive loop of maladaptive thoughts, negative self-talk, and problematic behaviors.

Choose 2-3 of these example affirmations, and repeat them whenever you catch yourself starting to ruminate:

  1. My thoughts don’t control me; I control my thoughts.
  2. My thoughts are filled with positivity.
  3. I accept myself.
  4. I am the architect of my life; I build its foundation and choose its contents.
  5. A river of compassion washes away my negative thoughts and replaces them with love.
  6. My fears of tomorrow are simply melting away.
  7. I choose to live in the present moment.
  8. I can make it through this.
  9. I am safe.
  10. I have the power to make changes.

Whenever you find yourself ruminating over stressful events, you’ll often find that repeating your affirmations a few times is a helpful way to nip the vicious downward spiral in the bud.

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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