If I could just get my brain around this I would......
January 29, 2011 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Life is unfair, complex, illogical, closed ended, open ended, difficult, and when _____ happens, I try to think my way out of it until it hurts. Effective tools for limiting obsessive thinking?

I am caught in the middle of a political dispute within a bureaucracy. The end result is I haven't been paid since October and am owed over $30,000. My finances are precarious as a result. There is nothing on a practical level I can do to affect or change the political situation and it will have to run its course. I have been obsessed with trying to think my way out of this. What are some tools, concepts, or behaviors that have allowed you to calm an obsessed mind. I don't need a therapist or medication. Please don't try to solve my work problem in your comments, thanks.
posted by Xurando to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Effective tools for limiting obsessive thinking?

Exercise. I don't tend to get obsessive about anything, but if I'm trying to get work done or go to sleep and find myself wasting time in a thought loop, I hit the bike or weights for a hard half hour, shower, and find myself back on track.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2011

Helping other people. Volunteer somewhere, help a friend clean their garage, or help a friend move. Nothing takes my mind off my own troubles like helping someone else.
posted by browse at 12:20 PM on January 29, 2011

Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques should help you to keep obsessive and troubling thoughts under control. This book in particular worked wonders for me. Depending on the severity of your problems, you don't necessarily have to see a therapist to make this stuff work for you, but you will have to make an effort initially to change your thought processes to more rational thinking before it will become natural and habitual for you. The first time I casually read through the book above, it did nothing for me; later on when going through the worst depression I'd ever been through, I read it again and made an effort to really practice the advice given, and it has since changed my life.
posted by Ryogen at 12:27 PM on January 29, 2011

I have a similar problem with obsessive thinking. What helps me is: exercise, cleaning, creating art, swimming, reading. I tried volunteering, it didn't work out for me.
posted by fifilaru at 12:36 PM on January 29, 2011

Response by poster: I am reasonably sure I am not depressed. What I am talking about is obsessive thinking directly related to life situations outside of my control.
posted by Xurando at 12:46 PM on January 29, 2011

The bottom line is you have to find something else to do (that is incompatible with thinking about that particular thing, which is why exercise isn't always useful unless it requires running mental math) that is slightly more compelling than thinking about that thing. Good books, maybe a tv series on DVD, a hobby like photography, a social sport. Often that kind of obsessive thinking has become habitual and breaking it up with other things is enough to decrease the hold it has on you, so that you can think about it without it becoming recursive.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:52 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mindfulness meditation gets me off the hamster wheel of obsessive thoughts.
posted by desjardins at 1:12 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I suppose the simplest answer would be to find something to take your mind off the issue. Is there anything that you particularly enjoy doing? Sports/exercise? Hanging out with friends at the pub? Watching tv/movies? Video games? Playing or listening to music?
posted by xtine at 1:17 PM on January 29, 2011

I would go with meditation too, but you must be willing to invest some time and effort into mind training. But it would be one of the most valuable skills to acquire. Look here for some talks.
If you need a quick fix, try listening to audio book or interesting podcast. Use headphones.
posted by leigh1 at 1:24 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

As an anti-but-not-really comment to some above: Find something that you can do while you're overthinking things. Running or walking on a treadmill is great for that (in my case, at least) -- you won't get lost, it doesn't take any mental effort to stay on the treadmill, and you can just thinkthinkthinkthinkthink about the problem. And then, when you've been on that damn treadmill for an entire hour, and you're no closer to thinking your way through the problem, then at least you've been working out for an hour, so it's not like you've completely pissed the time away.
posted by Etrigan at 1:37 PM on January 29, 2011

I wouldn't recommend working out for this. I don't know about you, but when I am having bad thoughts like that, exercise is an activity that leaves my brain absolutely free and clear to obsess like hell. What you need to do is something that occupies your brain and what it thinks about SO MUCH that you don't think about you-know-what. At the very least if you're gonna hit the treadmill, bring a magazine or get a machine by a TV or something.

I'd advise getting really involved in a hobby, or obsessive film/TV watching, or starting a new business project.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:56 PM on January 29, 2011

Every time I start obsessing about something, is ask myself one question: "Can I do anything about this right now?" If the answer is no, then I force myself to think of something else. When I first started doing this, the thought would rapidly come back, and I would repeat the question. It can be a little bit like talking to a 2 year old, but eventually, it becomes easy. Obsessions become larger the more you feed them. Starve an obsession, and it stays a small worrying thought, or if already large, shrinks to one.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:09 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only thing that really clears my brain is yoga - the really physically intense kind. You're so busy trying to keep from falling over that you HAVE to concentrate on what you're doing instead of letting your mind run. Times in my life where I've obsessed over things, I've gone to a hard yoga class and realized afterwards that I haven't thought about my problem for an hour. Somehow it seems a bit more manageable after that, because if you can forget about it for an hour, you can forget about it for longer than that. And coming back to the problem from the outside gives you some perspective. I don't think running or cardio have the same effect because you don't have to concentrate on it.

Horribly, TV has a similarly anesthetic effect, except you feel worse about yourself after doing it instead of better. It does help distract you though.

There is also a book called Feeling Good that has been recommended here before. It has some good techniques for getting out of mind traps.
posted by walla at 2:29 PM on January 29, 2011

A bit of follow up on my response, the exercise that works for me is weight lifting, with heavy weights. I find it very meditative and focused. When I lift weights, it is all I am thinking about. The endorphin rush at afterward really helps too.
posted by fifilaru at 3:05 PM on January 29, 2011

One thing my therapist told me about obsessive thoughts is that we tend to get into ruts where we associate certain thought patterns with triggers. For example, if you think about your work/money problem every morning during your commute, you are conditioning yourself to think these thoughts when you hear the car engine, see that particular scenery, have the taste of coffee in your mouth, or whatever else you do during that time. These associations cause neural networks to form and the connections get traced and retraced and strengthened every single time. (At least, that's what she said: I don't think either she or I really understand the neuroscience of it).

So to break the thought patterns, you have to break the associations, and you have to be very wary every time you find yourself falling into these patterns again. So figure out when your worst times are for thinking these thoughts, and then physically do something different at those times of your day.

Take a different route to work. If you drive, try public transport. If you lie awake at night worrying, change your bedtime, or bedtime routine, or move your bed. If you always think these thoughts when you go for a run at lunch time, try cycling or doing weights instead. Or go to a different gym.

These changes just provide the opportunity for you to refocus your thoughts: the point is it's often too hard to just switch them off when all the conditioning stimuli are present. Once you make the changes, the thoughts won't magically disappear, but it will be easier for you to implement the suggestions everyone else is giving you, or to deliberately choose to think about other stuff.
posted by lollusc at 4:23 PM on January 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Your situation sounds stressful and it is understandable that your mind is racing. I'm in the midst of my own 'brain crisis' of sorts and find that the best immediate thing I can do for myself is catch myself in the act of negative, spiraling thought; my partner taught me this trick: put an elastic band on your wrist and snap it when you catch yourself spiraling..., then make an effort to change the negative thought into something related but more positive. Also, if you can reach a place of acceptance and get comfortable with the idea that the situation is beyond your control it may help - it is pretty much guaranteed that it will eventually pass. Exercise is good, as is meditation. If you can reach a state where all you are noticing in the moment is your breath (instead of the many thoughts buzzing around your head) for even a minute it will help calm your mind.

I know you've stated that you don't need a therapist. However, if your situation continues to worsen and you decide that you (1) might like to talk to a trained professional with the skills to assist you with patterns of obsessive thought and (2) you have the means to access a properly trained psychologist, you may want to do a quick search on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), the point of which is to assist you in re-training your brain. As Ryogen mentioned, continued obsessive thought over time can become habitual and EMDR is intended to break those patterns to help get your mind moving in a more positive direction.

Best of Luck.
posted by sassy mae at 5:14 PM on January 29, 2011

Mindful meditation. I like "Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by mnemonic at 5:26 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The older I get (and I have just turned 80 with all of life's up and downs) may I suggest the Serenity Prayer? Short version:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

I sincerely hopes this helps you, as it has helped both my SO and myself.
posted by lungtaworld at 6:25 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think that Ryogen was implying that you are depressed, just that some CBT strategies are helpful for dealing with this kind of thing.

I used to do this a ton - I still do it occasionally - but therapy helped me recognize those thoughts for what they are: just thoughts. When I have an obsessive thought I can think: 'yep that's a thought' and let it slide by instead of getting stuck. In practice it's a lot like The Light Fantastic's comment about recognizing the behavior and then making a conscious effort to make your mind change the subject.

It's hard, but there are a lot of books on the topic; good luck.
posted by lilnublet at 7:07 PM on January 29, 2011

Find an alternative thought which is complex but makes you feel happy. Whenever you start thinking about your problem, deliberately work on thinking the other thought. Smile while you do this, method acting happiness.

An example would be... let's see. Hogwarts. Let's say you are a Harry Potter fan and always wanted to attend a magical public school. When your brain starts into the deep groove of, "damn it I had the paperwork notarized, it's not my fault they lost it, I had to notarize it again, how can I... " take a deep breath, exhale relaxing your body as much as possible and as forcefully as you can think of some detail of Hogwarts: "Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slitherin and Grifindor: what house would I end up in? I know I'd make the BEST prefect for Slitherin ever!.."

Your brain will naturally distract back into "... if they had only realised that I was doing marketing work for the Production Vice-president..." and you steer it forcibly right back into: " Slitherin, yes, Slitherin! I am thinking about Slitherin! How happy I will be when the owl arrives with my admittance... yeah, right, like an owl would ever arrive in the life of a thirty-something year old American... No, I'm a pre-teen again! Twelve!"

The not-good thought will squeeze back in so that while your brain is desperately saying the words to the good thoughts you will feel the bad thoughts' emotions: betrayal, financial fears, frustration... Deep breath! Smile and relax into the replacement thought, rattling off something that takes just a little bit of concentration to create a list: "Brooms class, defense against the dark arts, potions, incantations, history of magic, levi-dance, muggle studies..!" It's okay that the not-good thought squeezes back in because you will need to redirect your thoughts many times. Don't think of it as failing to control your thoughts, think of it like doing just another push-up. Each time you have the not-good thought and steer it into a good thought, it is going to build your ability to control your thoughts.

This sounds rather silly, but quite likely you can pick a better example than Hogwarts that would work for you, like that condo on the Riviera you want to buy one day, or delivering your Academy Awards acceptance speech. Ideally you want a substitute thought that you are not desperately attached to so if it eventually gets tarnished by the horrible situation emotion you can simply avoid thinking about it again, and it should be complex enough that you can dive into the thought from several angles, use memory as well as imagination to clog the neurological channels, and not run out of material when you still need it.

Alternatively if your imagination is not up to creating an entire fantasy about you and Draco Malfoy jointly defeating Voldemort and managing to snaffle all his powers with which to enslave the muggles and you can simply repeat the statement, "This doesn't bother me anymore."

During the brief split instant you are repeating the statement it doesn't bother you, at least not quite as much. So over and over you yank your thought forcefully from the bad thoughts into a channel that doesn't distress you. Every time you've had those bad thoughts the groove got deeper and it got easier and easier to remember it and harder and harder to avoid remembering it. But if every time you think the bad thoughts you go straight into "We'll trick the Griffies into playing Quidditch when we make our assault on Dumbledore's study..." or "This simply doesn't bother me any more," that too will start to create a groove in your brain. The longer you keep at it the faster you will jump from ".. how could my job..." into "That doesn't bother me. that just doesn't bother me."

With practice you will start making the jump just at the moment when the sickish feeling in the pit of your stomach begins, before you can even formulate words for the mess they put you in.

It also helps to watch for your triggers. Do you think about it whenever you think about budgeting and paying bills or buying anything? Try to watch for the exact point that you make the transition from, "must stop at the bank..." to "oh god, oh god, I can't keep living on the credit cards, how do I..." And again, when you find that transition point use the technique of throwing yourself into the substitution thought you have chosen.

One thing that does not work is an overly simple substitute thought. You will find, for example, that you are quite capable of reciting poetry or counting while obsessing over the financial snarl. I am told that doing mathematics is too complex for most people to keep on worrying, so you could also try adding prime numbers or something, if your brain normally gets quickly and happily absorbed in things like that.

I hope this helps...
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:20 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find it helpful to write out the whole bunch of circling thoughts. Once it's written down in all its detail, my brain lets go of repeating it over and over.
posted by daisyace at 5:22 AM on January 30, 2011

This is the question that finally convinced me to stop lurking and get an account! I was having anxiety where I couldn't stop thinking about the problem and I found ecouch to be helpful.
posted by benthegirl at 12:46 PM on January 30, 2011

Keeping busy with things you can control.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:12 PM on January 30, 2011

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