Have you ever not been able to stop thinking about something? You’re trying to get to sleep at night, and suddenly a thought enters your brain. It’s a disturbing and anxiety-provoking thought.
Perhaps you can’t stop thinking about a past relationship. Maybe you made a mistake at work today, and you can’t stop thinking about what the consequences of it could be. Or maybe it’s something silly you can’t stop thinking about, almost like having a song stuck in your head.
When you can’t stop thinking about something, it can be greatly distressing. You might feel like your thoughts are going a mile a minute, or find that you can’t focus on anything else. In worst case scenarios, these thoughts could start getting in the way of your daily functioning.
So what does it mean when you can’t stop thinking about something? And how can you stop these thoughts from running circles through your mind?
Here’s an explanation of these types of thoughts, as well as 6 strategies you can use to stop thinking about something.
What does it mean if you can’t stop thinking about something?
Not being able to stop thinking about something is a normal part of life. We’ve all had the experience at least once in our lives when thoughts seemed to get stuck in our minds. It could mean that a situation is causing a lot of stress for you, or that you feel some longing toward a person or situation in your life.
But sometimes, this type of thinking becomes rumination. Rumination is a thinking style that causes people to repeat the same thoughts over and over again. It’s normal to ruminate sometimes about some things. But chronic rumination could be a sign of an underlying mental health condition like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Generalized anxiety disorder can cause you to have excessive and constant worries about situations that don’t objectively merit them. For example, you could worry about money when you have a good income, or about social rejection even when there’s no evidence that you’re disliked.
Anxiety is a very common mental health condition that affects over 40 million Americans. It is highly treatable with a combination of therapy, holistic lifestyle changes, and medication.
OCD can also cause people to ruminate severely. People with OCD experience obsessions, or intrusive and unwanted thoughts. These obsessions can be about anything, but they are always very disturbing to the person experiencing them. People with OCD try to get rid of the obsessions through engaging in rituals called compulsions. But compulsions don’t really work, and the person is plagued by the obsession yet again.
For example, someone with OCD could have the obsession, “I might accidentally run someone over.” No matter what compulsion they do, like avoiding driving or protective rituals, they can’t get the thought out of their head.
This is an extreme version of rumination. If you have OCD, it’s critical to get treatment so your symptoms don’t worsen.
Again, however, ruminating sometimes doesn’t automatically mean that you have anxiety, OCD, or any other mental health condition. If you think you might have one of these disorders, reach out to us for an assessment and diagnosis.
6 ways to stop thinking about something
Here are 6 easy strategies you can use when you find that you can’t stop thinking about something.
When you can’t stop thinking about something, it can be helpful to examine the situation more closely to see if there’s anything you can do about it. Of course, there are some situations that are out of your control. But trying to come up with solutions to certain aspects of what’s troubling you can help you put it out of your mind.
For example, imagine that you can’t stop thinking about an exam you have the next morning. You are ruminating on the worst-case scenario of failing the exam, and you can’t sleep.
At first glance, it might feel like there’s nothing you can do about this situation. But try looking at it more closely and use problem-solving skills. For example, you could engage in some relaxation strategies now to help you fall asleep (and increase the likelihood that you’ll do better on the exam). If you don’t feel prepared for the exam, you could make a plan to ask for an extension.
You might find it easier to stop thinking about the exam after you’ve used your problem-solving skills to come up with real solutions.
Other times, especially when the thing you’re thinking about is completely out of your control, then your best option might be to distract your mind from thinking about it.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based therapy method that teaches people skills to cope better with their emotions. One of the skills that DBT therapists teach is distraction through “Wise Mind ACCEPTS.” ACCEPTS is an acronym for different ways to distract yourself and tolerate distress, and the “A” stands for “activities.”
Some distracting activities you can use include:
- Cleaning your room
- Listening to music
- Finishing a jigsaw puzzle
- Going for a walk
- Repotting some flowers
- Reading a book
Of course, you can’t distract your mind forever. But engaging in these distractions even for a short time can disrupt the cycle of rumination.
Going for a run might feel like the last thing you feel like doing when you can’t stop thinking about something. But research shows that physical activity can help decrease anxiety and depression.
There have also been studies that have specifically found getting regular physical activity helps you to ruminate less to begin with. Even a single bout of exercise can help you decrease rumination.
So if you can’t stop thinking about something, consider working out. You don’t need to go for a run if that’s not your cup of tea. Any aerobic activity, like power-walking, dancing, and swimming, should have the same benefits.
Reframe your thoughts
This is a way to challenge the validity of what you are ruminating about. Thought reframing is a strategy that’s often used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based intervention for anxiety. This can be an especially helpful tactic if you find that you can’t stop worrying about the past or the future.
To reframe your thoughts, you need to examine the validity of them. Often, the things we can’t stop thinking about aren’t actually true. For example, you could be thinking: “What if my boss wants to see me tomorrow because he wants to fire me?” This isn’t an event that’s happening in the present moment. You haven’t been fired. It’s a worry about a possibility in the future.
To reframe these thoughts, think about the evidence you have supporting its validity. Then, think of any evidence you have that disproves the thought. After you’ve looked at both sides, replace the thought with the statement that more accurately represents the objective truth.
Let’s take the same thought as an example: “What if my boss wants to see me tomorrow because he wants to fire me?” You could replace this thought with something like, “I don’t know why my boss wants to see me, but I’ll find out tomorrow.”
This could deflate some of the emotional distress that’s packed into your thoughts and make it easier to stop ruminating.
Mindfulness has made big waves in the mental health community in recent decades. Mindfulness was taken from ancient Asian spiritual practices, but in the West, it is practiced secularly. Researchers have found that mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and more.
Mindfulness practice trains your brain to be aware of each present moment. To be present, we can’t become lost in the past or the future. During mindfulness meditations, many practitioners use their breath as an anchor to the present moment.
To practice mindfulness meditation, simply pay close attention to your breath. Follow it closely with your awareness as you inhale, and as you exhale. Your mind will undoubtedly wander. When it does, simply bring your attention back to your breath. The more you practice this, the more you train your brain to return to the present moment — and finally stop ruminating.
Mental health treatment
If you have a diagnosable mental health condition like anxiety or OCD, then it may be difficult to stop ruminating on your own. Your best course of action may be to receive mental health treatment from licensed professionals.
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, you can receive the mental health support you seek to stop ruminating and focus on your life. Neither anxiety nor OCD are likely to go away with time. They are serious, but treatable, health conditions. Our expert clinical team provides treatment using a whole-person approach to help you along in your recovery process.
Are you ready to finally stop thinking about whatever has been haunting you? Give us a call to learn more about our programs and admission process.