Dealing with obsessive thoughts

For many of us, our way of dealing with adversity is some form of thinking.

“Oh shit, X happened. What does that mean? What should I do?”

When faced with adversity we try to think our way out of our predicament.

By making sense of what’s going on, we somehow hope to gain control over our condition and escape whatever undesirable state we find ourselves in.

A breakup is a prime example. It’s very common for us to get caught in a mode of thinking.

We may think: “What went wrong? What could I have done? Why did she do this to me?”

It’s worth realizing that thinking is not the only approach to a coping with a sticky situation, but it’s a common one (not thinking aka meditation is often a helpful alternative).

Problem is…thinking doesn’t always work too well. And when it doesn’t, it can actually keep us stuck — or worse, pull us down.

There’s a saying that goes something like this:

“Fire is a useful servant but a terrible master.”

I’ve come to view thinking in the same way.

It can be very useful when we can put it to use but it can be very counterproductive when our thoughts control us.

Thinking is a skill that helps us survive and thrive in modern day society.

Here’s an example.

When thinking isn’t helpful

I ride a motorcycle and sometimes I’ll have a passenger on the back.

Now riding a motorcycle is considerably more dangerous than driving a car.

You have no seat belts, no protective metal shell and you can easily be brought off balance at high speeds.

As a result, mistakes on a motorcycle are more likely to result in a lethal accident than when using any other form of transportation.

When someone sits on the back of my motorcycle they are putting their lives in my hands and they are counting on me to not make any mistakes.

So with a passenger on the back tremendous responsibility lies with the motorcycle rider.

I realise this very well and I take the utmost caution whenever I have a passenger.

Even though I am familiar with the risks and the realities of motorcycle riding, I’ve also learnt that it is not helpful to think about this while riding.

When I am riding with a passenger, I perform best when I am present, focused and not thinking about anything. All my attention needs to be in the moment.

If, instead, I think about the life that my passenger is putting in my hands – I am no longer present-minded.

I think about the consequences of making a mistake, I think about ways we could have an accident and I become nervous, tense and lost in thought. My ability to ride safely will diminish and my passenger will be less safe on the back of my bike.

Clearly, thinking is not helpful here.

But my thoughts do not represent something that is untrue. In fact, they represent a legitimate and relevant truth: I am responsible for another person’s life and a small mistake can be lethal.

Yet, I am not helping myself or my passenger by allowing these thoughts to live in my head.

My passenger’s safety lies in my hands, but counterintuitively forgetting about these implications makes both of us safer.

The lesson here is that thinking is not always helpful. Even though our thoughts may represent relevant truths, allowing those thoughts to live in our minds in an unrestrained manner, may lead to secondary effects which go against our interests.

Part of the diagnosis of being heartbroken is a hyper-activated mind. It is common to experience obsessive and pervasive thoughts about our ex, the relationship and what we could have done differently.

As was the case with motorcycle riding with a passenger, the core realizations are helpful – constant regurgitation of related thoughts is not.

You may very well have made some mistakes in your relationship. Everyone does, especially in our earliest relationships.

But our interest is in learning from our mistakes. If our rumination is no longer helping us learn from our mistakes and instead our constant thinking leads us to feel bad about ourselves, clearly our thinking is not helping us.

Once we’ve identified what we can learn from our past relationships and the mistakes that we’ve made, the thoughts that persist after that point do not serve in our best interest.

Acknowleding, processing and dismissing thoughts

The best strategy becomes one where we start off by listening to the thought and to process it consciously, if it persists after we process it, we acknowledge it and divert our attention elsewhere.

Let’s say you have a thought about having made a mistake in your relationship. You could explore whether that is true or not, whether it would have made a difference or not and whether you could have done otherwise at the time. You explore the thought from different angles until it is fully explored (One good way to do this is using Byron Katie’s four questions).

This may be enough for this particular thought to decrease in terms of the emotional intensity it triggers or it may just show up less often.

When the thought surfaces after processing it, we may remind ourselves that this is a thought we’ve explored and we’ve learnt the lessons it has to offer us. You may even tell yourself this literally: “Ah, I see you, thought. We processed you the other day. Thank you for the reminder but I am satisfied with the lessons we learnt from you last time.”

Once you acknowledge the thought and thank it, shift your attention to something else. You can shift to a physical activity or to a different thought (an ideal vacation location tends to work well).

By acknowledging these thoughts yet not allowing them to persist we can learn the lessons the breakup has to teach us, gradually calm down our minds and allow the neural pathways that underlie the painful emotions to reset.

All this isn’t easy, however.

What is easy is to get lost in the thought and to forget you’re thinking in the first place.

We need to be aware that we’re thinking for us to observe a thought. (This is where a daily meditation practice helps)

Make sense?

About Jesse

I've been helping guys recover from their breakups since 2012. Work with me to fast-track your recovery.