A thought comes up reminding you of an important, often troubling issue. It triggers a train of thoughts that gets stronger and stronger as it takes you through scenarios of what you could of or should have said or done or how things can turn out in the future. Your stories repeat themselves over and over again. Emotions are triggered. You are more and more troubled as you try to, but cannot stop the train.
Obsessive thinking is annoying and, when the thoughts are about negative events, stressful. It is restlessness and worry, hindrances to concentration and peace of mind. Obsessive thinking gets in the way of clear thinking. it is a distraction and a waste of energy.
What You Can Do
What can you do about it? Either don't get on or stop the train once you have
- if you have the intention, the belief that it is possible, the skill to do it and the patient effort required to apply the skill.
You would think that wanting to stop the train would be natural. There are hurdles to get over:
- Attachment to the relentless repetition and the spin of the web of thoughts that have been triggered and gain momentum. Even negative and disturbing thoughts have a certain "stickiness" that keeps them churning in the mind. In some way, it is like going to a horror movie where you spend half the time covering your eyes and the other half enjoying the thrill of fear and repulsion.
- Belief that there is nothing you can do about it, that the thoughts are in charge.
- Lack of mind training, skills to change your mind.
- Lack of sufficient resolve to expend the effort to let go.
There are a number of remedies.
Don't Get On
The first is to catch the triggering thought as early as possible, before it gains momentum and takes over the mind. The more mindfully aware you are, the more likely it is that you will catch the triggering thought early, before it becomes a thought train. Catch the triggering thought or feeling early and let it go - pop it like a bubble, let it dissolve. Don't get on the train.
If the thought is not immediately dissolved, other thoughts are triggered and begin to stick together, to tell a story. You are on the train. The sooner you realize that you are on the thought train, the easier it is to do something about it before it builds so much momentum that it completely takes over your mind. Good news: there is hope even then. Nothing is permanent. Your obsessive thought train will either run out of steam or switch onto another track, morph into a totally different story.
At times, simply realizing that you are on the train stops the train. You mentally step back, see the train for what it is; poof it dissolves. Objective awareness may not immediately stop the train, though it can. If it doesn't stop it, it will slow the train down and shorten the trip.
Replace the Thought
If you become aware that you are on the train and have the skill and strength, you can replace the thought. The replacement can be anything - wishing that everyone is happy and healthy, a mantra, an aphorism, focus on a task, a T.V. program, a song, running around the block - anything. Get on a new thought train, one that is less engaging and more positive than the one you are replacing.
This is more difficult than it seems. It requires that you keep patiently replacing each time the obsessive thinking comes back in. The more you come back to the replacement the weaker the thought train you are trying to replace becomes, until it is no longer a factor.
You can expect the obsessive thought train to return if it is something that is important in your life, like a personal relationship issue or illness. If it is something trivial, it may never appear again.
What if you can't replace it?
You can try getting it out of your mind by writing it or talking about it. But be careful, as this can reinforce it.
Alternatively, you can let it play itself out. Everything is temporary. The thought train will naturally be replaced, eventually. While you are letting the thought chain run its course, if you can, don't feed it. You feed it by embellishing the thoughts with new story lines, unanswerable questions, alternative scenarios, etc. The more you feed it, the greater its staying power.
Just let it go, stepping back from it, mindfully observing it as you would a movie, knowing it is all imaginary. It is a play of your mind. It has no real substance. It is memory and imagination about the future.
Return to Presence
With the obsessive thinking managed, you can return to the present. If your issue is important, you can plan and take some action to help resolve it, if that is possible. You can see what you have learned to get better at managing your mind. In any event, just carry on.
To manage obsessive thinking, practice mindfulness meditation to build your mind muscles and step back to change your perspective.