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  • Writer's pictureEmilyRowcliffe

How do I stop over-thinking?

Are you one of the many sufferers of anxiety that is plagued by rumination or an obsessive thought cycle that seems to be out of your control? Perhaps you’ve downloaded all of the mindfulness apps and, in spite of doing a body scan or a ‘positive visualisation’ you still find yourself wide awake at 4am, a prisoner of your own mind.

In my psychotherapy work with clients, I am regularly asked for ways of switching off and for techniques to ‘stop obsessive over-thinking’. I recognise how deeply disturbing it is, to feel at the mercy of these thoughts- and let’s face it, no one gets trapped in a loop of joy, do they? No one is suddenly awakened by the possibility that everything is going to be brilliant; no one lies there with a heart pounding from excitement at the potential of all of their dreams coming true. No; instead we worry about money, death, being abandoned, untold emotional pain- about all of the bad things that, in the wee hours of the morning, our minds have us entirely convinced will come true.

No one is suddenly awakened by the possibility that everything is going to be brilliant; no one lies there with a heart pounding from excitement at the potential of all of their dreams coming true"

In the first instance, my answer to a client’s question about ‘stopping’ these thoughts is to gently ask them to reframe their request. Instead of using valuable energy locking horns with them in a battle that we are unlikely to ever truly win, ask yourself this: how do I co-exist with my obsessive thoughts? Yes- I’m not just asking you to put down your weapons, I’m also asking you to pull up a chair, put the kettle on and invite your anxious brain to stay a while.

What happens during an obsessive thought cycle? Well, the process starts with the firing of neurons, just like any other thought. It happens out of your awareness and therefore out of your control. The ‘thought’ takes shape and is presented to your conscious mind like thus:


It’s a scary thought isn’t it- dying alone? Your body thinks so, too. So just like anything else scary- whether it’s a bear or a mugger or a spider running across your carpet- your body does this incredible thing. It prepares you to fight or run. In the blink of an eye, your heart has started to speed its rhythm, your skin has gone cold as vital blood is diverted away from your extremities and to the muscles and organs that are required for this impending event… And the same brain circuits that gave you the initial reason for your body’s response now believe that there MUST be impending danger in your environment, because why else would your heart be racing at 140 beats a minute? It has a reason to get its hooks in and start creating a narrative- which in turn feeds your fear cycle and it can continue ad finitum (or until you are suitably distracted or sedated).

The worst thing about the anxiety cycle is that, unlike with the aforementioned bear or mugger, you can’t run away from your anxious thoughts, because you’re the one generating them.

Does this sound familiar? You’re not alone. Cognitive looping is like nail-biting- it’s an unconscious habit that, believe it or not, your brain has created as a way of trying to help you deal with life. Unlike many schools of thought, I believe that our obsessive processes are our minds’ misguided way of trying to get us to address a particular unresolved issue- the invitation to ruminate on a problem is an attempt at offering you the opportunity to resolve it (like your subconscious is a child handing you a Rubik’s cube and looking at you expectantly). For those of us with obsessive compulsive traits, we can often function highly thanks to this innate ability to focus on a problem until it’s resolved. So this isn’t an entirely bad habit- as I said, it has arisen out of your brain’s genuine desire to help you, even if it feels like the opposite.

The worst thing about the anxiety cycle is that, unlike with the aforementioned bear or mugger, you can’t run away from your anxious thoughts, because you’re the one generating them.

Let’s start by flipping our perspective and thanking our hard-working brains. Genuinely- thank yourself for being so creative and determined. You need these qualities, and this is precisely why we won’t be working at ‘stopping your thoughts’.

So how do we co-exist with a part of ourselves that we have grown to fear and loathe? How do we congruently offer full-board, rent-free to someone that has tormented us and robbed us of sleep and peace daily?

Chris, a 20 year old former student, arrived at my therapy room in crisis. His obsessive thoughts had invaded his ability to be rational, to work, to sleep and to be on his own. Although cognitive behavioural therapy is the recommended modality for working with OCD, my gut told me that Chris didn’t need homework or techniques- he needed relationship. He needed someone to fully hear his experience in an empathic and non-judgemental way. And as we worked together, I asked Chris to draw his OCD for me, so that we could both see an external representation of his invisible tormentor. I was surprised to see that he had depicted his disorder as a snowman, complete with smiley face, charcoal eyes and carrot nose. Chris explained that his OCD had begun as a fleeting thought- the ‘snowflake’ that told him he had seriously hurt someone while out driving earlier (Chris has a type of OCD known as Pure O, meaning that he is bombarded by intrusive thoughts rather than dominated by compulsive behaviours). His body reacted exactly the way our bodies should react when we are terrified- and as explained above, there began the obsessive fear cycle in which Chris had remained trapped for almost a year. The fear centre in his brain, excited by all of the activity and intuiting that it must be doing a great job, began presenting Chris with more and more stories, each time rewarded by a burst of adrenaline that fed its creativity. As far as his fear centre was concerned, this was a standard case of supply and demand, and it was more than happy to oblige.

Now that his OCD had been externalised as a (strangely happy-looking) snowman, we could provide it with its own chair in the therapy room. We could ask it questions (Chris became its advocate, and was usually able to answer questions on its behalf, after some therapeutic exploration). We could separate Chris from his OCD and decipher together what thoughts belonged to Chris and what were the snowman’s. On occasion we built the snowman out of pillows and bean bags and Chris took delight at taking out his pain and anger at Frosty with his fists and a tennis racket. Importantly, he was able to thank his snowman for showing him how much he cared about people, and as such, how scared he was of ever hurting anyone.

While I'm not suggesting for a moment that anxious over-thinking is the same as obsessive compulsive disorder, what Chris’ experience can teach us is the importance of paying attention to your process. Instead of lying there at the mercy of your anxiety loop, cultivate a curious part of yourself- your brain is desperately trying to tell you something: so listen. Your first step is to ask yourself to articulate what exactly is troubling you right now. Write it down- all of it, however strange it might sound or however tangled and complicated.

Now read back what you’ve written and try to summarise its core theme. For example, every time Mary is apart from her girlfriend, she becomes anxious and worries constantly about her partner cheating on her or being in an accident. She writes:

I’m scared. Joanne is at the gym and my brain is telling me that she has met someone else there who is prettier than me. They’re laughing and flirting and exchanging numbers.

As Mary imagines this scenario, her heart starts to race, her mouth becomes dry and she feels nauseated.

She is ready for step number two. Mary identifies her core theme as a fear of abandonment. She is anxiously attached to Joanne and is terrified of their relationship ending.

Step three involves externalising your theme by giving it an identity. Perhaps you want to draw it as an object or animal- maybe you wish to give it a human name and image. Perhaps modelling it out of clay or plasticine appeals to you. In Mary’s case, she decided to call her theme Aaron (anxious attachment : AA). She imagined Aaron as a sad young boy who felt very lonely and immediately she felt compassionate and empathic towards him. She chose a teddy bear that Joanne had won at a funfair to represent Aaron.

Step four is all about building a relationship with your theme and learning how to meet its needs in a way that doesn’t involve destructive and obsessive rumination. The next time that Mary noticed herself starting to become gripped with fear at the thought of Joanne meeting someone else, she knew what to do. She greeted her theme (‘oh hi Aaron,’ she said to the bear) and gave it the opportunity to speak. She asked him to tell her what was troubling him, and was able to respond with the love and understanding that she realised she wasn’t offered when she was a little girl, devastated by her father leaving the family and divorcing her mother. Mary’s mum was too impacted by his abandonment to offer Mary what she needed and so this emotional trauma remained inside Mary, dormant until triggered in to action by the possibility of her own relationship ending. When Aaron-the-bear ‘told’ Mary that he was scared that Joanne would leave and that he would be all alone and not know how to cope, she was able to hug him and tell him that she is a 30 year old woman and, although she would be very sad, she would survive. That Aaron doesn’t need to be scared because she is in charge and is very capable indeed.

Can you see how we can use the four steps:

  • curiosity

  • core themes

  • creative externalisation

  • communication with compassion 

to move to a place where we can take some control over our obsessive, anxious thoughts? I highly recommend giving this a try yourself next time you feel trapped by your own mind. You might reach the conclusion that you’d like to take your findings to a psychotherapist or counsellor and explore them further; perhaps you have questions about what I’ve written here, or would like to share your personal experience of anxious rumination. Just know that you are not alone. You are not crazy- on the contrary! Your brain has been doing its very best to get your attention and just needs a little guidance from time to time.

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