Compulsive thinking¹ is the process of continually analyzing and anguishing over one’s thoughts.
It often results in rumination, in which an individual feels stuck mentally — rehashing their past or present decisions or actions, says Dr. Jeffrey Huttman, a licensed psychologist and the executive director at Palm Beach Institute.
Compulsive thinkers are highly aware of their thoughts, but they also spend a lot of time trying to understand their thoughts’ causes and meanings.
Do you find yourself caught in a distressing cycle of overanalyzing your thoughts?
Compulsive thinking or overthinking is a prominent characteristic of worry, rumination, and obsessive thinking.
Sometimes this overthinking can be a useful characteristic if our thoughts are significant, and we need to decide on the best course of action.
For instance, if I have a thought like, “Should I leave my spouse and file for divorce?” “I’m going nowhere in this job; maybe I need new employment,” or “I’m having chest pains; maybe I should go to the hospital,” I need to pay attention to these thoughts. Ignoring the thought or not taking it seriously could be disastrous, says David A. Clark, Ph.D.²
Signs of Compulsive Thinking
However, if you’re wondering whether overthinking is a problem for you, consider the following questions³ based on a test developed by David A. Clark, Ph.D. in his The Anxious Thoughts Workbook 2:
- Are you easily aware of what you’re thinking at any given moment?
- Do you often question why you are having specific thoughts?
- When feeling upset, do you often focus on what you are thinking?
- Do you have a strong need to know or understand how your mind works?
- Do you feel it’s essential to have strict control over your thoughts?
- Do you have a low tolerance for spontaneous, unwanted thoughts?
- Do you often struggle to control your thoughts?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, you might have a tendency to overthink.
Hazards of Compulsive & Overthinking⁴
Overthinking drains your mental resources, which can interfere with your ability to solve problems. So you end up caught in the tangle of rumination, and no insight is gained. Overthinking makes you feel worse, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California — Riverside, and author of “The How of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, “most people who engage in rumination don’t know they’re ruminating; they think they’re problem-solving — not being able to distinguish between the two is part of the problem,” says Michael D. Yapko, a clinical psychologist in Fallbrook, California, and author of “Keys to Unlocking Depression.
A study published in the December 2017 issue of Psychiatry Research found that people who experienced early life stress — such as physical punishment, emotional or sexual abuse, or general trauma — have a higher likelihood of developing the brooding type of rumination over time.
Meanwhile, other research suggests that people who score high in measures of neuroticism or obsessive-compulsive disorder may be particularly susceptible to rumination.
But as long as you don’t fall into the categories of people who’re in dire need of professional assistance, you can rely upon the proven combination of ancient wisdom and modern psychology to counter this challenge in…
…4 Simple Steps
1. Catch Yourself in the Middle of the Act
If you ever caught yourself in the act of circular compulsive thinking, you will notice the following recurring themes in them.
- First, these thoughts involve the past and the future, seldom the present, which indicates that you’re often clueless about what’s happening in the present moment.
- Second, almost all the thoughts involve you — a byproduct of our natural selection that has designed our brain to focus on self-interest.
- Third, many of these thoughts involve other people because, as a social animal, we’re naturally concerned about what other people are thinking.
Once you bring some awareness to your recurring thoughts, you might acknowledge their futility.
The idea is to understand that those thoughts might appear and disappear like any external sound, but the moment we start identifying with them, we’re making them powerful.
Bringing more awareness is a prerequisite for the next step.
2. Stop Fighting Your Thoughts & Challenge them
We often try our best to stop thoughts, especially the compulsive ones. But I’m afraid that’s an impossible act to pull off. It’s like trying to hold a giant inflatable beach ball under the water but finding it hard to keep it that way for long.
We can instead allow the ball to float around us, just letting it be. Similarly, rather than trying to stop the thoughts, we can stop fighting them and let them be, without feeding them with our judgment and prejudices.
For a compulsive thinker, it’s easy to get carried away with a repeated chain of thoughts. It’s normal for them to catastrophize every situation.
For instance, for them missing a crucial deadline can mean as grave as becoming homeless. Minds of compulsive thinkers are well equipped to interpret an unanswered call from their spouse as signs of an affair or an act of deliberate ignoring.
Therefore, it makes sense to acknowledge that your thoughts might be an exaggeration of negative possibilities. Learn to challenge them for their implausibility before they get you into a complete tailspin.
Once you learn to stop fighting your thoughts, you can try the next step that demands a bit of active disengagement from you.
Due to strong habitual identification, we tend to identify with thoughts arising in our minds. We’ve lived our lives like that. And that’s why it takes a lot of practice to break this conditioning, to be mindful of the thoughts rather than getting lost in them.
If you observe your thoughts without being judgmental about them, you start to see them for what they are — without getting pulled into their elaborate drama.
Buddhism offers a two-step method to disengage from the habit of compulsive thinking —
- Replace anxiety-inducing thoughts with something positive, possibly retrieved from your memories.
- Make sure that the thoughts you are replacing are not only positive but also emotional in their texture. Because memories of personal incidents keep us engaged for a longer duration.
4. Schedule A Daily Rumination/Reflection Time
Have half an hour of “Rumination/Reflection Time” embedded into your daily schedule. During this time, give yourself the liberty to think, ruminate, or mull over things that need resolution in your life — whatever it may be.
The idea of having a dedicated schedule is to refrain from indulging in the act of rumination while doing other tasks.
If you are caught ruminating or reflecting during other times, you can always rescue yourself by reminding yourself about the dedicated scheduled time.
You can also try writing down all your repeated thoughts that need closure.
Once you establish a routine around that schedule, you will soon be able to identify most of the triggers responsible for your compulsive thinking besides embracing its futility.
Unrestrained Compulsive thinking has the potential to turn itself into a habit of excessive rumination, which can prove to be quite harmful to our emotional and physical health.
Compulsive thinking repeated through negative thoughts, words, or images can be quite a significant impediment in leading a healthy life. However, we can learn to curb this unhelpful way of thinking by using greater self-awareness and the practice of mental disengagement.
I sincerely hope that you find these four steps helpful in reducing compulsive thinking.
However, if you feel that you are stuck or that your compulsive thinking leads to significant distress or impairment in your life (e.g., negatively affecting relationships, work, or school), please seek help from a mental health professional.
Originally Published on Medium.