The obsessive thoughts that shrink your world

Obsessive thoughts take up a large part of my daily thinking. I often liken it to having a noisy neighbour – or someone holding a gramophone against my ear when I’m trying to work! It can be incredibly distracting.

In this post I’m going to describe what obsessive thoughts look like for me and also talk briefly about self-perception / body issues (just to warn you if this is something you think might be tricky for you to read!)

Actually, a permanent itch might be a better way of describing my own obsessive thoughts – or a series of ever-erupting itches. Whatever. You get the idea. When my anxiety’s been bad, I’ve obsessed about certain aspects of my appearance to the point of feeling paralysed, and unable to focus on anything else. It’s a surreal experience, and saps all the fun out of life. (I guess this is the point at which we’d call it “chronic”?) It’s a bit like anorexia.

But then, I think there’s a degree to which we’re all a bit like this – or can be, depending on the circumstances. The other day, I was listening to a sermon by one of my favourite Christian preachers Paul David Tripp, who described an incident where he discovered he’d left his mobile in his hire car at the airport – minutes before he was due to board a flight. I’m paraphrasing, but Tripp said that – in those moments – his world shrunk to the size of his cell phone. It was all that mattered – all he cared about. As I listened to this, I thought ‘ooh – that sounds just like obsessive anxiety!’

obsessive thoughts

And I don’t know if this is a British thing or a human thing, but I’ve also heard people talking about being honked by other drivers on the road and, subsequently, they’ve found themselves unable to think about anything else for the rest of the journey!

Of course, I don’t think any of us want these thoughts, but it’s very hard to ‘unthink’ something. Actually, I think the more we try to tell ourselves not to think about something, it does in fact have the opposite effect. Like, whatever you do – don’t think about a pink elephant with yellow spots! Don’t think it! Don’t you dare picture it…!

Ditto obsessive thoughts, even the ‘trivial’ ones. How on earth are you supposed to un-remember the rude driver on the road this morning, who made you feel like a complete nonce?

One technique that I discovered through cognitive behaviour therapy is the ‘clouds in the sky’ exercise. This image represents how we can envisage our thoughts, passing across the sky like clouds. They’re all laid-out; we can look at them and say, “ah, there’s the anxious thought, there’s the guilty thought, there’s the work thought,” and so on. I find it useful to spread out all my anxious thoughts across this canvas and look at them. Then, it’s a case of choosing which ones I should listen to, and which ones I should acknowledge but allow to float away, because they’re not needed.

Of course a certain degree of wisdom is needed here, and that might involve chatting to a friend. Like, maybe I need to take some ownership and responsibility of my driving? Do I need to pay a bit more attention when I’m on the road? Do I need to slow down in certain areas? It may well be that some of these thoughts can be useful as learning experiences for personal growth.

obsessive thoughts

But whether these thoughts are useful or not, obsessive thinking is seldom of value. Although sometimes our brains can trick us into believing it is – as if, by hyper-focusing on a problem 24-7, we will be ‘better prepared’ and ‘safer.’ Most of the time, this idea is complete nonsense.

These days, I’m fortunate in that I’m able to approach my anxious thoughts using the clouds technique. Yes they’re still there (some days in great numbers, some days not so much) but I constantly remind myself that it’s up to me to decide which ones to grab hold of, and which ones I can allow to drift away.

Does any of this sound relatable to you? Do you have your own techniques for managing obsessive thoughts? Have you ever had your nose put out of joint by an aggressive driver? šŸ˜‰ Let me know in the comments below.

And until next time – stay calm and stay safe šŸ™‚

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