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Psychology Article: How to Stop Obsessive Worry

How to Stop Obsessive Worry


William F. Doverspike, Ph.D.

Most people worry about things occasionally, which can be useful in situations such as planning for the future, preparing for a test, or checking things before a trip. However, when worrying becomes unproductive, excessive, or difficult to control, it may be pathological. Difficulty controlling worrying is what distinguishes pathological worry from the normal kind of anxiety that most people experience when they prepare for an important event or challenge. Pathological worrying is sometimes described as obsessive worrying. Obsessions are intrusive and mostly nonsensical thoughts, images, or urges that a person tries to control, resist, or eliminate. In other words, an obsession is a recurring thought, such as worry, that outweighs any other thought. In order to cope with the weight of obsessive worry, psychologists have identified several cognitive-behavioral activities that can be useful in reducing the frequency and intensity of obsessive thoughts. Some of the following ideas have been summarized from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Bourne, 1996).


Obsessive worry is like a negative spiral. The longer you spend time with an obsession, the deeper into it you can get. A mental obsession can also be viewed as a form of trance. The more you induce it by repetition, the more entranced you become and the more difficult it may be to "break the spell."


The downward pull of an obsessive spiral can be very compelling. Following the path of least resistance is likely to keep you going round and round until you are eventually feeling down and out. Deliberately choosing to break out of the obsessive thinking may be difficult at first, especially if you’re highly anxious. With practice, it will get easier. Below are some examples of alternative activities and experiences that will help you shift your mind away from obsessive thinking.


It takes a deliberate act of will to stop obsessing. You need to make a deliberate effort to move away from circular mental activity and get out of your head by "shifting gears" to another modality of experience, such as bodily activity, expressing emotions, interpersonal communication, sensory distraction, or a specific ritual. In some cases, an alternative, positive obsession may help. For example, the vicious cycle of negative worry can sometimes be replaced by positive obsessions such as uplifting thoughts, affirmations, or slogans.


Find an alternative positive obsession. In addition to focusing on uplifting affirmations or slogans, there are other types of "positive obsessions" that can be helpful. For example, try working out a crossword puzzle, performing a jigsaw puzzle, or even studying or writing.


Engage in physical exercise. Although difficult at first, engaging in physical activities may help you break the obsessive cycle. Physical activities can include your favorite outdoor or indoor exercise, dancing, walking, or household chores.


Use visual and sensory-motor distractions. Find an enjoyable activity in which you can "lose yourself" in the moment of the activity itself. Effective distractions can involve your computer, television, movies, video games, uplifting reading, or even a rock garden. Spend some time engaging in with arts and crafts, repairing something, or gardening. Any healthy activity can be useful if it is one in which you lose track of time while engaging in the experience of the activity.


Listen to evocative music to release repressed feelings. Repressed feelings--particularly dysphoric emotions such as sadness or anger--may underlie and "drive" the obsessive thinking. Music may help you get in touch with your feelings that are below the surface of your obsessions.


Talk to someone. Use the old adage, "Don’t worry alone." Instead, talk with a trusted person about something other than the worry, unless you want to express your feelings about it. People who engage in obsessive thinking tend to focus on their thoughts rather than their feelings. If you can learn to share your feelings, it may help dissipate your obsessive thinking.


Use visual imagery. Some research suggests that chronic worriers are people who engage in frantic, intense thought processes without accompanying images of the threat (Borkovec, Shadick, & Hopkins, 1991; Roemer & Borkovec, 1993). In other words, chronic worriers may think so hard about upcoming problems that they don’t have any attentional activity left for the important process of creating images of the potential threat. With the help of a psychologist, you may be able to learn how to form mental images associated with negative affect which, paradoxically, can be processed in a way that helps reduce anxiety and worrying.


Use progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation is a stress management technique by which you can learn to reduce anxiety by learning how to relax the muscular tension. It can be done alone or in combination with abdominal breathing, which means breathing fully from your abdomen or from the bottom of your lungs. It is the reverse of the way you breathe when you’re anxious or tense, which typically involves breathing that is shallow and high in your chest. Practice progressive relaxation for 5-10 minutes until you feel fully relaxed and free from obsessive thoughts.


Practice healthy rituals. Combine abdominal breathing with a positive affirmation that has personal significance. Keep this up for 5-10 minutes, or until you’re fully relaxed. This type of activity can function as a positive trance induction that can overcome the negative trance enforced by the obsessive worry. For example, an affirmation can involve a statement such as "These are just thoughts" or simply "Let it go."


Consider meditation procedures. Although many of the above procedures focus on avoiding obsessive thoughts, psychologists have also developed some meditational approaches that focus on acceptance rather than avoidance of distressing thoughts and feelings (Roemer, Orsillo, & Barlow, 2002). Meditational procedures help people learn how to be more tolerant of these feelings which, contrary to common sense, can sometimes help a person reduce their obsessive thoughts.


Consider medication consultation. Although beyond the scope of these self-help techniques, there are some medications that have been shown to be useful in the treatment of anxiety conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, it is important to remember that "pills are not skills." If regular practice of the above skills does not seem to help control your obsessive worries, it may be helpful to arrange a consultation with a board certified psychiatric physician concerning the benefits and risks of psychotropic medications.


Borkovec, T. D., Shadick, R., & Hopkins, M. (1991). The nature of normal and pathological worry. In R. M. Rapee & D. H. Barlow (Eds.), Chronic anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, and mixed anxiety depression. New York: Guilford.

Bourne, Edmund, J. (1996). The anxiety & phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Pages 425-426.

Roemer, L., Orsillo, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2002). Generalized anxiety disorder. In D. H. Barlow, Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (second ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Roemer, L., & Borkovec, T. D. (1993). Worry: Unwanted cognitive activity that controls unwanted somatic experience. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.). Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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