17 Strategies to Combat Obsessive Thoughts
We imagine our beloved in the arms of another and we wince. We find ourselves plagued with murderous thoughts. We think about our now scarred marriage and wonder if we can ever be happy again. We beat ourselves up, convincing ourselves that we must be inadequate in some way that this has happened to us (not true!) We think about the other woman/other man. We think about revenge.
We can’t seem to get these unceasing thoughts out of our heads! What can we do?
According to experts, obsessions are normal thoughts exaggerated with increased frequency. Struggling with obsessive thoughts does not mean your character or morals are lacking. Anxiety stimulates obsessions. We obsess because we are afraid.
When we discover that our spouse has been unfaithful, our world as we have known it is shattered. Our belief systems are shaken and questioned. Our sense of security is gone. Our future has become an unknown. It’s easy to worry about things over and over again to the point of becoming paranoid.
Part of the solution lies in learning to separate unsubstantiated worries from truth, learning to live in the present “What’s real?” instead of living in the past, thinking of things that are only exaggerated, untrue products of our imagination.
Obsessions are like quicksand, harmful. Our minds tend to take us in the direction we choose to focus on. If while driving a car, we focus on something on the side of the road, inevitably we will steer the car off the road as well. To drive down the center of the road, we must focus on the center of the road. The same is true in other areas of life. Whatever we feed grows. What we focus on, determines the direction we are headed in. We need to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent or praiseworthy instead.
However, obsessions that come from betrayal are not going to go away, merely by willpower. We must get a grip on our problem areas and combat them with truth.
When seeking support from others, the key is to find people who will help us sort our thoughts, truth from untruth, what are the “real” problems at hand, and how can we solve those problems. Proactive discussion towards solutions is helpful. Feeding the obsession will only make it worse.
When we recognize that anxiety is the root cause of obsessions, we can understand that real healing from obsessions comes through reducing anxiety.
17 Practical Coping Strategies
1. Make a list of all your obsessive thoughts. Then write down what type of things trigger each, and what you do after. What coping strategies are you already using that work?
2. The 3 second rule – Allow yourself 3 seconds to think about the obsessive item, then purposefully redirect your attention to something more positive, a feeling, a happy memory, a pleasant vacation, or a kind word.
3. Learn how to relax. Sometimes just thinking the word “relax” softly in your head with a deep breath is helpful. I often whisper to myself, “You’re going to be okay.” (I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I find talking to myself quite helpful.)
4. Learn the art of taking minute vacations, stop and smell a rose, close your eyes and let the sun shine on your face, pet an animal (in fact animals can offer a lot of comfort if we stop to enjoy them for a few minutes).
5. Obsessions are projections of ourselves into the past, the future, other people and situations. Learn to live in the present. Often our present is actually going quite well, except that we are allowing what is good to be ruined by what was, or what we worry might be. As one individual so eloquently put it, “I have had many problems in my lifetime, a few of which actually happened!” (The way we are treated by our spouse during recovery does make a big difference. It helps enormously if we can balance the negative with more positive present-day experiences.)
6. Focus on your positive circumstances or behaviors rather than what might be “wrong.” Count the things that you can be thankful for each day. This strategy works miracles for bringing a person out of any gloomy mood. (The other day, I was doing this, and as soon as I counted, “and I haven’t lost all my possessions and loved ones in the Tsunami,” I began to weep thinking about how much I have to be grateful for.)
7. Reward yourself for any and all progress made in dealing with obsessive thoughts.
8. Use distractions. Many reported that distracting themselves with other activities helped them to stop obsessing negatively. One woman found her fast-paced job helpful. It forced her to take her mind off the painful thoughts for a time. The painful thoughts accompanying a spouse’s affair are so intense it is overwhelming to process them all at once. By taking breaks from dealing with it, we divide the pain into humanly manageable chunks.
9. Redirect your attention from thoughts to actual experience. What is real, today?
10. Change the setting. Take a day off, go to the beach, visit relatives or friends, go hiking – just get away from the persons or things that trigger your obsessions.
11. Give yourself some time each day to sit quietly without any purpose or activity. Oh, how I cherish those rare moments at my house, when I am alone at home, and I can just sit for a few quiet moments and do nothing, no music, no noise. Nothing. It’s rejuvenating! I also practice this occasionally while driving. Turn off the radio. Just be quiet with yourself for a few moments. You may even get an inspired solution to a problem. A relaxed walk through nature also works.
12. Learn how to say “No.” You don’t have to be everything and do everything for everyone. Freedom of choice and listening to your own desires opposes obsessing.
13. The Head Shake Technique. If you find yourself obsessing simply shake your head as if you were shaking the thought right out of your head.
14. Thought Stopping. When you notice yourself obsessing actually shout, “STOP” in your head and then move on to another activity or direction. This is different than trying not to think about an obsession - which only makes the obsession stronger. Rather it is interrupting the obsessive process. We cannot keep ourselves from having obsessive thoughts, but we can refuse to “dwell” on them; we can immediately try and think about other more positive things, like the biblical verse, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Renewing your mind (changing the way you think), doesn’t happen by accident. It is something you purpose to accomplish.
15. Massed Imaginational Exposure. Develop your own script of the worst fears you obsess about. Read the script onto an audiotape and play it for 30-60 minutes. Note your anxiety level (0-100) when you start and keep at it until the anxiety goes down by 50% or more. Feel the anxiety and don’t do any behaviors to avoid it.
16. Shadowing. Follow someone you trust through a behavior that has been difficult for you due to obsessing. This can sometimes break you through the mental barriers caused by the obsession.
17. Thought Backtracking. When you notice yourself on an obsessive train of thought, think of the thought like a train and reverse the direction. What was the thought you had before the current one? What was the one before that? What was the initial thought that started you off? When you get back to something involving your five senses and real, present experience, stop and enjoy that.
The journey to healing from the pain of an affair is like a rollercoaster ride. At times you will move along quite far, suddenly to be triggered by something, and right back in the pain as if it had just happened. Do not be discouraged. It doesn’t mean you aren’t healing. It means you are normal.
It is important not to expect perfection from yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes along the way. Failure is part of the journey to success. So when you blow it, as far as what some book or counselor told you to do, or what you think you should do, don’t worry. Get up again, and keep going. Don’t think, “Oh, I’m such a loser, I dwelled on that thought all day yesterday.” Think: “Good for me. I’m doing better today.”
When will these obsessive thoughts ever go away? There is no set time, no defined moment. As we do the HARD WORK of healing (that is facing our pain and processing it in a healthy manner), slowly the incidences of obsessing diminish in frequency and intensity, until one day we realize, “Wow! I can’t remember the last time I thought about the affair.”
We will always remember the affair, and we will always remember the pain that went with it. The goal is not to forget (which is not possible – my memory is in excellent condition). The goal is to process and heal so that when we do remember, we no longer feel the pain. We no longer relive the pain with the memory.
Peggy Vaughan writes in her book, Beyond Affairs:
"I frequently wished I could have amnesia. That seemed to be the only way I could forget the past. Also, I wished for time to pass. I'd always heard that time heals, but I never heard just how much time it takes. I didn't know whether I could last long enough.
"We spent many, many hours talking about our feelings and trying to get a handle on the whole experience. Little by little it got easier to handle the emotional aspects too...Finally, one day the pain just slipped away when I didn't even notice."
*Resources, A discussion guide titled “Dealing with Obsessive Thoughts” created by Richard Alan at email@example.com
© Copyright 2004 Anne Bercht. All rights reserved.
To order "My Husband's Affair" click here
For information about seminars click here.
For information about confidential coaching with Brian or Anne click here.