5 Tips For Dealing with Obsessive Thoughts
Many people come into recovery and have trouble understanding why their thoughts become so obsessive. They find themselves having the same thoughts over and over again, or getting consumed by thoughts they feel they have no control over.
Everyone experiences negative thoughts sometimes – it’s simply part of being human. Everyone has intrusive thoughts that pop in seemingly out of nowhere.
During active addiction, the mind was essentially numbed by the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain. In early recovery, as you come more into your own body, you’ll find it may be challenging to reintegrate different parts of yourself, such as your feelings and thoughts.
In your recovery journey, you’ll learn how to identify and understand your own feelings again after pushing them down for so long or never allowing yourself to feel them in the first place.
Similarly, you’ll learn how to reconcile with your own thoughts with a more clear frame of mind, without the mind-altering effects of substances.
You may have never considered that your thoughts would be something you’d have to adjust to and learn how to regulate, but this is actually such an important part of recovery. Your thoughts about what’s happening around you drive your emotions, and your emotions drive your actions. Your actions are what make up your life, so if your thoughts feel out of your control, it’s no wonder your life may feel out of your control, too.
When thought patterns become negative and obsessive and take a life of their own, this can cause a debilitating effect on your well-being. This can even lead to relapse.
Experiencing unhelpful thoughts is normal
The good news is that experiencing obsessive thoughts in early recovery is completely normal. The brain needs time to adjust to a life without substances. You need time to learn how to retrain your brain, and to become aware of your thoughts. Becoming aware of them will help you shift them. It will help you adopt a more supportive, positive, healthy baseline of thinking.
When it comes down to it, shifting your thoughts and stepping outside the black hole of obsessive thinking takes action. It doesn’t happen on its own. In order to maintain your sobriety and avoid relapse, there are many things you can do to manage your obsessive thoughts. There are actions you can take to feel more in control of your own mind.
How to overcome obsessive thoughts in addiction recovery
Dealing with obsessive thoughts can be incredibly overwhelming. It can significantly affect every area of your life from your recovery efforts to your career goals to your relationships with other people. However, know that even the most all-consuming thought patterns can be broken – it just takes conscious effort, awareness, and practise.
Even though it feels like your thoughts are a part of you, they’re just as external as anything outside of your body. Knowing this is the first step toward learning how to deal with obsessive thoughts in recovery.
Below are a few ways to help you overcome obsessive thoughts:
1. Becoming aware of the thoughts as separate from you
It’s easy to innately identify with our thoughts. They are so close to us that they feel as real as the beating heart that keeps us alive. The truth is, they aren’t as real and embedded as they can feel. They are their own separate entity, and are separate from the truth of who you are.
One way to understand this is by thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch tomorrow, for example. Take a few moments to think about it.
Now, what did you just think about? Take a few moments to think about it.
As you recall what you were just thinking about, you’re observing your own thought. An important concept to consider is, who is doing the observing?
This thought is separate from you – you are not the thought, but rather, the observer of the thought.
Becoming aware that your thoughts are separate from you can help facilitate a monumental shift, or a subtle shift. It may not facilitate anything at all for you right now. However, one day you may find yourself noticing your thoughts instead of being in the thought, and then it will connect.
This first step will open up your awareness to the concept that your thoughts are outside of you. That notion alone gives them far less power over you.
2. Catching thoughts early
It sounds easier said than done, but one way to deal with obsessive thoughts is to catch the thoughts early. Oftentimes, when you’re dealing with obsessive thoughts they can build and grow. They feel like they take a life of their own.
As the thoughts become bigger and more all-encompassing, they can make you feel even more anxious, fearful, or whatever negative emotion those thoughts prompt within you. These emotions can then consume you and perpetuate the thoughts even more. This can drive you to engage in behaviours you normally wouldn’t want to engage in. When you’re in recovery, this can even lead to relapse.
Because of this, it’s so helpful to catch negative or unsupportive thoughts early. Discovering what triggers you is a great way to become aware of unsupportive thoughts when they’re happening.
Another way to get into a practise of catching your thoughts early is through meditation. By practising meditation, even for 5 minutes a day, you’ll learn how to notice your thoughts. Then, in your waking life, you’ll become more aware of the thoughts that you’re having. This will make it easier to identify when unhelpful thoughts are making their way into your mind.
Another way of identifying unhelpful thoughts is by journaling. It doesn’t even need to be a formal practice of journaling. Simply writing down what you’re thinking about will help you get your thoughts on paper so you can look at them objectively. Beyond this, it’ll help you get the thoughts out that are underneath your surface-level thoughts. These are the unhelpful thoughts you probably don’t even know you’re having. This is a great way to get closer to your subconscious mind, and understand the thoughts that are living within it.
3. Not buying into the thoughts
Becoming aware of your thoughts is obviously important if you want to manage them. Noticing them and catching them early is a great way to prevent them from consuming you. However, what are you supposed to do after you notice them?
The next tip for how to deal with obsessive thoughts in recovery is to not buy into the thoughts after you become aware of them. For instance, let’s say you’re about to attend your first meeting in recovery. You feel nervous and fearful. You notice a thought in your mind that says, “Everyone is going to judge me.” It’s wonderful that you’ve noticed this thought, but what happens next?
A great technique is to say to yourself, “I’ve noticed I’m having a thought that says everyone is going to judge me.” Consciously thinking to yourself that you’ve noticed this though can innately help create some space between you and the thought.
Then, you can observe the thought with gentle curiosity and nonjudgment. You may find yourself thinking it’s interesting that you’re having that thought. You may curiously wonder where it’s coming from. Additionally, you may wonder whether this thought is based on an ultimate truth, which it isn’t.
What’s most important is to sit with your thoughts in a place of nonjudgment. Don’t beat yourself for having unhelpful thoughts when you notice you’re having them. Everyone, even the most successful people, experiences unhelpful thoughts in some form or fashion. It’s completely normal and it’s part of being human.
Separating yourself from them by observing them with curiosity will help decrease the power you feel they have over you. You’ll learn you can take the step forward and attend the meeting anyway, despite that thought.
4. Breaking them before they spiral out of control
So you’ve become aware of the thought, you’ve caught the thought, and you didn’t buy into it. Now, breaking the unhelpful thoughts before they spiral out of control will help you manage obsessive thinking. One way to do this is by disputing the thought.
Not buying into a negative thought can leave you in a neutral space. So, a great technique is to offer yourself a new, more supportive, and helpful thought instead. This new thought may be based on a belief you already have, or it can be a thought you want to start working on believing.
Let’s use the previous thought as an example. You noticed yourself experiencing the thought, “everyone is going to judge me,” before attending your first recovery meeting. You then told yourself that you noticed you were having this thought, and observed it with gentle curiosity and nonjudgment.
Next, work on breaking that thought by either disproving it or thinking an opposite thought that you want to work on believing.
Some thoughts you can choose to try may look like…
- “I don’t know these people, so I don’t know if they will actually judge me.”
- “I wouldn’t judge someone else in this position, so maybe the people at the meeting are just like me and also wouldn’t judge.”
- “Everyone at this meeting understands what I’m going through, so they won’t judge me.”
- “If other people judge me, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to this meeting to get help and be better. I’m proud of myself for putting my well-being in front of my fear.”
- “People are loving and supportive. I will be in a supportive, loving, and safe environment.”
Thinking a new thought that comes from a different frame of mind, such as the ones listed above, can help break the current negative thought pattern you’re having.
5. Action is key
Action is a must when it comes to shifting thought patterns and dealing with obsessive thoughts. Instead of lying in bed and getting swallowed by your own thoughts, for example, take action. The above-listed tips are one way of taking action, by consciously observing and combating the thoughts, and replacing them with new, helpful, supportive ones instead.
Other things you can do to help break unhelpful thought patterns can simply be to get up and get moving. Call someone you trust and share your thoughts with them, or just talk with them about anything to break up being so absorbed within your own mind.
Write your thoughts down to get them out of your head and onto a sheet of paper, giving them less power and making them smaller than they feel in your mind.
Help someone out or do something nice for someone else, to not only help you feel better but also to get you out of your own head and help you shift your perspective.
Whatever you decide to do, remaining idle and allowing your thoughts to swallow you will only be to your detriment. It’s easier said than done, but when you notice yourself having unhelpful thoughts, try your best to take one step in the direction of doing something about them.
Identifying the source of negative thoughts
It’s important to note that some people who struggle with obsessive thoughts in recovery may be dealing with a co-occurring disorder such as OCD, PTSD, an eating disorder, or an anxiety disorder. In these cases, seeking help professionally can be life-changing and offer massive relief.
Getting professional help can help you identify the source of these thoughts and the root of what they’re stemming from. It can help you learn how to cope with these thoughts or make changes in other areas to diffuse the thoughts. Especially if your obsessive thoughts are related to the past or are tied to compulsions, it can be incredibly helpful to seek the assistance of a counsellor or therapist so you can experience the mental freedom you deserve.
A final note on dealing with obsessive thoughts in addiction recovery
Although the tips above are written in a linear process, it’s important to remember that shifting your thoughts isn’t easy and doesn’t happen overnight. Just like the process of recovery, it’s gradual and takes time and conscious effort.
Becoming aware of your thoughts is like building a musical, but know that it is completely possible and that your thoughts are in your hands. Even when it feels like they’re all consuming, you have within you the ability to notice and shift them. It takes repeated effort and practise, but with time, an optimistic and helpful stream of thoughts can become the new norm.
Recoverlution’s Wellness Hub offers many helpful practices that are evidence based that can help to break and reframe obsessive thought patterns. Our team of wellness professionals deliver classes on meditation, yoga, exercise, breath work, mindfulness and mindset coaching. All of these practices are designed to help develop a healthy mind, body and spirit, helping you in your addiction recovery journey.
Author - Thurga
Learning to take back control of our thoughts in addiction recovery
- How to stop obsessive thoughtshttps://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-stop-obsessive-thoughts
- Obsessive compulsive disorder: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd#:~:text=Obsessions%20are%20repeated%20thoughts%2C%20urges,involving%20sex%2C%20religion%2C%20or%20harm