How to Stop Obsessive Thought Loops

Last Updated: 3 Apr 2020

Ruminating over these uncertain times can put us at war with our thoughts to the point that they become intrusive.

A man retraces his footsteps in a big circle. Represents ruminating and obsessive thought loops with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Whether your obsessive thoughts revolve around uncertain and exaggerated worries or a consuming project, the repetitive loops can make it difficult to focus, disrupt your sleep, and affect your daily behavior. Even during these troubling times, there are ways to break these thought cycles.

Understand the Problem

A persistent thought loop can be extremely difficult to ignore, particularly in trying times. Often, the intruding thoughts preoccupy your mind at bedtime, making sleep elusive. Fixating on fears, other people’s motives, and things you did or should have done can distract from living in—and enjoying—the present moment. The constant distraction can also result in cognitive difficulties, such as a decreased capacity for learning and memory.

Realize You’re Far from Alone

Thoughts typically characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are widespread. An international study published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders found that an incredible 94 percent of people experience obsessive thoughts in some form at some time. What’s more, other research suggests that anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of people with bipolar have comorbid OCD—a rate 10 times greater than the general population.

Realize What It Is

When you’re caught in a loop, try to take a step back and remember that this is how your brain is wired, and that these intrusive thoughts are just that: thoughts. Once you recognize them for what they are, you’ll be able to proactively work toward stopping unwanted thought cycles. Armed with self-awareness, you’ll be able to enact whichever method works best for you.

Strategies to Stop Obsessive Thought Loops in Their Tracks

#1 Change Your Focus

Try to redirect your attention from your thoughts to something important that requires your focus or something you want to get absorbed into, like an engrossing movie. Call a friend to both distract yourself and take the spotlight off of your thoughts Also, doing something physical (whether active or restorative) can help draw your attention to your physical body and outward reality, breaking the cycle and proving to yourself that you can regain control over your thoughts.

#2 Become the Witness

Try to observe in an impartial way and create some distance between yourself and your thoughts. This can be difficult in times of crises, but that is when it’s all the more important to try to gain a broader perspective. Sometimes it helps to label the thought out loud, as if you are an objective witness with a curious intent. You can ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of these thoughts? Are they serving me? Are they harming me?” It can also help to get the ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper or digital file.

#3 Creative Visualization

Some experts suggest mindfulness exercises as a way of creatively interacting with your thoughts before releasing them. For example, in your mind’s eye, you could imagine your intrusive thought as an object, then “watch” as it falls on a leaf, like a raindrop, and floats away on a tranquil lake, until you can’t see it anymore. Visualizations like these are endless; try a few and stick with what works.

#4 Set Aside Time for Your Thoughts

Especially when your obsessive thoughts are relevant but still intrusive, it can be helpful to “schedule” time with yourself to think about the problem. This allows you to explore the concern without distracting you from the present. For example, set aside 30 minutes after work to try to work through the thought loop. Perhaps, by that time, you’ll be able to think it through more impartially.

#5 Have a Plan in Place

With a stronger understanding of your thought patterns, you’re better prepared for the next time persistent thoughts start spiraling. The first step is to have a plan ready in advance, so you know exactly what you’ll do when the next obsessive loop begins. (It might be helpful to work with a therapist to learn healthy responses for rebuffing invasive rumination, such as techniques for cognitive defusion, or disentangling such thoughts.)

Intrusive thoughts are “normal”—but when you are already wrestling with anxiety, the news, uncertainty, and the continual changes to our lives triggers and feeds our already-heightened state. At a time like this, when you are feeling overwhelmed with social media and the latest news updates, take a break and protect your mental health. Don’t “white knuckle it”—put your plan in place, practice it, and work to live in the present moment.

Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
Heather Stone, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

  1. I am searching the internet to try and understand what I have. Years can go by between these episodes. I wake up and my mind is caught in a racing thought. I can feel it in my neck and head. I feel like a calm observant of someone taking over my body. I try to negotiate my minds release. It usually happens within an hour. Last night took six.


  3. i downloaded an app called blocksite. You can customize to block out news and any social media that triggers you. I onle have email, my bank, ebay and amazon on the internet. I gave the password to a loved one so I cant change my mind. Life changing

  4. Looping thoughts cause so much damage. Lithium didn’t help on this with me. What did work was a nature spiritualist in Oregon. She has techniques sounding too woo woo to be real, for me though they worked great. Her name is Burning Tarot.

  5. I’m just beginning to learn how to use mindfulness to reset myself. Night is the worst time for me. Thanks for the article.

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