From time to time to time, I get what I call “Spotlight Thoughts”.
Spotlight Thoughts are repetitive thoughts that are not necessarily scary or about anything upsetting. They are simply random thoughts that for some reason or another have taken center stage in my mind and seem to have a big bright light shining on them. They play over and over again and are accompanied by the thought that they will “never go away”. It’s not the topic of the thought that is upsetting…it is the worry that the thought, or line of thought, will get “stuck forever” that is upsetting.
For example, I can be driving in my car and start thinking about what I am going to have for dinner that night. Shortly after, for whatever reason, I become very “aware” of that thought and it begins to feel larger than life. I begin thinking “What if I can never stop thinking that thought? What if I can never stop thinking about what I want to have for dinner?”
I wouldn’t say I get panicky or terrified by the fear that these thoughts will get stuck, but it definitely makes me feel anxious, and uncomfortable. The more I try not to think the thought, the more I think the thought – and it becomes silently louder and larger in my mind until it feels like no other thought will ever be able to find its way in.
After a period of time, usually around 15 or minutes or so, I always get my mind on something else. That is just the way the brain works, I am 44 and have never had a thought not “unstick” eventually. But it is often a very frustrating and anxiety provoking period of time until then, trying to get whatever thought that is “stuck”, out of my head.
The good news is that repetitive thoughts are very common for those of us with anxiety disorders.
This type of thinking, like most anxiety symptoms, is usually brought on by too much stress, overthinking and hyperawareness and it is just as much brain junk as the scary intrusive thoughts are. And it should be treated and controlled much the same way.
These types of repetitive thinking loops are you being stuck in a “mind rut”.
Think of a rut that a wagon wheel would get stuck in on a dirt road. It can be hard to get that wheel out, right? Its much the same with a mind rut and it is our natural tendency to want to push against that “thought wheel” and force it onto something else. However I have found that its much more efficient to sort of rock and ease your mind out of a thought rut and let momentum do the work.
In other words, work WITH your situation instead of against it. That is always the best way with anything anxiety related.
What’s a good way to do that?
Say to yourself “Well, based upon the fact that I am sitting here worried that a thought will get stuck in my head forever, I would say that my mind clearly wants to worry about something right now. What is something REAL that I can worry about instead of inventing phony things like “stuck thoughts”?
This may sound counter productive. Why would you want to try to think of something ELSE to worry about on top of your worry that your repetitive thought will never leave your mind?
There are a few reasons.
First – it’s about our attention span.
As I am sure most of you have figured out, when we get stuck on a thought it can be a big challenge to quit thinking about it. Sometimes the only thing that can pull our worry prone minds out of a repetitive thought loop is finding something ELSE to worry about.
Quite often, that is the only thing strong enough to distract us.
Things to worry about interest us. They are like shiny sparkly objects dangling in front of us. We can be so focused on any one particularly thing, good or bad, but then some new worrisome thought enters our mind and lures us in like a seductive enchantress.
In the case of repetitive thoughts, quite often we can deliberately think of something else bothering us, get distracted by it, and roll right out of the rut we are stuck in, and onto a different thought track without even realizing it.
We may have replaced one worry with another worry, that is true. But chances are good the new worry won’t be playing on a repetitive loop in our head with a giant spotlight shining on it, and that is the most important thing.
Second, let me just say that I am sure we can all agree that its best not to worry at all and to think positively.
But that doesn’t always work.
Sometimes we are simply stuck in “worry mode” and we have no choice but to ride that train of thought until it runs out of steam. But if we are going to do that, we can at least do it in a healthier way. In my book its always better to worry about something logical and “possible” then it is to worry about something odd and highly improbable. Improbable, irrational worry uses imagination, and this unheathy use of imagination fuels anxiety.
If my mind wants to worry about something, so be it, but lets not let it be fear that I will never be able to stop wondering what’s for dinner. Let’s at least get my worry out of the “weird zone” and into the realm of reality.
The “weird zone” is the last place those of us with anxiety disorders need to be hanging out. That is a “bad neighborhood” my friends, with thoughts on every corner trying to lure you into a frenzy. If your train of thought stops there…stay on the train and do not get out and engage with the locals. Choose a new worry from the more “suburban” part of your mind. Nothing weird, nothing too scary. This will keep your imagination less involved, keep the drama low, and make it much easier for you to transition out of the “stuck thought” and on to something else.
If I were stuck in a negative repetitive thought loop right now, here are a few things I could think of and mentally engage with, to try to switch the track of my train of thought.
Well, I forgot to mail the car payment last week. I am going to have to do that tonight or I will be charged a late fee.
It’s bath night for the kids. Darn. Sawyer always screams when I rinse his hair.
Ily has a homework assignment due next week that I have to help her with. I hate crafts and she always ends up saying she is too tired and I have to do all the work.
I wonder how much longer I have before the warranty on the van runs out? Every time the warranty runs out that is when everything starts to go wrong. Last time with the Dodge, it cost us a fortune.
Could my hair get any grayer? I swear I am going to be completely gray by the time I am 50. If I ever end up in a nursing home, somebody better touch up my roots for me.
I just pulled actual worries running through my mind right now to make that list.
I am a fascinating creature aren’t I?
Nothing too scary or dramatic. Just “average” worry.
Chances are good that any one of those thoughts would be good enough bait for me to latch onto and forget my “stuck” thought. I already took the bait just now because I can’t focus on what I am typing because I am thinking about my gray hair. Vanity is very interesting to my subconscious. I learned that one a long time ago.
You might be surprised how easy it is to distract yourself from one worry, simply by thinking of something else that worries you. The best way to make a kid forget about a toy is to put a new toy in his hand. And to our worry addicted minds, the only thing better than worry, is new worry…..fresh worry…especially if its REAL.
As I have said a hundred times in this blog, if you are a person with an anxiety disorder, there is a pretty good chance you are addicted to worry.
Remember that you AND your subconscious mind know the difference between irrational worry and “real” worry. Even if it doesn’t seem like you do…..you do.
Your subconscious wants the REAL worry. That is the meaty stuff. Worries about repetitive thoughts getting “stuck”, most intrusive type thoughts…the scary intrusive thoughts…those are just filler. They are the chew toys to keep your mind in its “comfort zone” until it think of something REAL to worry about. Real worries are always “meatier” worries even if they seem like “smaller”, less important worries.
Makes sense, right? If you offered your dog a little piece of chicken or a giant plastic chicken chew toy, he is going to always go for that little piece of meat first even if its the size of a pea.
Unless you are in an extremely overly sensitized state, real worry is what you will naturally gravitate toward. So when you find yourself worrying about silly things that make no sense, wave some of the real stuff around and let your mind follow the scent away from that fake worry that is probably causing you MORE distress than the real worry will.
Keep in mind that I am not saying we should become full-time worriers here and spend our days trying to think of a real problem to dwell on every time we think of something irrational. Generally I do not believe in using worry as a tool or as a problem solver. We don’t want to feed our worry addiction any more than we have to. But anxiety can be pretty sneaky and sometimes you have to “play the player” in order to pull yourself out of a loop that is causing you distress. Just keep in mind that this is a tip to use every now and then and not a coping technique for every day use.
The next time you are dealing with repetitive thoughts or even scarier intrusive type thoughts, give this tip a try and see if it helps.
As always, be sure to seek professional help if you feel you need more guidance.