A big part of my anxiety disorder is that I suffer from obsessive thoughts. I get stuck on something important to me and think about it non-stop until I either A) manage to somehow achieve my goal, or B) make myself sick.
When I was 11 I used to sit on my family porch, and wait for my mother to get home. I could stay there well past sunset, counting cars, telling myself that by the time I counted 100 green cars, my mother would be home. When that didn’t work, I would wish on stars. When she still didn’t show up, I made deals with myself. For instance, I would promise to make my bed each morning for 10 straight days or floss my teeth twice daily for three weeks if my mother would show up in the next ten minutes. I would then proceed to count to 60 very slowly ten times.
My son’s therapist compares this relentless type of thinking to a hamster on the wheel. The hamster runs, and runs, and runs, and wears itself down, but it never gets anywhere.
In the case of waiting for my mother, she eventually turned up. As I got older, my obsessive thoughts became more slippery, harder to attain. I wanted straight A’s. I wanted to control my jean size. I wanted to become a television reporter, and I pushed and shoved and worked odd hours until I became one. In many ways, and for many people, obsessive thoughts can be a great motivator. After all, I might not have achieved so many of my goals in life if I wasn’t giving them 100% of my attention.
On the other hand, obsessive thoughts can be physically painful and quite literally begin to drive a woman crazy. My latest obsessive thought has become a real beast.
Fortunately there are techniques – tricks that can make those thoughts go away. I sat down with a good friend of mine last week while I was visiting San Diego, and she reminded me of a very useful tool we had both learned from cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a very simple trick, but it works. Over time, it teaches your brain to let go. Since it’s likely that we all suffer from obsessive thoughts every now and again, I wanted to share this strategy with you.
When you start to have that same old worry or doubt about something you can’t fix or control, imagine a stop sign.
See it, say it out loud if it helps – tell your brain to S T O P. Then force yourself to think about something that makes you happy.
For my friend, she thinks about her adorable nieces. Those two little girls make her feel warm and fuzzy. For me, I go to Holly Land, a gorgeous deserted island with perfect weather. A lazy hammock hangs between two tall trees that edge the pristine beach. My husband is always cooking something delicious on an open fire. The sun is setting, allowing just enough light to watch the waves crash onto shore. I usually take a last minute dive into the ocean before dinner. Holly Land is beautiful and peaceful, it’s the ideal place to escape.
I’ve been visualizing that Stop sign several times a day this past week, and taking innumerable trips to Holly Land. The unhealthy worry keeps coming back, and I keep pushing it away.
As they said in one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, we are the masters of our domain. We control our thoughts. We can literally rewire our own brains.
It takes time, consistency, and a whole lot of persistence. It is well worth the effort. I can tell you from personal experience, visiting my happy place is a heck of lot more fun than sitting on a cold porch counting green cars.