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How do I rein in my obsessive thoughts? Add to ...

The question: I find that when something’s bothering me (such as something my brother-in-law says or slacker behaviour by a co-worker) I get really fixated on it and keep turning it over and over in my head. How do I move my mind off it and stop obsessing?

The answer: Spending more time than usual thinking about situations that are upsetting or annoying is a very natural human reaction. Rumination (repetitive, obsessive thoughts) and the associated emotional responses (worry, anxiety, anger) serve a useful function. The function of virtually every emotional state is threefold: (1) to validate to ourselves that something is happening that affects something important to us; (2) to communicate to others that we need support or that their behaviour has been inappropriate; (3) and to motivate action.

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So let’s take a look at the situation relating to your “slacker” co-worker. Your obsessive thoughts (and the associated emotions) may be functioning in the following way: (1) to validate to yourself that you value a strong work ethic and take pride in your work, and you do not respect people who do not hold this same view; (2) your behaviour at work (intentionally or not) may be communicating to your boss that you need him or her to intervene, or you may be communicating to your co-worker that his or her behaviour is unacceptable because it affects your ability to do your job well; (3) it may motivate you toward the action of approaching your boss or another co-worker to seek advice, or to talk directly to the co-worker in question about his or her behaviour and how it is affecting you.

An important question to ask yourself is this: Is your rumination serving any of the above useful functions. If so, your job is to understand the function it is serving, and then ask yourself if there anything you can do about it. If yes, take the appropriate action. If no, then your job is to find a way to move on.

There are a few strategies that can help. First, increase your awareness to the thoughts you are having (we can’t change thoughts unless we are aware that we are having them in the first place). Then write down your thoughts. It is amazing how powerful thoughts can become when we are caught in the trap of silent rumination. Putting those thoughts on paper is a technique that can help take their power away. Once you have written your thoughts down, ask yourself if the thoughts are realistic and accurate.

For example, if you have the thought “my co-worker is a total good-for-nothing and can never do anything right” this is likely not fully realistic nor accurate. For any unrealistic or inaccurate thoughts, come up with more realistic ones (e.g., “my co-worker has not pulled his or her weight on this big project, but generally does a decent job when assigned tasks”). Then actively remind yourself to challenge and replace your negative, extreme thoughts. This takes practice, but over time your mood will improve and the ruminative thoughts will decrease.

Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry by Michelle Craske, David Barlow and Tracy O’Leary is an excellent workbook that is grounded in cognitive-behavioural approaches, and offers step-by-step ways to target anxiety and worry.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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