We've all been there. In the middle of a workout class, at a dinner party, or while driving to an appointment. We have a thought that seems stuck. We can't get it out of our head. It takes us out of the present moment and into the past or future.
For some thoughts, we can easily let them go. Maybe during a workout class, you think about what's for dinner that night. At a dinner party you think about what you just said a minute before. On your drive to the appointment, you think about a chore that needs to get done this week. For most of these thoughts, we might not have the answer, but we can easily move on and they don't stick.
It seems harmless, but when our thoughts wander away from our present situation, we can start a habit of not being present in the moment, which can lead to other challenging thought patterns. Some stuck thoughts can be intrusive and scary and not as easy to let go of.
Anxiety is elevated when we fear something in the future or dwell on the past. Whether it is catastrophizing or all or nothing thinking, we can suddenly be taken out of the situation that we are currently in and find ourselves fixating on a "what if" scenario.
The best way to reduce anxiety is to stay present and not go into a spiral of thoughts that are based on automatic thoughts. It's hard to even catch automatic thoughts when they are happening, because they are so automatic. Our brains are wired to stay in the thought loop and the anxiety spirals beyond our baseline threshold. One anxious thought leads to another, and that anxious thought leads to another more anxious thought.
Our bodies are responding to the thoughts and we see an increase in fight, or fight, or freeze responses. This heightened state (survival mode) has now shut down part of our "wise mind" and we respond without our whole creative, sound mind. This state of being can lead to more anxious thoughts and our brain now interprets our bodily sensations and confirms that something must be wrong leading to more anxious thoughts and catastrophizing. It's a spiral and often we feel out of control and our default setting is Anxiety.
One of the best ways to prevent this spiral is to practice mindfulness. Try first practicing being present in each moment. If you are working out, try not to plan what's for dinner. Notice how your body is sweating, be aware of your heart rate and breathing and allow yourself to be present in the workout, even if it's uncomfortable. At your dinner party, stay focused on the taste of the foods, present conversation, and smiles and laughter of your family and friends. On your drive, notice the sounds, colors, and patterns in the road.
For the more problematic thoughts that are scary and intrusive, thought stopping will help you practice stopping the thought before it spirals out of control. Remember, ruminating on a thought is not productive, because your "wise mind" is not in control and you are not problem solving when you are stuck in a thought.
It helps to imagine a Stop sign when you encounter a thought that takes you out of the present moment. Picture the stop sign and count to five and then give yourself permission to let the thought go! You can also self-parent with a firm "Stop it" in a voice that commands to not let yourself go there. You can picture a pointer finger that points to the thought and tells yourself "NO!" These are ways you can take control of your thoughts and not be a victim to stuck thoughts.
Repetitive, intrusive thoughts can sometimes be a sign of something more serious. They can also be present with compulsive behaviors that are maladaptive and destructive in an attempt to reduce the anxiety that thought brings. Anxiety, obsessive thoughts (with or without compulsions) should be addressed with a professional to assess, and possibly diagnose to help with providing strategies and treatment to help alleviate symptoms.