How to Manage Obsessive Worry

Obsessive worry can really feel overwhelming. It can feel as if there is simply no escape from constant ruminations and can be like a mental battle. It is as if the more you try to stop it, the more it persists. Well, the good news is that it can be controlled and overcome.

Obsessive worry often goes round and round like a negative loop. Like “thought suppression” the more you try to push it away the more it fights back. It’s rather like trying to hold a beach ball underwater, futile, because as soon as you relax your hold, it pops right up to the surface again. Over time obsessive worry can become habitual. The longer you spend ruminating the deeper into you get. It’s rather like going into a “trance”where you have lost the ability to “undo the spell.”

The only way to overcome it is by deliberately “applying your will” and “changing your behaviour.” In other words, you need to “get out if your head” by shifting your mindset, switching to another modality of experience, such as bodily activity, sensory distraction, ritual, expressing your emotions, interpersonal communication, or learning to detach from your thoughts. Sometimes people with obsessive worry will find they have let go of a specific worry, but will become aware that they are now caught up in a different worry. Sometimes this can afford temporary relief, but the emphasis is on the word “temporary!”

One of the reasons we get so caught up in obsessive worry is that it is in our nature to “problem solve,” if you like, it’s an “evolutionary trait ” something that ensured our ancestors survived, but the seductive pull of an obsessive loop can be very compelling. Often the things we worry about are irrational, or “what if’s” with no answer as such. As we follow the path of least resistance we simply go round and round in a negative spiral. Someone once said, worry is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but gets you nowhere!

Deliberately breaking out of obsessive thinking can appear difficult at first (especially if your highly anxious) but with practice it can be done.

Here are a number of strategies to help you break free from obsessive worry:

1. Engage in physical exercise like running, swimming or something that you will get absorbed in like rock climbing, paint balling or ab-sailing.

2. Practice mindfulness meditation and learn how this discipline can effectively teach you how to let go and disengage. Mindful drawing and colouring can be a great escape.

3. Play powerful and evocative music to release repressed emotions ( emotions such as sadness and anger often underpin or drive obsessive thinking) dance or sing loudly.

4. Engage in discussion with someone about things other than your worries, alternatively confide in someone (sharing your concerns can sometimes lighten the load or help get things in perspective) alternatively find yourself a therapist who can help you manage your worries.

5. Find a distraction that is absorbing such as learning to play the guitar, watch a film or playing a computer game.

6. Turn to sensory motor stimulation by absorbing yourself in activities such as crafts, gardening or even a spot of “retail therapy.”

7. Absorb yourself in a jigsaw puzzle, crossword or word search.

8. Finally, engage in healthy rituals, for example combing abdominal breathing with a chant or positive affirmation that you can repeat, visualise and dwell on to bring about a positive trance induction to dispel the negative trance enforced by the obsessive worry.

Examples of affirmations:

“Let it go”

“These are just thoughts”

“I am relaxed and free from worry”

Until next time

Steve Clifford Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

Image ref:By Alex (Flickr: [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (2005) by Edmund J. Bourne, PH.D. Appendix 4, How to stop obsessive worry. P428-9, New Harbinger Publications