How to Spot the Difference between Obsessions and Ruminating

How does ruminating about an obsession in OCD differ from worrying, generally?

Usually, worrying makes us feel anxious about something provable that has already happened or could happen in the future. Ruminating, on the other hand, is dwelling on intrusive thoughts about specific themes, such as harm coming to oneself or others. This type of mental review increases anxiety. Subsequently, doubts strengthen our fears about about what has or will happen.

How we resolve worry

When addressing worry, we tend to use a combination of intuition while also reasoning with facts. This way, we usually find a satisfactory solution. Once the problem is solved, we move on. Even with pervasive concerns, such as those linked with a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), problems can be worked on by generating helpful strategies.

Searching for answers

However, when we ruminate about an obsession, we tend to search for answers in our heads where there are none. We dwell on lost opportunities, disappointments, if-only statements and regrets. Also negative “shoulds” and “musts” come into ruminations, such as ‘I should have prayed harder’, ‘I must double-check my work is hundred percent’ or ‘If only I didn’t have OCD, I would be a better person’. Sorrow, grief, what to do about this or that, how to protect ourselves or others, and fear about the future and what it holds, all add to our problem.

So what’s the solution?

First, and before we can start to put helpful strategies into place, it’s important to recognise when ruminating is happening. It helps to identify that while obsessions and ruminating both take place in the mind not to confuse the latter as the obsession. As noted already, ruminating is a thinking behaviour. That means it is a corresponding mental compulsion related to the obsession.

For instance, if the obsessive thoughts are that harm might come to ourselves or someone else, then the thinking behaviour will usually be going over the “what-if” scenarios and fearing the worst.

By identifying that we are ruminating about our fear, we can resist it like any other compulsion, which helps to reduce the intrusive thoughts.

How can we resist ruminating?

By “shifting state”. It means being in the present, and using our five senses as we move our mind and body to something else, or being mindful of what we’re already doing. For instance, if you like the outdoors, you might choose to spend time in the garden, or the park. You would purposely practice being mindful of the scents around you, what you can touch, the sounds you can hear, and what you can see. Having a packet of strongly flavoured sweets in your pocket can be useful because you can pop one in your mouth and mindfully direct your attention to the taste.

At this point, think of other ways where you can use all your five senses, something that appeals to you when you shift state.

But isn’t mindfulness like blocking obsessional thoughts, won’t ruminating start up again?

No, because intrusive thoughts are involuntary and cannot be controlled, but behaviours can be controlled, whether mental or physical. And so in this instance, you would be stopping a compulsive response when you shift state, not an obsession. In other words, you would Acknowledge the obsessive thoughts are there, Accept they are there and Allow them to come and go while staying in the present.

But what about anxiety?

Leaning into raised anxiety while practising mindfulness is essential. It’s because it teaches us that we have the stamina to work through a mindful exposure until our anxiety reduces in its own time. By bearing with associated distress, we build a tolerance to it, and this is what leads to becoming less sensitised to the obsessional fear.

How can we resist going back to ruminating?

One useful tip is to persuade yourself that any further ruminating will be given attention to in one hour. After an hour has passed, it might be that you’ll have forgotten to come back and ruminate. However, when the hour passes and you’re hard-pressed to fall back into mental review, ask yourself ‘where will it lead’? You can then persuade yourself to come back in another hour, which will be beneficial, or you can continue to ruminate and stay in the obsessive-compulsive cycle.

How else can Mindfulness and shifting state help?

It can help enhance exposure-response prevention. First, and as we’ve seen already, ruminating happens when we deliberate at length about a problem. This circular thinking usually involves self-questioning. For example, ‘How do I know if I won’t hurt myself or someone else?’, ‘How can I prove or disprove I’m not gay?’, ‘I experienced a groinal sensation while holding my child, what if this shows I’m a paedophile?’ When we’ve gone through all the questions, we tend to start over again. Mindfulness works well with exposure-response prevention. It helps us face our fears step by step (exposure) and resist all compulsions (response prevention) towards recovery.

© Carol Edwards 2018 Updated 2019.

Get a FREE online counselling consultation with Sunil Punjabi

Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach in delivering exposure-response prevention for ruminations among other obsessional problems.

Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach in delivering exposure-response prevention for ruminations among other obsessional problems.

Sunil is available

  • In-person, over the phone, or online, so that distance is not a constraint
  • Between sessions, for quick consultations, if you get stuck somewhere
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Call Sunil on +91 98925 46024 or write to him on snpunjabi@gmail.com and quote the letters CTE for your FREE consultation!

Find more about what Sunil does at unshackle.in

1 Comment

  1. Recognizing resistance ive heard helps build acceptance. But this would be for everyday worry. Not answering the obsession is the same for us. Eventually, i dont chase it and its a journey ive been on for some time.

    Liked by 1 person

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