Practice 2: Change the Ways You Obsess

So now, let's go to self-help option #2, which is changing the ways that you obsess. I'll teach you three ways:  Writing, singing, and changing images.  

All adults experience irrational worries from time to time. I want you to downgrade that obsession. Consider it as a momentary, anxiety-provoking event. It's just a little glitch. Do not support your obsession by analyzing it. Do not support your obsession by trying to figure out what it means, or worrying about whether or not you're going to stop it. The goal here is not to be worry-free. It's not the actual obsession that is such a problem here, it's your reaction to the obsession. So hold a perspective that the content isn't important, and it's not bad that you are obsessing. Free up your attention so that you can begin to modify the ways you obsess.

First thing to do is mentally step back and acknowledge that you've started obsessing.

Next: remind yourself that it's OK to have a momentary obsession.

Number 3: don't start worrying about what the obsession means.   Remind yourself that the obsessive content is not important. Do not get caught up in analyzing.

Number 4: engage in specific actions that will help you change your emotion about the obsessions (I'll teach you three ways now). The goal is not to be worry-free. The goal is to change your reaction to the obsessions.

You will have done a number of things before you get to this step. You've mentally stepped back. You've said, "it's OK." You've said you're not going to analyze why you're worrying. And now you're going to do something to alter your emotions about it.

What might you do to change your emotion about an obsession? Here are three examples.

Write your worries.

The first is to write it down. Carry a pencil and a small pad with you throughout the day. When you begin obsessing, write down your exact thoughts or a few phrases that describe your images or impulses. If you continue obsessing, keep writing. This doesn't mean a summary of what you said in your mind. This means a verbatim transcript of exactly what you're thinking. Act as though you are the stenographer in the courtroom.  Every single utterance goes on paper!

As soon as you finish writing down the worry, if you think it again, you write it down again, even if it's verbatim what you just wrote down. Don't write down the theme, write down every single repetition of every single thing you think.

Now what's the benefit here? When you obsess, you tend to repeat the same content again and again, right? When you write out the obsessions, you recognize how repetitive and senseless they are. This perspective weakens the obsessions. After a while you will probably experience the task of writing verbatim all the obsessive content as a chore. This way it becomes more work to obsess than to let it go. It's a lot harder to write over and over again, "Oh, my God, I'm afraid I'm going to kill my son." It's easy to say it in your head 400 times. But writing it 400 times loses it's power, it just doesn't work. It begins to make the obsessions an arduous task.

And that's how the writing will begin to help you. After a while you say, "OK, I'm obsessing. Now I'm either going to start writing it, or I'm just going to let it go. I can either go through all this effort, or I can just let it go."

Sing your worries.

Another way to begin changing your emotional response to your obsession is to sing your worried thoughts. You are to literally sing in your mind the words you would usually say, like, "I think I've touched some germs. They're going to make me sick. I might spread it around. And everybody'll die."

That sounds pretty silly, doesn't it?  Here you are, suffering from terribly distressing symptoms, and I ask you to hum a few bars.  But that's the idea.   The process of singing your obsessions makes it difficult to simultaneously stay distressed.  Yes, it's stupid.  Yes, it sounds childish

Do it anyway!!

And here's how to do it. Pick up a short phrase that summarizes your obsession. Ignore its meaning for a while. Continue to repeat the words, but do so within a simple melody. Keep up this tune for a few minutes.

I don't expect that you will start singing this little tune and instantly feel happy. In fact, it will probably be hard to feel anything but anxiety when you start singing. But stick with it. And while you're singing, work to become detached from the content of your song. Remember, that's our goal...

Whenever you feel less emotionally involved with these thoughts, let go of the tune and the words. Turn your attention elsewhere.

Change the image.

The techniques of writing the words down or singing them can be used when the worry is in the form of words. But what if the obsession is an image? In that case, you need to modify that picture in some way, or to replace it with another image. For example, if you imagine your boss yelling at you, replace it with a picture of you and your boss having a pleasant conversation. If you imagine yourself dying of cancer, see yourself at 101 years old, smiling, rocking on your porch, surrounded by your family. If you have just imagined yourself slapping your child, picture yourself slowly, lovingly stroking the child's hair.

Or close your eyes and imagine your worry having some physical form. Place it on a cloud right in front of you. See the cloud begin to float away. Imagine that the farther away the cloud floats, the smaller the obsession becomes and the more relaxed and comfortable you feel.

Make sure that as you see these new images, you also begin to shift from distressing feelings to pleasant ones. Choose images that will make you feel comfortable, relaxed, humored or pleasant, so that they can replace your anxiety and worry.

Another useful approach is to replay the obsessional image but change the frightening parts of the image in some cartoon-like fashion. For example, if you are intimidated by your boss's criticism, see her about two feet tall and yourself next to her as your normal size. When she attempts to yell at you, see bubbles coming out of her mouth instead of words. In this same way, if you have frightening, repetitive images of stabbing someone with a knife or scissors, you can replay those images immediately after they occur. If a knife was used in your image, change the knife into Styrofoam and make it three feet long. If it was a pair of scissors, turn it into Silly Putty and see it drooping in your hand.

* * *

Once you've made that shift away from your intense anxiety, by singing the obsession, writing it down, altering the imagery, or any other changes that you create for yourself that would shift your emotion, then turn your attention to other activities in your life. Don't create a void after the shift, because the mind is going to go to whatever next thought has the strongest emotion. So, if you've got a bunch of nice, easy little thoughts and images, and then you have this thought that's terrifying, your mind's going to go right back to what is fearful. So turn your attention to some new activities.

It may take you a while before this technique gives you benefits. Some obsessions feel so strong that you won't be able to let go of them right away. Nonetheless, continue to practice this approach as a way to get some perspective on your irrational worries.