Stuck thoughts. Painful ruminations. Unrelenting obsessions. They are the curse of depression — among the most excruciating symptoms, in my opinion. “When a child gets lost, he may feel sheer terror,” explains Byron Katie in her bestseller Loving What Is. “It can be just as frightening when you’re lost inside the mind’s chaos.”
Therese J. Borchard is the founder of Project Hope & Beyond, an online community for persons with treatment-resistant depression and other chronic mood disorders. She blogs for Everyday Health and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
Editor: Haroon Christy
I can usually gauge the severity of my depression based on the intensity and frequency of my stuck thoughts. Sometimes they can outright debilitate me. One seemingly benign thought — often a rumination about a decision I have made in the past, a regret of one form or another, or sometimes something that makes no sense at all — is packed with panic and plays over and over in my mind, keeping me awake at night and besieging me with anxiety during the day.
More than any other symptom of my depression — more so even than unrestrained tears and bawling my eyes out in public — the stuck thoughts make me feel truly insane, scared to be living inside my body and mind.
In my post 9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck Thoughts, I offer some tools to deal with obsessions. But since I’ve been imprisoned by this insanity as of late, I thought I’d share more of the ways that have helped me escape, if only for a few minutes, to a place of peace.
1. Rely on Other Brains
In the state of severe rumination, your brain is toast. You have to fully admit that — it’s the first step of most 12-step programs. You can’t rely on your logic or any of the content that’s streaming through your neurons, because it’s all inaccurate. You need to rely on other brains to help you sort out the stuck thought and tease it apart until you arrive at the truth.
Fortunately, I have a handful of friends who know the insanity of ruminations and have walked with me through this in the past. They know it’s what I do when I get depressed. I get hooked on one thought and use it to beat myself to the ground until I feel absolutely worthless. So I have to believe in their logic. They remind me of why I made certain decisions, why they were the right ones, and why that decision has absolutely nothing to do with the panic that is raging through my body.
When I’m on the phone with them, I write down everything they say like a newspaper reporter because I will need that information handy for when the thoughts come — and I can’t afford to bother them again. I have a journal filled with the reasonable logic of my friends, and sometimes (not always) accessing their truth calms me down as if I’m talking to them again. I try to trust them because I know I can’t trust my own brain.
2. Investigate the Thought
“I have never experienced a stressful feeling that wasn’t caused by attaching to an untrue thought,” writes Katie. “Depression, pain, and fear are gifts that say, ‘Sweetheart, take a look at what you’re thinking right now. You’re living in a story that isn’t true for you.’” In her book, she explains what she calls The Work, a way of inquiring or investigating your thought with four simple questions:
It it true?
Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
How do I react when I think that thought?
Who would I be without the thought?
Then you turn the thought around. You rewrite your statement as the opposite. If you said, “I am a failure,” your turnaround might be, “I am a success.” And you find three genuine, specific examples of how the turnaround is true in your life.
If my ruminations are severe, this strategy doesn’t always work. As I mentioned in my other piece, sometimes it’s better not to analyze the thought. But just asking myself the first question, “Is this true?”, can sometimes forge a little distance between the rumination and my symptoms of anxiety or be a reminder that I’m caught in a story that isn’t accurate.
3. Visualize the Thoughts as Hiccups
Ruminations are symptoms of depression just as nausea or fatigue are symptoms of the flu. If my fever spiked or I developed a bad case of hiccups, I wouldn’t berate myself for those symptoms. Yet I feel totally at fault for my stuck thoughts, as if they are a weakness of my character, which further pushes me down the rabbit hole of despair. One of my friends recently yelled at me over the phone, “THEY ARE NOT YOUR FAULT!!” when I told him that all the mindfulness exercises I had been doing were making me feel even worse — as though I were creating the ruminations by not being able to let go or detach in the right way.
He reminded me that when they reach a certain intensity — when they are making me hyperventilate over the phone to a friend as I was doing, or they totally disable me — mindfulness doesn’t work. At this point, I’m better off imagining them as physical symptoms of an illness and say, “Here they are again …” rather than to constantly try to meditate them away or release them in the zen fashion that I would like.
4. Use a Mantra
“When my thoughts become intense,” a friend told me recently, “I will use a mantra as a kind of racket to hit the ball back.” Repeating a mantra helps her be prepared for the thoughts when they come. She told me to look through Scripture and find something that resonates with me. I chose “Be not afraid,” as it appears throughout the Bible more than any other phrase, and is also my favorite hymn — one that I would sing all the time as a young girl when I was scared — based on my favorite psalm. A mantra doesn’t have to be religious, of course. It can just be a simple phrase, like “Peace be with me.” Or “I am okay.” Or “This will pass.”
5. Do the Thing in Front of You
I said this recently in my piece on suicidal thoughts. When I’m battling severe ruminations, my head is usually trapped in the past or in the future, fretting a decision I’ve made a month ago or worrying about something a week or a year from now that may never even come to be. The thoughts engulf me in a world that is not real and spin panic everywhere I look. At this point, I can’t handle a day’s worth of concerns, or even 15 minutes of them.
What helps immensely is to concentrate only on the task in front of me. If I’m working, this means trying my best to craft a sentence that makes sense. If I’m with the kids, it means helping with their math problems or making a snack. Sometimes it helps to have an anchor to the present moment, such as concentrating on my breath or tuning into my senses.
But when mindfulness doesn’t work, I try to tell myself that all I have to do is the thing I am already doing.