Stop Ruminating and Start Living

By Stephen Smith
5 min read

Imagine that you’re in the ocean and struggling to stay afloat. You see an orange lifesaver tube so you grab it, pull your head above the surface, take a quick breath of air, and then lose your grip – finding yourself submerged underwater again in a matter of seconds. Now, imagine repeating that process continuously for hours. How exhausted would you feel? 

Take a step back and imagine if that exhaustion was completely invisible to others. As you try to take the day in stride, you are secretly fighting a similar battle in your head. You experience an intrusive thought, and it submerges you under a sea of anxiety. Then, you latch onto a lifesaver that you think might disprove the thought, rid the anxiety, and finally allow you to breathe. However, when you do try to take a breath, you are pushed back into the sea of anxiety and suddenly find yourself 10 feet further underwater. 

What makes the situation worse is that nobody can see the mental battle you’re enduring. Your friends and family get angry with you for not being “present,” and nobody cuts you slack when you feel frustrated. You don’t know what to do, so you fight harder. You begin analyzing the thought even more to figure it out, hold your head above water, and keep your life intact. Does that sound familiar?

It’s mind-boggling to think that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is primarily viewed as a personality-quirk when most people with the condition go through such debilitating experiences. As someone who suffers from OCD, particularly intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions, I’ve personally been there, too. 

Every time I had an intrusive thought, I would spend the entire day in mental analysis, logically deciphering the thought in the hopes that it would eventually disappear and not continue to bother me. I’d wake up in the morning, hope that I wouldn’t have my intrusive thought, begin having my intrusive thought, start ruminating on the thought for the entire day while I pretended to be engaged in my life, and then go to bed defeated. It was like clockwork.

I can also tell you from firsthand experience that you don’t have to endure life in such despair. Even if you’re paralyzed by intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions at the moment, your day can be so much better. You can stop ruminating and live mentally free, but it takes a change in perspective.

What if you responded to your intrusive thoughts in the morning by instead saying, “Maybe that could happen; who knows” or something even more basic such as, “totally”?  Instead of spending your day in complete disarray from attempting to disprove the thought through rumination, you would allow it to occupy space in your head as it pleases, letting it fluidly come and go regardless of its meaning. 

At first, the behavior change would probably feel uncomfortable – after all, you’re accepting a thought’s presence that feels disgusting as opposed to forcefully pushing it out of your head. But, as time progresses, you stop caring about the thought as much. You commit to living your life by the values that make you happiest and carry on. 

As you might notice, what makes the difference is how you respond to your fears. You can either decide to push them out of your head by ruminating and doing other compulsive actions, or you can choose to accept the uncertainty behind the thought, realize that there probably is not a satisfactory answer, and surrender your need for control. This is the paradigm shift that allows many people with OCD to take charge of their lives again.

Knowing what it’s like to have OCD, you might be thinking, “When I have an intrusive thought, I often automatically resort to analyzing it as soon as it happens. How could I change my behavior when my response to compulsively analyzing my OCD fear has become automatic?”

Automatically resorting to rumination is common, and it’s something I grapple with, too. Even to this day, I still sometimes catch myself doing it. (As much as we all strive to perfect response prevention, it will occasionally happen, so remember to have some self-compassion in these moments.) 

When I find myself ruminating, I take a very specific approach that’s recommended by my NOCD Therapist (yes – I’m a member of NOCD Therapy, too). First, I acknowledge that what’s happening is an OCD episode and that I’m actively ruminating in an attempt to make my fear go away – a compulsion that will actually make my intrusive thoughts grow worse over time. I also remember OCD usually attacks things that we love most. Then, after mindfully labeling the episode as OCD, I correct the action by immediately applying acceptance in the moment. 

For instance, after consciously realizing that I’m ruminating, I might say something like, “Maybe my relationship will fall apart. It could happen. I’ll accept the uncertainty though and move on.” After consciously working on accepting uncertainty, I then find myself better prepared to handle the next intrusive thought without rumination.

As a reminder, my response to OCD intrusive thoughts has stemmed from nearly a decade’s worth of practice. However, the amount of practice has dwindled over the years as OCD has bothered me less thanks to the help of my therapists who specifically treated OCD. You can get to a similar place, too, but it starts by finding a licensed therapist who has specialty training in treating OCD with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy

Working with a therapist trained in ERP was the best decision I ever made, and it saved my life. There was no better investment. 

One of the reasons NOCD was built was to provide convenient and affordable access to the efficient treatment needed to help others also conquer OCD. At NOCD, our goal is to help you find a licensed therapist who specializes in ERP, and we want you to feel empowered to explore all ERP Therapists and find an option that’s right for you. From my own experiences, I encourage you to ask your therapist questions before starting treatment to be sure they are qualified, as there are quite a few therapists who will falsely claim expertise in treating OCD without receiving proper training. 

If you have questions, give us a call, send us an email — reach out in whatever way you’re ready for. You can read more about what it’s like to get OCD treatment on the NOCD site. We have many blog posts and articles written by people with OCD and therapists who specialize in ERP. We also welcome you to join the NOCD community conversation and support groups to work side-by-side with others who are overcoming their intrusive thoughts every day. 

Remember: life is short, and it shouldn’t be spent ruminating. Take the first steps into evidence-based therapy, learn to accept uncertainty, and enjoy many deep breaths of fresh air with your head above water. I will be right there, too.

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Stephen Smith
WRITTEN BYStephen Smith