Random Thoughts Keeping You Up at Night?

Learn how to deal with thought fixation from a clinical psychologist
Can't sleep at night

The job you didn’t take six months ago.

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The snarky comment that you left on a friend’s Facebook post. (You know, the one that might not have gone over so well.)

The reaction your child had when you killed their dream of having ice cream for breakfast.

You can’t stop thinking about how you could or should have handled each of these situations differently. And sometimes, these thoughts invade your sleep or ruin those quiet moments when you just want to relax and escape from it all.

Why do we get hung up on certain thoughts and what can we do to leave them in the past? Clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, helps us understand why this happens and offers some tips to keep us from getting stuck in a loop of stressful thoughts. 

Why do we dwell on certain thoughts?

“In times of high stress and anxiety, it’s human nature for us to fixate on the sources of our stress. Take a look at what’s going on in the world today. There are so many sources of stress and so many things for us to be anxious about. It’s like we’re getting hit at all different angles in addition to family obligations, work and the numerous daily demands that we all deal with,” Dr. Borland says.

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He adds that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this may be happening or if it might make a health condition that you might be dealing with worse.

“There are different degrees to which we focus. When it becomes problematic in terms of affecting sleep, diet, health, job performance or relationships, that’s when professional treatment might help, says Dr. Borland. And if you find yourself snapping at people, definitely reach out for help.

Can thought fixation lead to anxiety or panic attacks?

According to Dr. Borland, when we become fixated on situations or outcomes, it’s possible to set off an emotional chain reaction. He compares it to a full pot of water that’s about to boil over.

“If that pot is already full, and then we experience something at work or in a relationship, or we see something stressful on the news or social media, that might be enough to get that pot to finally boil over. And for some, that might result in panic or some sort of anger or sadness. Others might internalize those emotions,” he says.

In situations like these, Dr. Borland says that if confiding in a friend or family member doesn’t help, it’s beneficial to talk to a professional.

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No worry is too big or too small

You might be grappling with how you handled a squabble with a friend or making a tough decision at work has left you feeling overwhelmed. No matter what the situation is, if it’s weighing you down or keeping you up at night, Dr. Borland encourages you to talk to a mental health professional.

“People often say, ‘There are people in the world who are dealing with worse things than I do,’ and they express how they feel guilty about coming in for therapy. But don’t feed into that because it’s not going to do you any good. Something is obviously bothering you, so a mental health professional can help you work through that. You might be able to accomplish that in one session — it might take a few sessions. But in general, I try to steer people away from the question of ‘Is this a big enough problem?’ “

How can we avoid getting caught up in our thoughts?

To keep yourself from going down the rabbit hole of worry, Dr. Borland suggests tapping into resources that you already have at your disposal. These resources include exercise, fresh air and taking time out to be thankful for the good things in life.

“I’m a proponent of exercise and getting fresh air. And I always prioritize deep breathing — really trying to slow things down because oftentimes, in those moments, we’re going at a speed that might be a little too fast. When we stop and really focus on our breathing, it helps slow us down and it creates a natural relaxation response in the body. I’m also a proponent of prioritizing gratitude. Nowadays, it’s so easy to go down the road of ‘What’s wrong in my life?’ or ‘What’s wrong in the world?’ that we overlook the good things. Sometimes, it might require a magnifying glass to find good things, but they are there.”

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