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How to Stop Thinking About an Ex

Schedule "obsession sessions," and stick to them.

Key points

  • Constantly thinking about or monitoring an ex online may be an obsessive-compulsive behavior.
  • In the case of compulsively checking an ex's social media or texts, the trigger for the behavior may be one's computer and/or phone.
  • One way to manage compulsive behavior is to resist the trigger and delay the behavior at first, rather than stop all at once.
Source: DGLimages/Shutterstock

If your ex recently broke up with you, and you can't seem to get him or her out of your mind or find yourself texting, calling, or thinking about him nonstop, you're displaying symptoms that resemble those of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You may also suffer from trauma symptoms if the breakup was unexpected. [I'll primarily use "him" from here on out but these thoughts apply equally to women and men.]

That doesn't feel good. It can interfere with work and school and with your relationships with friends and family. Perhaps you are even self-medicating with alcohol or over-the-counter drugs. Left unchecked, it can derail your life.

Yes, time heals all wounds but who has the time to wait while getting bad grades, falling behind or getting fired at work, losing friends, and perhaps suffering an unexpected heart attack or other health crises due to a substance addiction?

The good news is that standard self-help techniques for OCD may be able to speed up your breakup recovery. Here is how you may be able to eliminate the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors:

Let's say that you compulsively send text messages to your ex, compulsively check your phone for messages from him, or compulsively check his social media sites. In this case, the triggers of your compulsive behavior (in addition to your obsessive thinking) are your computer and phone.

Should you hand over your computer and phone to a friend to hold on to for a while? No; that's not practical, and you are just avoiding the trigger, which is unlikely to help.

Instead, keep your phone and computer around, but resist or at least delay the urge to text your ex or to check whether he or she texted you. Resist or delay the urge to stalk his or her social networking sites.

This is hard work. You could block your ex on your phone and remove him from your social networking sites, but that may not be feasible or something you can make yourself do.

You may, however, have a do-not-disturb option on your phone that can be set for individual contacts, like your ex. On an updated iPhone, go to Contacts and simply push the "do not disturb" button under your ex's information. He or she will not know that you have done this. You will still receive all of his or her texts and calls, which you would not if you blocked your ex. But with "do-not-disturb" activated, you will not get notifications. Your phone will not light up every time (if ever) your ex texts you.

What about the urge to check or use the phone and social media sites? If you cannot resist, try to reduce the amount of time or number of times you do this. Whenever you can do it, you will start to get a sense of control.

How do you reduce the number of times you engage in your compulsive ritual? Shift your attention to another activity—anything, really, except substance abuse: Surf the web (do not Google "How to get an ex back"), play a video game, email a friend, tidy up your closet. Do this for at least 10 minutes before you let yourself go near your phone or computer. After the 10 minutes are up, check to see if your urge to call, text, or stalk your ex or check your phone is as strong as before. It may have faded.

Make the delay a little bit longer every day. Or reduce the number of text messages you send your ex a little bit every day. You can go slow. If it's 10 minutes you can delay today, make it 11 tomorrow. If you sent your ex 5 messages today, reduce that to 4 tomorrow.

Also, pay attention to the situations that are most likely to tempt you to engage in your compulsive behavior. Is it when you are out with friends? When you are at work? When you are home alone? When do you have a glass of wine? Make a mental note of when the urge is most intense. Then anticipate in advance when you are likely to have the urge and do your best to change your activity or delay or resist it.

And when you are obsessing and feeling the urge to engage in your compulsive behavior, write down your thoughts—exactly as they are. If your thoughts are repetitive, write the repetitive thoughts down, even if you need to write the same thing 20 times. Writing the same thing over and over can actually help make your thoughts less intrusive. Don't send what you wrote to anyone—and do it with pen and paper, not onscreen, so you'll be less tempted to send what you wrote to your ex.

If you've come this far, you're ready to schedule "obsession times." Find a time where you are free, and save all your obsessive thoughts for that time—for example, every day at home from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., or longer if you need it. (Just don't make it too close to when you need to go to sleep.) Your obsession time should be devoted to obsessing, worrying, grieving, and nothing else. Afterward, let go until your next "session."

When an obsessive thought occurs at some time other than your scheduled time, tell yourself that that thought needs to be dealt with during your scheduled time. Write it down if you need to and look at it during your "session" later. You can keep those sessions in your life until you feel like you don't need them anymore.

None of this is an overnight fix for a broken heart but it may reduce the time it will take you to get over an ex.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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