What's Your Obsession? 5 Types, 5 Triggers, 5 Antidotes
While the symptoms of obsessions are the same, the causes are often different.
Posted Aug 01, 2020
Jake wakes up around 3 a.m. most nights obsessing about his upcoming day, what he didn’t get done yesterday, about whether the toilet bowl running is something he can fix.
Simone has been obsessing about her job—there have been layoffs, and though her boss has reassured her that her job is secure, she worries.
Sam just found out that his partner has been cheating on him and all he can think about is piecing together the facts—how long, who he is, what did they do, why?
John has just started dating this guy he is really into, but though they had a great weekend together, he hasn’t heard back from him for two days. He is obsessing over whether he did something wrong, and if the guy is pulling away.
Beth has always obsessed with safety. She double checks that her stove is off, sniffs for any leaking gas before she goes to bed, and triple checks that the doors and windows are locked.
Obsessions. Your mind running on its own, seemingly out of your control. A runaway horse or train. Even the best of us all obsess in varying degrees from time to time, but not all obsessions are the same. Let’s break them down along with their antidotes:
Jake is doing what a lot of us do—get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and find ourselves lying awake for an hour or more thinking all kinds of random stuff about our day, the next day, what we forgot, what we were most worried about but pushed aside.
This is the collecting of garbage from the day; our dreams do the same, taking the scraps of the day and balling them together into a story. Sometimes this is actually productive—Jake has a new insight on how to talk to tomorrow’s customer—other times it’s just churning of… stuff.
Antidote: This is about Jake’s overall anxiety doing what it does, and often just running amuck. What will help is lowering his anxiety before he goes to bed. Part 1 is his setting up relaxing routines—the hot bath or shower, the relaxing tea, his staying away from the computer.
Part 2 is writing down for five to 10 minutes any leftover problems from the day and what he plans to do about them tomorrow. By making the unconscious more conscious, the chances are these thoughts won’t drift into his middle-of-the-night awakenings.
Simone obsessions are more than mental house cleaning. Her worries are real, based on real-world events. They stay with her because they are important. This is rational anxiety.
Antidote: The cure for rational anxiety is action. Her anxiety is being stirred because she understandably feels a bit out of control, she is reactive to what is unfolding around her. She needs to counter by going offense, by being proactive. If she is not feeling reassured by her supervisor’s comments, she may want to start looking for other jobs or take a hard look at her budget should she get laid off—controlling what she can’t control rather than what she can’t. This will give her a feeling of power, help turn down her anxiety.
Sam is obsessing because he is dealing with grief. The affair has understandably shaken him and he is trying to make sense of what happened. Obsessing is natural because there is a sense of loss—that his image of the relationship and the other person has been shattered. The same happens when someone close to you dies.
Antidote: Sam needs to know that this is normal, that this obsessing will usually run its course over a period of a few weeks as he mentally tried to connect the dots and come up with an explanation that works for him. He can also look for ways to facilitate the process by getting closure—talking to his partner and asking questions, getting the more detailed information—not about the events but the why—that he needs to make sense of what has happened.
John may have reasons to worry about not hearing from his date—that the weekend seemed to go well, but he also noticed that his date seemed a bit taken aback by one of his comments. Or he knows the weekend went great, but John has had a history of others ghosting him, and so is overly sensitive to any signs that someone he cares about is pulling away.
Unlike Simone’s worries that are probably rooted in rationality, John’s is likely a combination of rational and irrational anxiety.
Antidote: John needs to work it on both fronts. If he is worried that he said something upsetting, he needs, like Simone, to take action and put it to rest—reach out, mop-up, apologize. If it is more irrational, that old stuff around abandonment is getting triggered, he needs to talk himself off the ledge, realize that he is particularly vulnerable around this issue, and calm himself down. If he hasn’t heard back in the next day or so, he wants to check in to have more control and get a reality check.
Five ways obsessions take over but the causes are all different. Anxiety tends to make you believe that the only way to stop your obsessions is to find the perfect solution to the problem you are obsessing about. The real antidote is being able to step back, ask why this not that, why now not yesterday, is this rational or irrational anxiety to see what is the driver.
It's about you taking control of your mind rather than your mind taking control of you.