Why it’s so hard to stop obsessing about things — and what to do about it

Try not to think about your hands. Now enjoy a few minutes of not being able to stop thinking about them.

Image source: TheVisualsYouNeed/Shutterstock
  • The "white bear problem" describes that situation in which we can't stop thinking about something no matter how hard we try.
  • Your mental process at such times pits two parts of your brain against each other.
  • Research support a few ways to exit this maddening hamster wheel.

It's four hours before you need to get up, and the dog barks at a squirrel outside the window. Down goes the blind, back to sleep goes the dog, but there you lie, sleepless, your wheels spinning madly, obsessing over that thing. You simply can't stop thinking about it, and you need to sleep.

How can you ever get back to the sleep you so badly need? You could try to work out why your brain won't cut you a break here — you could think about the "white bear problem" or "ironic processing theory."

The white bear problem

Just an innocent child, staring you down. Image source: Eric Isselee / Shutterstock

It can be really hard to deliberately not think about something. Back in 1863, in his essay "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions," Dostoevsky first posed a challenge: Try not to think of a white polar bear. Go ahead. Try it if you like.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner later came across the passage and became intrigued by how hard it was to block out his own white-bear thoughts. Speaking at the 2011 American Psychological Association's (APA) annual convention he recalled, "I was really taken with it. It seemed so true." In 1987, Dr. Wegner published the results of his scientific investigation into the problem in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 53, No. 1). His experiment was pretty simple, and the outcome odd.

Wegner asked one group of subjects to continuously describe their stream of consciousness out loud while thinking of a white polar bear over a period of five minutes. Each time they succeeded, they were instructed to ring a bell.

With a second group, the instructions were the same, but with one key difference: They were instructed not to think of a white polar bear. They couldn't help themselves, and they rang their bells on an average of more than once each minute.

Finally, Wegner asked that second group to repeat the experiment while deliberately thinking of the polar bear. It turns out they rang their bells even more than the first group who had been told to think about the bear right from the start.

Wegner's takeaway was that trying not to think of a white polar bear ironically made it only more likely that you couldn't get one out of your mind.

The ironic process theory

Image source: Uncle Leo / Katrina Lee / Shutterstock / Big Think

Over the next decade Wegner conducted additional research regarding why this phenomenon occurs. He saw evidence that while one part of the brain is obediently shutting out thoughts of a white bear, another part, "helpfully" checks in periodically to make sure you're being successful, reminding you of the white bear all over again. Wegner wryly named this the "ironic process," and it's certainly not an example of our brain at its finest.

Banishing your white bear

Image source: Robert Mcgillivray / Shutterstock

There are a few different methods that have been proposed for getting an obsessive thought out of your head.

At his APA talk, Wegner suggested:

  • Re-aim your mental focus on something else that interests you to take your mind off the white bear. Wegner found this even worked when subjects simply replaced the bear with a red Volkswagen. Of course, getting the car out of their heads…
  • Assign another time to think about the topic. Wegner said that some people find it useful to set aside specific times, maybe an hour each day, for thinking through their personal white bears. The idea is to allow yourself to defer the obsession to a more convenient time and get it out of your way for now.
  • Cut back on multitasking. Apparently people whose brains are regularly overtaxed tend to drift to thoughts of death more often, one of the classic and most insidious white bears.
  • Exposure. Taking a cue from Wegner's' first study, allot yourself a little bit of time to obsess to keep the topic from popping back into your head even more frequently. Basically, you're letting a little steam out of that mental pressure cooker you feel like you're stuck in.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. Both of these practices can enhance your mental-control abilities and may strengthen your ability to stop that wheel spinning when you need to.

A very different approach comes from Dr. Jennice Vilhauer, writing for Psychology Today. She offers the following things to try when you get stuck in negative rumination:

  • Engage in an activity on a different emotional frequency. Try doing or thinking of something that changes your mood in a positive way to essentially change the emotional channel.
  • Write down all the reasons why what you fear will not happen. So many of our obsessive thoughts are worries, and yet, most of the things we worry about never end up happening. It may help to remind yourself that just because you can realistically imagine something bad happening doesn't mean that it will. A list like this can help you talk yourself back down off the ledge.
  • Write down all the reasons why even if the worst-case scenario did happen, you would still be okay. Odds are you've gotten through plenty of tough situations already and are more skilled at surviving or overcoming them than you give yourself credit for. This could be a good time to remind yourself of how you'd deal with that outcome you fear, to make it less overwhelming.
  • Create an action-oriented, solution-focused re-frame. Vilhauer suggests constructing a new internal description of your white bear that's structured as a problem/solution puzzle. This can defuse the anxiety that's got your mind racing. Three steps can get you there:
    1. What do I believe this situation means for me? Catalogue specifically those things that are actually at risk as a result of that thing you're obsessing about.
    2. What do I want to happen? Imagine yourself coming out the other side of this problem. If you view the problem as an opportunity, where would you like to find yourself?
    3. What can I do that is likely to bring that about? Okay, what would it take to get to your desired outcome? Time to make a plan.
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