Stuck thoughts; thoughts, mental images, concepts, songs, or melodies that stick in your mind and replay over and over again.
Thoughts, concepts, mental images, melodies, or songs seemingly get stuck in your mind:
- Thoughts, concepts, mental images, melodies, or songs seemingly get “stuck” in your mind. No matter what you do, you seemingly can’t stop your mind from thinking of them over and over again.
- It seems you can’t get a stuck thought out of your mind.
- In every undistracted moment you find your mind replaying the unwanted thought, concept, melody, or song over and over again.
- No matter what you do, you seemingly can't stop your mind from thinking of the stuck thought over and over again.
- Even after a good sleep, you wake up and the stuck thought starts to play all over again.
- In every undistracted moment you find your mind replaying the unwanted thought, concept, melody, or song.
- These thoughts are like a hamster running on a squeaky hamster wheel in the background. No matter what you are doing, that squeaky wheel seems to be always turning.
- Many become distraught and worry that their mind is stuck in a never-ending loop. Others fear that the loop could get worse and may never end.
- This anxiety symptom is often referred to as unwanted and repetitive thoughts. Some refer to it as obsessions or obsessional thinking.
- You may become distraught and worry that your mind is “stuck” in a never-ending loop.
- Others fear that the loop could get worse and may never end.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom is often referred to as “unwanted” and “repetitive” thoughts. Some refer to it as “obsessions” or “obsessional thinking.”
The stuck thought anxiety symptom can be about one thought over and over again, can switch to another stuck thought over and over again, or can change and shift between a variety of stuck thoughts over and over again.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may have a stuck thought once and a while and not that often, have it off and on, or have it all the time.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.
The stuck thought anxiety symptom can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
These stuck thoughts are often referred to as 'earworms.'
Why does anxiety cause stuck thoughts?
There are many reasons why anxiety can cause stuck thoughts. Three main reasons are:
1. Stress adversely affects brain function
Behaving anxiously activates the stress response. Because of the many changes the stress response brings about, stress responses stress the body, and especially the nervous system, which includes the brain.
When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can return to normal functioning easily. This results in few, if any, lingering negative effects. Click the link for more information about the stress response and the many changes it causes.
When stress responses occur too frequently, however, such as from behaving overly anxiously, the body has a more difficult time recovering. This can result in the body remaining in a state of hyperstimulation, since stress hormones are stimulants. In other words, behaving overly apprehensively can overly stress the body. A body that becomes overly stressed can behave in odd ways. Click the link for more information about stress-response hyperstimulation.
Regarding stuck thoughts, persistently elevated stress has a negative effect on brain function. For example:
Stress changes how the brain functions. While there are many changes that occur, the following are the most important to note regarding stuck thoughts:
- Stress increases the electrical activity in the brain. Increased electrical activity in the brain will cause an increase in thought generation. This increased thought generation can cause thoughts to replay over and over again.
- Stress heightens the activity in the amygdala (fear center) and suppresses activity in the cortex (the rationalization areas of the brain). This change can cause thoughts to take on a more ominous tone with a reduced ability to dismiss them.
This combination alone can cause thoughts to seemingly become stuck.
2. Stress taxes the body’s energy resources harder than normal. Overly apprehensive behavior can cause the body to become fatigued. Fatigue can affect brain function. Many tired and anxious people experience stuck thoughts and/or unwanted thoughts.
3. Stress can impact and significantly reduce the quality of sleep, leaving you tired. Sleep deprivation is a common cause of ‘tired’ thinking, which can include thoughts that seem stuck.
A hyperstimulated brain and a tired body is often a recipe for “stuck” thoughts.
We describe the other reasons why anxiety can cause stuck thoughts in Chapter 9 in the Recovery Support area of our website under the anxiety symptom, Stuck Thoughts.
Because this stuck thoughts anxiety symptom is commonly caused by elevated stress, fatigue, and/or sleep deprivation, it needn’t be a cause for concern. It’s just another indication of elevated stress and/or fatigue. It’s not an indication of serious mental illness. Most people experience stuck thoughts from time to time. It becomes more prevalent when stress and fatigue are factors.
How to get rid of the stuck thoughts anxiety symptoms?
Because this is a common stress- and fatigue-caused symptom, reducing stress, eliminating the body’s stress-response hyperstimulated state, giving the body sufficient rest, and getting good sleep generally eliminates this symptom in time. so your long-term goal should be to reduce your body's stress and deal with your anxiety issues.
Some short-term strategies to eliminate the stuck thoughts anxiety symptoms include:
- Reduce stress – reducing the body’s stress is the best way to eliminate stuck thoughts, since stress is a major cause.
- Increase your rest and relaxation – since a major cause of stuck thoughts is stress and fatigue, increasing your body’s rest can help the brain eliminate stuck thoughts.
- Get good sleep – resting the body, including getting good sleep, often eliminates stuck thoughts once the body has caught up on its sleep debt.
- Ignore them – the less you reinforce stuck thoughts the faster they disappear. Recovery Support members can read about how neural networks work in Chapter 5.
- Refuse to allow yourself to dwell on stuck thoughts – research has shown that suppressing thoughts and memories can actually eliminate them in time. Here is another example of how neural networks work.
- Distract yourself – deliberately changing your focus can eliminate stuck thoughts in time.
- Chew gum (or something healthier) – research has found that chewing something can eliminate ‘earworms’ for some people.
- Don’t make a big deal out of stuck thoughts – stuck thoughts are just symptoms of elevated stress and/or fatigue. Making a big deal out of stuck thoughts makes them stronger. Not caring about them can help them subside.
- Don’t worry about stuck thoughts – worry stresses the body, which can keep stuck thoughts going. Not worrying about them reduces stress, which can help eliminate them.
If you are dealing with stuck thoughts or unwanted thoughts because of a struggle with anxiety, such as with OCD, you may want to work with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist to help you better understand this symptom, deal with the underlying factors that may be contributing to this symptom, and help you learn how to contain. Doing the right work can completely eliminate a struggle with ‘stuck’ and ‘unwanted’ thoughts.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to overcome anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to eliminate problematic anxiety and its symptoms once and for all.
For more information about our Anxiety Therapy, Coaching, Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Symptoms; our anxiety Recovery Support area; common Anxiety Myths; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate graphic below:
Return to our anxiety symptoms page.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated June 2015.