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Stuck thoughts; thoughts, mental images, concepts, songs, or melodies that stick in your mind and replay over and over again.

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019

Thoughts, concepts, mental images, melodies, or songs seemingly get stuck in your mind:

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 in 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:

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:

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 is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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Additional Resources:

Return to our anxiety symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including the anxiety symptom thoughts that seem stuck.