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What It's Like to Be Trapped in Your Own Head

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional or physical abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I come from a rough childhood. The kind of childhood where trauma occurred everyday, and survival was the priority. Most days would be spent predicting the actions of my abuser, planning my own actions around those predictions, and thinking of all the possible reactions that could occur for every single thing I did or said. This was all to ensure my own survival and safety, to find the path with the least amount of emotional and physical pain. For years and years, my life was centered around this until I was able to get out and became an adult.

It is common for people to have depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more if they have experienced trauma. However, there is something else that can occur that I don’t see recognition for, that has been a problem for me for most of my life. Rumination.

Rumination is the act of obsessive thinking. Psychology Today describes it as “… one of the similarities between anxiety and depression. Ruminating is simply repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.”  The obsessive thought is normally negative and focuses on the current or possible distress in one’s life. Rumination consumes a person’s life. Everything becomes a problem, it is hard to enjoy anything, every small problem becomes a big one, and every thought rolls into each other like a snowball to become bigger and broader. It sends you spiraling into depressive episodes or anxiety attacks and it makes having friendships or relationships difficult because of the constant fear and hesitation you display.

Before I knew what it was, I chalked up my obsessive thinking and intrusive thoughts to depression or even dissociation. I figured, “This is just depression, you always think negatively when you are depressed.” But, as it turns out, rumination is its own thing. I had become so used to needing to predict every possible scenario, every possible bad ending, and having some sort of control over any distress that could happen, that I had no clue it was obsessive and I had no idea how much of my own life I was missing out on. Anytime I couldn’t predict something I felt shame and guilt. I’d blame everything on myself and I’d end up hating myself more than I already did. Especially if the outcome was negative. That would then lead to more obsessive thought about myself. It was an endless cycle. I constantly felt trapped in my own head, unable to get out. It wasn’t until an intense conversation with a loved one that I realized what my brain had been doing this whole time and why.

Based on my own research, the way to combat rumination is:

  1. Be aware of when it is occurring.
  2. Target the negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.
  3. Find healthy coping mechanisms to get the obsessive thoughts out such as writing them down, or doing things that you like or make you feel happy.
  4. Seeking professional help is always recommended as well, although not everyone has that opportunity.

After learning more about this problem and realizing that this is a really common issue for many people, I decided to try and wrestle my thoughts into submission. I became very aware of when I was slipping into obsessive thinking and I would actively replace the bad thoughts I was having with positive ones. Sometimes it would take saying them out loud or reaching out to a friend in order to get them to sink in. Some days were easy, others were extremely hard. But I’ve noticed an extreme difference in my mood, a decrease in depressive episodes and anxiety attacks, and an increase in positive attitude since starting this process.

It is a fight everyday to get control of my mind. Some days I lose but other days I win and it’s those days that matter. If you experience this, just know you are not trapped. You can get out of it. It’s hard and sometimes it takes a lot of energy, but it is possible. You can enjoy your life, you can break the cycle. Reach out to others for support, do whatever you can to get your life back and make it yours again, not just your obsessive thoughts.

Photo credit: Natalia Lagutkina/Getty Images

Originally published: March 13, 2021
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