Recurring Distressing Thoughts Over the Past Month

Reader’s Question

I have recurring thoughts throughout the day. Usually these thoughts are questions that need to be answered, and these questions are highly sensitive in nature, usually about friends or family. If the questions are not answered, I get highly anxious and sometimes obsessive. Then this leads to a bad and moody day. This has been a problem for about a month now, and thinking about other stuff doesn’t help much as the recurring thought keeps coming back. What can I do to prevent these unwanted thoughts from messing up my day?


Psychologist’s Reply

The fact that the thoughts have been a problem for a month is extremely important. You are describing “obsessive thoughts” that are commonly found in depression, anxiety and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In your case, depression and stress are most likely. Depression and stress gradually lower the availability of Serotonin (a neurochemical and neurotransmitter) in the brain. As our level of Serotonin decreases, more significant depressive and anxiety symptoms surface.

When we reach that border between moderate and severe depression a variety of special symptoms and behaviors may surface. At this level, we begin to have sleep problems including 4:00 am awakening or inability to sleep as our mind won’t stop thinking. At this level we are also fatigued, can’t eat (or crave sweets and carbs), have no motivation, have no sexual interest, become socially withdrawn, lose our sense of humor, and develop sadness/tension/crying spells. For a large proportion of depressed individuals, this level of Serotonin depletion also produces obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as counting, worry about germs, obsessive thoughts, and even “ear-worms” — those songs that get stuck in your head.

Your “obsessive thoughts” are a sign of increased stress and probably depression over the past month. Clinically, the nature of the thoughts — those unanswered questions — is actually irrelevant. It’s the brain mechanism that’s important — not the content of the obsessive thoughts. All obsessive thoughts have a content that is distressing, upsetting, anxiety-producing, etc. While your obsessive thoughts may be related to family and friend questions, still others become obsessed with eternity, the likelihood of meteor impact, germs, walking through doorways on the right foot, etc. Even when we develop an “ear-worm” — it’s rarely a good song! What do we do?

  • Take the depression, stress, and anxiety screening tests on this website. I think you’ll see someone you know.
  • If you score high, consider consulting your family physician regarding the results. We have many mild antidepressant medications that increase available Serotonin.
  • While medications can improve Serotonin levels, you’ll need to seek counseling to determine how this situation developed and how to prevent it in the future.
  • For additional information on brain chemistry and how the system works, you can read my article on Chemical Imbalance and Understanding Depression. You can also read article about these topics here on this website.
  • The brain, while highly complex, if fairly predictable. The surfacing of obsessive thoughts during stress tells us you will probably exhibit this symptom every time you are severely stressed in the future. It will be your warning sign. Some people will have the counting, germ obsession, or obsessive thoughts about some past event. In the future, when the obsessive thoughts about unanswered questions arrive, you’ll know your stress level is too high.

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