We’ve all been there: Struggling to concentrate on a task because somebody is taking up all of your mental real estate. Maybe it’s a happy kind of daydream, like the ones involving a crush or an S.O. (Alexa, play Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” and cancel all my meetings.) Or perhaps you’re replaying a not-so-welcome memory featuring an ex-friend or estranged family member. (Cue “Back to December” by Taylor Swift.) No matter who’s dominating your thoughts, one thing’s for sure: Figuring out how to stop thinking about someone can feel straight-up impossible.
But why? Well, the first thing to realize is overcoming obsession isn’t a matter of willpower so much as a matter of brain chemistry. According to psychotherapist Julia Werman Zwerin, LMSW, the neurotransmitter dopamine is to blame when you’re at the mercy of repetitive thoughts. “Dopamine allows you to feel pleasure, and research has shown that it’s integral in causing us to want and desire,” she says. “A dopamine-seeking reward loop occurs when we’re reminded of the thing or person we desire. Each time we conjure a thought of the person, we get a small dopamine hit, setting the loop in motion as we want more of that feeling.”
This pattern doesn’t just happen when we think about someone we’re currently fond of, she adds. If you’ve had a falling out with a person, thinking back to better times with them—or looking at a photo of them, or re-reading old texts—can re-create the dopamine-fueled good vibes the person once brought forth in you. “Loving people and losing people has the same effect on the brain as drugs,” says life coach and mental-health counselor Katie Sandler, MS. “When you’re fixated on a person, for positive or negative reasons, your brain is responding as though it’s being rewarded or deprived. Either way, that’s going to be your primary focus.”
“When you’re fixated on a person, your brain is responding as though it’s being rewarded or deprived. Either way, that’s going to be your primary focus.” —Katie Sandler, mental-health counselor
Obviously, it’s not ideal to be preoccupied with anyone for too long, at least not if you want to be a functioning adult. As Zwerin points out, letting one person dominate your thoughts can affect your work performance, your other relationships, and even your mental health.
If you’re not sure whether your constant thoughts about another person are healthy or not, Sandler recommends asking yourself two questions to decide: Are they so intrusive that they’re interfering with your daily functioning? And are they rational? If you answer yes to the first question or no to the second, it’s time to start implementing some anti-obsession strategies—starting with the following expert-approved steps.
Below, learn how to stop thinking about someone in 6 easy steps.
1. Hit the unfollow button
I know this is hard to hear, but I’ll break it to you gently—it’s tough bordering impossible to stop thinking about someone when you’re watching a constant play-by-play of their life on social media. Again, biology is to blame here. “The reminder of the person we’re fixated on can trigger the brain’s dopamine loop and set us back,” Zwerin says. In this case, the unfollow button is your BFF. And if the object of your obsession shows up in a lot of your other friends’ photos, it may be worth taking a time-out from your social feeds completely.
2. Do something that makes you happy
If you want to break the dopamine loop, says Zwerin, it helps to find other ways to spark that biochemical high. The key is to choose a healthy distraction. Spending time with a friend who makes you laugh, taking a workout class, or volunteering with animals are all good options, in her book. Plus, staying mentally active offers another benefit: According to Sandler, it keeps you rooted in the present. “This way, your brain is too busy to acknowledge the passive, ruminating thoughts, and slowly their grip begins to diminish,” she says.
3. Play a mindfulness game
It’s way too easy to board an unproductive train of thought and let yourself get swept away by it—especially when it involves a person you’re infatuated with. The key, says Sandler, is to pay attention when your mind is wandering and stop it before it veers too far off course. Here’s an example: “Every time you think of James and his cute smile, even though James cheated on you, you acknowledge that you’re thinking of James and bring your attention to the present moment,” says Sandler, who recommends using your five senses to focus on things you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. “Once you bring your thoughts to the present moment, you can also follow it up with a new, positive thought or behavior.” So maybe you start thinking about your weekend itinerary instead—or, better yet, call a friend to make plans.
4. Write it out
When you’re hopelessly hung up on someone, Zwerin recommends putting your feelings in writing. “Journaling can help move the thoughts on your head onto paper, which can help alleviate rumination and can lead to a growing understanding of self,” she explains. The process can also help you clarify exactly what you’re looking for from your relationships—check out these four prompts to get started.
5. Talk to a therapist or coach
If you’ve tried all of the above and you still can’t figure out how to stop thinking about someone, it may be time to get help from a pro. “Yes, talking to friends and family is highly encouraged,” says Sandler. “But I also encourage talking to a professional, considering they’re trained to respond with unbiased thought and are there to help you help yourself.” Here’s a guide to finding the right mental health expert for you.
6. Be kind to yourself, okay?
If thoughts of that-person-who-shall-not-be-named still creep into your head, despite your best efforts, try not to beat yourself up over it. “There is a catch-22 here—if you fixate on trying not to fixate, there is an issue,” Sandler says. “Do not catastrophize your fixation.” Instead, she says, focus on self-compassion by doing things that make you feel good. “Whatever it may be, help yourself by loving yourself.”
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