Relationship Tips

How to Stop Thinking About Someone When You Can’t Focus on Anything Else

Photo: Getty Images/m-imagephotography
Many of us have found ourselves struggling to concentrate on a task because somebody is taking up all of our mental real estate. Whether you like or dislike the person dominating your thoughts, one thing's for sure: Figuring out how to stop thinking about someone can feel straight-up impossible.

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.) But why?

Read on to learn what two mental health experts say could be causing your mind to go on this one-person loop, some practical ways for how to stop thinking about someone, and the two main questions people ask when they’re unable to move their mind’s focus away from a person.

3 possible reasons why you may fail to move your thoughts from someone

1. Your brain chemically reacts to you thinking about someone

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—because it allows you to feel pleasure and causes want and 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," she says.

This also happens with people that aren’t in our lives, says life coach and mental-health counselor Katie Sandler, MS. "Loving people and losing people has the same effect on the brain as drugs," says Sandler. "When you're fixated on a person, for positive or negative reasons, your brain is responding as though it's being rewarded or deprived."

2. You feel regret when you think of how things ended

Sometimes, the reason you can’t stop thinking about someone is because you don’t like the way that the relationship dissolved, says Sandler. Perhaps you regret breaking up with a significant other or you don’t feel great about not talking to a former friend.

Either way, you can benefit from the past relationship by internalizing that you cannot change the past, says Sandler.

“If you have regret, you're constantly replaying the past, trying to figure out where things went wrong,” she says. “And if you get stuck in that thought cycle, it’s hard to move forward.”

3. Humans are social by nature

“We’re social creatures, so social relationships are of the utmost importance to us,” says Sandler. “That’s important for us to understand because our relationships have an imprint on our minds as well.”

To put it in layman's terms, you’ll always have memories with the person even if they’re no longer in your life. If you want to stop thinking about someone, the key, says Sandler, is to be clear on how you want to move forward.

Obviously, it's not ideal to be preoccupied with anyone for too long, at least not if you want to be a functioning adult. Keep reading to find eight helpful strategies for how to stop thinking about someone.

How to stop thinking about someone in 8 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. Shift your perspective

A big part of shifting your perspective is practicing what Sandler calls radical acceptance, which is the equivalent of accepting that things have ended and that they ended the way they ended—regardless of how desirable you found that outcome,

“When we can radically accept what happened, we can take it as an opportunity to learn and grow,” says Sandler. “Our goal shifts from trying to figure out what went wrong—which is a goal that can never be met.” Radical acceptance takes you out of the “what went wrong” loop and can lead to significant self-growth because gives you an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

7. Meet new people

This might sound almost too simple, but it’s true, says Sandler. This is especially useful if you’re starting to think that there’s something wrong with you because the relationship didn’t work out. As long as you’re doing your best, you can be confident that there’s nothing wrong with you. And meeting new people, who you may be more compatible with, is a great way to stop thinking about someone.

“Connecting with other people brings us to the present moment,” says Sandler. “It can also renew your confidence—which is a big deal.”

8. 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."

The most common questions about how to stop thinking about someone

According to Sandler, there isn’t a long list of frequently asked questions when it comes to shifting your thoughts away from a given person. Instead, she says, there are two main questions that come up for her.

The first is “what’s wrong with me?,” to which the answer—as we previously explained—is: absolutely nothing. When you can’t stop thinking about someone, especially if you’re unhappy about how things ended, it’s all too simple to engage in negative self-talk. Not only is this dangerous for your mental health; it’s also not a valid question because it often comes down to compatibility.

The second question Sandler fields when it comes to people who are unable to focus on something other than the person they’re thinking about is “what if I never get over this person?”

“From there, the question is, do you want to get over them? And if you don't, why? How is that serving you?,” asks Sandler. In order to move your thoughts away from someone and feel more confident that you can get over them, it’s helpful to remember that there are a lot of people in the world, says Sandler. Another thing that might help you start to move on is to assess why you liked being in that relationship. It could be for connection, intimacy, or a lifestyle, says Sandler, but it’s important that you get clear on it so you can start to move on by looking for those green flags in other people.

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