Physiology Phriday: Repetitive thoughts?

Have you ever been tortured by a repetitive word, sound, phrase, song, or the like run through your head? Does it happen only during the day? At night when you wake up?

In psychological studies, there are a number of ways people talk about these experiences. Sometimes folks talk about intrusive thoughts/imagery, but this is usually in the context of PTSD or OCD studies. Others talk about rumination or repetitive thoughts, usually in the context of worry, depression, or anger. Finally, another batch talk about hallucinations in regards to psychotic disorders.

But what is going on in the more mundane repetitive thoughts? Diagnostically, they probably fit a bit more in the OCD genre than anything else (like counting, ordering, etc.).

1. Stress is usually a factor. They happen more frequently the more distressed a person is. It means the person is on higher alert than normal. The repetitions may be directly related to the stressor or may not. What is not know is whether the repetitions are a consequence of stress or a mediator of stress. What is known is that when a person, under stress, experiences repetitive thoughts salient to the stress, feels responsible to fix the problem, and attempts to suppress repetitive thoughts, their ruminations are MORE likely to increase.

2. Neuroticism is probably a factor as well. Sorry folks: those with anxious and depressive tendencies have more repetitive thoughts than others.

3. Emotional intensity as a native trait of the person may also be a factor. There is some evidence that individuals with strong emotions have a greater predisposition to PTSD (and therefore intrusive thoughts) if exposed to traumatic events.

But what to do about repetitive thoughts? Have you found anything helpful? There are certain things that are NOT helpful

1. Ruminating over the thoughts (Ugh, I can’t believe I’m still having that thought)

2. Trying to solve the problem they may be attached to

3. Trying not to think about pink elephants

Okay, so maybe those things don’t work. What does? Sad answer? We don’t know. Distractions do for a short time. Some actually give in to them and repeat them outloud to try to quell them. The more it is possible to pay them little notice, the easier it is to let them slide on out of the mind.

Maybe try to consider them an interesting mental quirk–like the lovable Monk (TV detective) 🙂


Filed under Anxiety, counseling science, Depression, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

6 responses to “Physiology Phriday: Repetitive thoughts?

  1. Amanda B

    Growing up I had that constant hateful barrage of vile thoughts. My parents divorced before I was born, and he repeatedly threatened to kidnap me until I was about 12, couldn’t walk anywhere alone. I can’t repeat the thoughts here or anywhere. As an adult (age 13) I began to memorize scripture, replacing the horrid with the beautiful. Now, some 24 years later I have hymns and praise songs that resound in my head. That and the occasional Top 40 Hit from the 70’s.

    • Aidy

      Hi Amanda B!

      Can you tell me abit more of how you overcame with the scriptures.
      I can’t get a demonic dream and the images out of my head. I know im being trampled on, and want to put an end to this madness.


  2. Mark O.


    Doesn’t giving into the thoughts and doing what they suggest temporarily solve the problem? Fulfilling the thoughts reduces anxiety for at least a period.

    Other ways I’ve dealt with repetitive thoughts has been to think about their meaning and try to understand where they are coming from within me, although I must admit, it doesn’t seem to help either. It just gives me more things to continually think about…it seems mostly distractions move me from my obsessive thinking.

    I’ve also tried praying and “holding my thoughts captive” to God, but I’m not sure how much it has helped….

  3. thank you for an excellent site– many useful articles!

    The phenomenon you are referring to in this post is not new under the sun. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition such thoughts are called logismoi. There is an excellent article about this topic on this Orthodox counselor’s site:

  4. D. Stevenson


  5. Susian D Nichols

    Thank you for the information. This has harassed me for about 5 years . I usually plead the blood of Christ over my body mind and Soul. This morning I told my body to come into alignment with the way I am to think and commanded it to go in the name of “Jesus”! Amen..

    I can’t remember how well it worked. I think it hung around for a while. I don’t remember because I have trouble remembering short term things. I also can’t think of wordsI want to say which is so irritating to the one I am speaking with, and myself as well. They even try to interject a word to help out. I usually ask whomever to wait a little so I can think of the word or I just give up. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia so this may be part of the problem known as FiberFog…. Yes it’s quite a lot of fun.

    I also have a long history of abuse…and growing up lived in constant torment and fear of something unknow which would never allow me to rest while sleeping or awake. There was constant turmoil and abuse during my childhood and on into my relationships as an adult. So I’m neurotic. Maybe just having a name for it will help. I was once diagnosed as being AADD. That was never really investigated. I do find myself flitting from one thing to another never quite finishing anything except cooking meals that must be finished or no meal. Right.

    I don’t know if this is a reply or if I have just vented a while either way I am glad I had the chance to review some things which cause the repetitive thoughts. Which usually occur more in the morning as I am drinking my morning coffee and languishing in nothing much except trying to stop the incessant thought processing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.