Therapy Blog

It’s over – Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About Them?

Posted on Tuesday, June 25th, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Coming to terms with the end of a relationship can be like trying to find your way out of a labyrinth. No matter how long or short the journey was, each twist and turn leaves its mark. It can take months, or even years, to navigate the complex emotions and thoughts tied to our memories of someone who once played a role in our lives. Whether it was a profound romantic commitment, a casual interaction, a friendship, or even a fleeting encounter, the echoes of shared moments often linger, reminding us of the paths we once walked together.

Silhouettes of man and woman facing in opposite directions, man in background woman in foreground

You may find your thoughts dominated by persistent questions such as “Why can’t I stop thinking about them?” “How do I move on from my ex?“Why can’t I get my ex out of my head? You may even find yourself manufacturing reasons to initiate contact with them.

This experience can be particularly challenging if the relationship ended unexpectedly or wasn’t clearly defined. Relationships marked by instability or cut short in the infatuation stage can leave a lasting impression. The rollercoaster of exciting and passionate emotions experienced during these times can lead to a cycle of reminiscence, which may be challenging to break.

Why is it so difficult to stop thinking about him, her or them?

If you find yourself constantly thinking about someone, you might be experiencing ‘romance addiction, where you use fantasy thoughts to escape your life and its challenges. Movies, books, music, and advertisements constantly inundate us with unrealistic notions of love and relationships. If you grew up with parents who didn’t love you unconditionally or even neglected you, these idealised and thrilling (yet ultimately false) versions of love may seem very appealing.

Some causes of not being able to stop thinking about someone include:

  • Loneliness and a lack of other relationships
  • • A lack of healthy relationship models to learn from
  • • Insecure attachment styles
  • • An unresolved end to the relationship
  • • They have qualities you envy or appreciate or disown in yourself
  • • Having something in common, particularly a significant life event or traumatic experience

The past is past – why can’t I stop thinking about them?

We tend to romanticise the past. Humans are naturally nostalgic, and we often unconsciously manipulate our memories to seem better than they were. Consider the last time you went on holiday. You will likely remember it through the picture-perfect lens of laughter, delicious meals and quality time spent with loved ones – forgetting inconveniences such as delayed flights, lost belongings and finding sand everywhere long after returning home.

This selective memory also applies to relationships. We may look back at old photographs, recalling joyful moments and emotional highs and glossing over disagreements or incompatibilities. We are more likely to do this when we feel sad or lonely, and the contrast between our current state and our idealised version of past events can make memories feel all the more alluring.

Man sitting on windowsill with head on crossed arms, looking sad

The sensations of being in love can be intense and even addictive. The rushes of pleasurable hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, coupled with the excitement of getting to know someone and developing romantic feelings, have been shown to affect the brain in the same way certain drugs do. For many people, a relationship ending can evoke feelings similar to withdrawal, and revisiting memories of that time with that person can temporarily help satisfy these cravings.

How can therapy help with moving on?

These persistent thoughts can often be linked to unmet needs, past traumas, or attachment patterns formed early in life. Breaking free from this cycle enables you to develop healthier relationships in the future. If you are struggling to move forward independently, an experienced counsellor can help you navigate the complex layers of grief, longing, and unresolved issues, guiding you towards deeper self-awareness and emotional resilience. By working with an experienced therapist, you can uncover these underlying patterns and begin to process them healthily.

Professional therapeutic support provides a safe space to explore and understand the emotions and attachments that fuel these thoughts. In addition, counselling provides practical tools and strategies to manage and reduce the intensity of your thoughts. This addresses the immediate distress and helps empower you to reclaim your sense of self. By helping to reshape your narrative, therapy allows you to integrate the experience of the past relationship into a broader understanding of your life’s journey.

How can I stop thinking about them and move forward?

While reflecting on past experiences, including relationships, is a natural part of life, it can become problematic if this begins to impact your present. Dwelling excessively on the past can stop you from fully engaging with the here and now and investing time and energy into healthy, lasting bonds and habits.

Tips to help move on

• Minimise contact with them. This may be difficult if you share children, work together, or otherwise can’t avoid seeing them entirely. However, decreasing the time you spend with them can help to reduce how much you think about them.

• Avoid seeing them. Steps such as blocking, muting, or unfollowing them on social media and deleting chat history can be surprisingly effective. Our thought patterns develop through repetition, and constant reminders of them can impede the moving process. You may also consider asking mutual friends not to talk about them when you’re present.

• Stay grounded in reality. Reflect on how you internally describe that person and consider whether it truly aligns with your experiences of them. Speak to friends and family who knew you during the relationship. They can provide a fuller picture of the relationship, including any unhealthy or unsustainable elements.

• Counselling and therapy can provide a neutral, confidential environment to explore your emotions and identify the roots of the lasting attachment. Individual relationship therapy can grant valuable insights into your thoughts and behaviour. Talking therapy can also help you to form healthy boundaries and explore attachment styles, paving the way for healthier future relationships.

• Avoid or remove reminders of them. Looking at old photos, reminiscing over gifts or souvenirs and encountering sensory triggers, such as smell or taste, can all hinder your progress in letting go of the past.

• Accept your feelings. This may sound counterintuitive, but trying to suppress your thoughts and emotions can actually amplify them and create a sense of anxiety or inadequacy alongside the difficulties of moving on. Mindfulness, meditation and other practices can improve executive control, which regulates intrusive or unwanted thoughts. By allowing you to observe and accept emotions without judgment, these techniques can help reduce the intensity of your emotions.

• Create a new, realistic narrative for your life. Whether you write this down, create a vision board, or simply keep it in your thoughts, this new “story should acknowledge the sadness of a past relationship’s end but also emphasise your commitment to creating new, fulfilling experiences and relationships.

• Prioritise self-care. By focusing on your physical, mental and emotional needs, you may find yourself thinking less about another person. This can include active self-care, such as exercising and engaging in hobbies. Alternatively, you might opt for soothing activities such as a long bath or losing yourself in a good book. It’s important to steer clear of temporary fixes such as alcohol or drugs. Although the immediate effects of these types of substances can feel relieving, they ultimately suppress your emotions, which can cause more significant issues in the long run.

full shot woman sitting on a beach

While it is natural to think about people who are no longer in your life, it is vital to recognise when this impacts your quality of life. You deserve to focus on the future rather than feeling anchored in the past. If you find yourself constantly preoccupied with someone who is no longer a part of your life, it is essential to take proactive steps to let go. Love is about connection; ultimately, it can’t thrive as a one-sided experience.

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