Dear Sahaj: How do I stop having these repetitive imaginary conversations? On a daily basis, I have a hypothetical conversation or argument in my head about current politics or social issues with people who I know in real life (who are on the opposite side of the issue) but I don’t interact with and are not a big part of my life.
Is this a common thing? I end up experiencing physical effects such as flushed cheeks, crying spells, fatigue or low energy. Additionally, I end up beating myself up because I should be able to talk myself out of it but then it doesn’t go away. These conversations are never going to happen in real life, so why do I let them play out in my head and bother me so much? How can I stop them?
In My Head: When you find yourself in one of these imaginary conversations, try to disrupt it with a task that distracts you — like a crossword puzzle, meditation, or listening to a podcast. You want to take your brain in a different direction and prevent yourself from sinking deeper.
Ask yourself, What feels unresolved and can I fix it? This will allow you to find constructive actions to step out of this cycle. If it’s a repetitive conversation that isn’t solvable or directly linked to your life, then you may be ruminating, or dwelling on negative feelings. Your body doesn’t know the difference between what is real stress and what isn’t, so it’s reacting to these imaginary conversations as if they are happening in real life. That’s why you’re also experiencing physical symptoms.
Having conversations in your head isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and almost everyone does it!). In some cases, it can be helpful — like motivating yourself to build confidence for an upcoming interaction with a friend or preparing for a job interview. However, when these conversations are repetitive, it can be a sign that something bigger is at play.
First, they may indicate that you are uncomfortable with confrontation or that you’re internalizing your feelings rather than speaking up. You may be utilizing unimportant folks in your life for conversations that are actually meant for an entirely different relationship. Are these imaginary conversations a stand-in for a real conversation you’re dodging? Is there something you want to speak up about in a relationship but fear doing so?
You mention that these conversations are with people who have differing beliefs. Have you ever noticed whether you struggle to agree to disagree with people you care about or respect? You may have been conditioned to empathize with others to the point of always putting their feelings above your own. This could impact how comfortable you are with your own emotions and speaking up. Remember: Your opinions don’t make you a bad person, even if they make others upset or disappointed. This all makes me wonder what you’ve been told about having independent and different thoughts than others. Why are you working so hard to avoid conflict?
If you’ve dealt with past trauma or unsafe relationships, you may feel as if you have to constantly be ready for confrontation. Your way of coping is to play these conversations out, over and over again, to “prepare” you. One way to combat this hypervigilance is to create a sense of safety for yourself so you don’t always feel like you have to be “on guard.” This may look like working through your past trauma with a professional or leaning into current relationships where you do feel safe and vulnerable.
Finally, feeling stuck in these stress-inducing imaginary conversations or arguments, and then becoming self-critical because of them, may be a sign of low self-esteem. Negative feelings can be powerful and feed off themselves easily. This makes it hard to escape the holes they lead us into. I am curious if you don’t believe you deserve to be happy with yourself or in your relationships and if these repetitive, and stressful, imaginary conversations are a form of self-sabotage.
Rumination can be linked to mental health disorders — like depression and anxiety. If you struggle to find the “off button” for these conversations, and they continue to interfere with your day-to-day well being, it’s time to seek out a professional who can help you manage these thoughts.