How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts
Everyone experiences strange or unwanted thoughts from time to time. However, obsessive thoughts are far more persistent and cumbersome than daily mental clutter.
Obsessive thoughts can range from somewhat distracting to completely consuming. They are often inappropriate and intense, which makes them uncomfortable for the individual experiencing them. Obsessive thoughts are often accompanied by intense anxiety. To cope with this anxiety, people may engage in a variety of unhealthy coping skills like withdrawing from others, aggression, or compulsive behaviors.
Learning how to recognize and stop obsessive thoughts can help people restore a sense of confidence in their lives.
Understanding Obsessive Thoughts
People experience somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day. With that staggering number, it’s reasonable to experience some strange or unwanted thoughts. Most people can quickly label these obsessive thoughts as being strange. They recognize them, dismiss them, and they move about their days.
In fact, obsessive thoughts aren’t often the problem. It’s the adverse reactions to them that cause problems. When someone can’t stop or control their thinking, when they find themselves acting out with intense distress, the obsessive thoughts start almost to create a life of their own.
Obsessive thoughts may emerge from a specific event, like a trauma. For example, if someone was sexually abused, they might experience tremendous fear about it happening again. They might hold onto the beliefs that the world is unsafe and that people can’t be trusted. Over time, these thoughts may become obsessive. The person might avoid dating or social settings.
That said, obsessive thoughts can also arise at any other time. They don’t need to have a single cause. Obsessive thoughts affect people of all ages and demographics.
Types of Obsessive Thoughts
- Harm thoughts: Obsessive thoughts related to harming oneself or others
- Relationship thoughts: Obsessive thoughts related to doubts, fears, or compatibility within an intimate relationship
- Religious thoughts: Obsessive thoughts related to morals, ethics, and potential blasphemy within a religious context
- Sexual thoughts: Obsessive thoughts related to sexual orientation or deviant sexual behavior
- Contamination thoughts: Obsessive thoughts of being contaminated by germs or other viruses and diseases
- Responsibility thoughts: Obsessive thoughts about whether certain actions or lack of action directly impact and cause risk to others
Some of these thoughts may start as a mild concern. Over time, however, they can progress into an all-consuming emotional rollercoaster.
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Obsessive Thoughts and Mental Illness
Obsessive thoughts are a tenant of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental illness that affects 1% of the American population. OCD is characterized by intense, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. The obsessions can be in the form of unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses. They happen over and over again, and the individual may experience immense frustration or confusion over them. To suppress or control the obsessions, they engage in compulsions to neutralize them.
However, obsessive thoughts aren’t just limited to OCD. They also coincide with other anxiety disorders. There are several different anxiety disorders including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder: Experiencing excessive worry and fear in a variety of situations. The obsessive thoughts may relate to many areas of functioning including one’s relationships, work performance, health, the environment, etc.
- Panic disorder: Experiencing recurrent panic attacks and having fear and obsessive thoughts over when the next panic attack will occur.
- Social anxiety disorder: Experiencing intense worry in social settings. The obsessive thoughts relate to the perception and judgment of others.
- Specific phobia: Experiencing concentrated fear over a specific situation, object, or thing. The obsessive thoughts relate to safety and loss of control over the perceived danger.
- Separation anxiety disorder: Experiencing fear over losing attachment to a person and being left alone. The obsessive thoughts are related to losing the other person.
- Agoraphobia: Experiencing intense fear of being in specific locations or settings, like being in enclosed places or in large crowds. Obsessive thoughts are related to safety and wellness and fears of being trapped or harmed.
Additionally, obsessive thoughts can coincide with other mental illnesses like depression, substance use disorders, and eating disorders. Often, these thoughts seemingly justify the behaviors associated with mental illness. Therefore, the individual remains stuck in a persistent cycle of inappropriate thinking with harmful behaviors.
Stopping Obsessive Thoughts
Most research suggests that the art of stopping obsessive thoughts shouldn’t actually be focused on stopping. Instead, it should be focused on reframing, rewording, managing, and accepting the thoughts for what they are.
Thoughts and behaviors don’t emerge randomly. They often arise from deeply-ingrained patterns or triggers that may or may not be conscious. Becoming aware of these patterns or triggers helps people become more cognizant of their reactions. Common triggers include:
- Ruminating about an event that occurred in the past
- Significant life transitions (graduating college, marriage, the birth of a new child)
- Receiving bad news (job loss, death of a loved one)
- Sudden and unexpected changes
Identifying The Distortions
Most obsessive thoughts are rooted in faulty thinking patterns. While thoughts may feel like facts, all thoughts are subjective. That means that they can be challenged, reframed, and even changed entirely.
There are many different kinds of cognitive distortions, but some common ones include:
- Catastrophizing– assuming the worst-case scenario is doomed to happen
- Dichotomous thinking– assuming that things exist in extremes (i.e., everything is completely perfect, or it’s a total failure)
- Control fallacies– assuming that you have control over a particular person or situation and its outcomes
- Magical thinking– assuming that you can read into certain situations or people’s motives
- Personalizing– assuming that a certain situation or other person’s behavior is about you
- “Should” thinking– assuming that you should have known better or should have done something differently despite it being in the past
- Fortune telling– assuming that you know what the future holds
For many people, cognitive distortions weave themselves insidiously into daily thoughts and actions. Likewise, they often dictate how a person interprets and responds to a specific situation. These distortions aren’t always inaccurate. However, they are rarely helpful, and they often contribute to significant emotional distress.
Changing Thinking Patterns
Learning how to identify cognitive distortions can help untwist faulty thinking. Subsequently, by challenging them, people can learn newer and more balanced ways of approaching situations.
All thoughts can be examined and analyzed. This can often be accomplished by thoughtfully answering some questions. For example,
What evidence supports the validity of this thought?
Is there another way to look at the situation?
How does this thought help one’s current reality- how does it harm it?
Many people find that simply assessing thoughts allows them to recognize there are different ways to interpret them.
Naming The Fears
Underneath every obsessive thought lies an intense fear. The fears vary, but they are often rooted in a sense of loss, abandonment, or general safety. These fears aren’t always completely irrational. Often, there is a tiny grain of truth behind them. Unfortunately, the individual blows this truth out of proportion, and it’s the only reality they can focus on.
It’s no secret that fear is a valid emotion that all humans experience. Fear is an essential component of survival; it’s what keeps humans alert and active in their environments. The goal isn’t to alleviate fear; instead, the goal is to become more comfortable with it.
When people are caught in the vicious cycle of obsessive thinking, identifying and naming the fear can help.
For example, if someone is obsessing over their body weight, the fear may be that others will perceive them as ugly. From there, it helps to continue identifying what exists even beneath that fear. The individual may fear that, if others view them as ugly, they will never be accepted or loved. Although this may seem harsh, the individual can then ask, how realistic is this fear? Even if this were true, would I be able to cope?
While this exercise may not eliminate the fear, it can shed light to some of the irrational thinking the fear may provoke.
Acceptance means tolerating the current reality for what it is. Acceptance is the lack of trying to change or otherwise control a situation. Accepting obsessive thoughts may seem counterintuitive. After all, the thoughts are unwanted! They can be distracting, upsetting, and downright frightening.
That said, there is substantial research supporting the idea that active attempts to try and change thinking do not work.
One famous study proves this theory with its white bear experiment. Researchers asked participants to engage in free thinking for a few minutes. They only had one caveat: don’t think about a white bear. What happened? Despite the instructions, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute.
In other words, when people actively try not to think about something, the thought often gains more power. Even though the mind might code this thought as taboo, it still “checks in” with the brain to make sure it’s “not coming up.” Of course, this manifests that very thought!
Acceptance helps mitigate some of the mental clutter, and it is possible to merely accept the obsessive thoughts. Positive affirmations help reinforce this notion.
Some positive affirmations include:
I am in acceptance of my own thoughts.
I am at peace with myself.
I have power over my impulses.
I naturally persevere over my obsessions.
I am perfect the way I am.
I am level headed.
This moment is what I need right now.
Research shows that even just a few minutes of meditation can do profound wonders for your emotional and physical health. Meditation boosts health, happiness, self-control, and productivity. Adding a meditation practice can reduce the intensity of obsessive thoughts. Moreover, it can help people realign themselves if and when the obsessive thinking begins to take hold.
Seeking Professional Treatment
Even in conjunction with self-help techniques, obsessive thoughts may require professional intervention. Many people benefit from the support of a psychotherapist or medication to reduce or eliminate their obsessive thinking patterns.
Individual psychotherapy provides a supportive and compassionate space for processing feelings and learning new ways of coping with life stressors. Therapists work with clients to develop appropriate treatment plans for identifying and accomplishing sustainable growth.Therapy can help with obsessive thoughts by:
- Pinpointing the triggers that provoke the thoughts
- Exposing the individual to these thoughts without allowing them to engage in typical compulsions
- Examining other sources of stress (relationships, work, self-esteem problems, mental illness) that may contribute to faulty thinking
- Cultivating and implementing healthier coping skills
- Increasing self-acceptance and building a working model to strengthen self-worth
- Practicing new ways of changing thought patterns
- Providing a nonjudgmental space for exploring past events or trauma
- Offering referrals for additional resources or professional support
Therapy can also offer support for individuals who are struggling with a mental illness. Obsessive thoughts are just one symptom associated with many mental health conditions. However, receiving support and treatment for all symptoms can promote emotional stabilization and boost self-esteem, all of which can reduce faulty thinking.
Pharmacological treatment can be effective in treating obsessive thoughts. People living with OCD may benefit from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft, Celexa, Prozac, and Effexor.
SSRIs are traditionally used as antidepressants, but they also help target obsessive thoughts. That’s because they target serotonin and dopamine, two areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation, mood, temperament, and critical thinking.
Most people start on a low dose, and then they gradually increase the dose as needed. People respond differently to medications, and finding the right fit can be a trial-and-error process. It’s crucial to speak with a physician before starting or changing a medication.
Obsessive thoughts can feel debilitating and defeating. Many people experience high levels of shame and fear over these thoughts. They spend a great deal of time, energy, and even money trying to suppress or change them.
With that in mind, obsessive thoughts do not define a person. With practice and intention, they can be moderated, managed, and even controlled.