4 Min Read

How to Deal with Obsessive Thoughts

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

Everyone experiences distressing or unwanted thoughts from time to time. However, obsessive thoughts are far more persistent than day-to-day mental clutter.  

Obsessive thoughts can have a significant and highly negative impact on your overall mood and day-to-day functioning. When intrusive thoughts enter your mind, you’ll likely experience some level of discomfort, followed by attempts to avoid unwanted thoughts. Obsessions are also typically accompanied by high stress and intense anxiety.

Many people engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with obsessive thoughts, such as withdrawing from friends and family members, compulsive behaviors, and aggression. Fortunately, learning how to recognize and cope with obsessive thoughts can help individuals improve their quality of life and take control of their mental health.

What is obsessive thinking?

Obsessive thinking is characterized by recurring thoughts that are often paired with negative judgments. In many cases, individuals experience an inability to control these distressing, intrusive thoughts, and their severity can range from mild and annoying to all-encompassing and debilitating. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, obsessive thoughts might take the form of negative self-talk (e.g., ”I’m not good enough”) to worry over small details (e.g., ”I forgot to lock the door”) to scarier thoughts, such as falling fatally ill (e.g., ”What if I have cancer?”) or hurting loved ones.

Coping with Obsessive Thoughts

Unwanted, distressing thoughts are a normal part of human nature. But when we begin to take obsessions literally or treat them as harmful, obsessive thoughts can lead to stress and anxiety. To stop obsessive thinking, with or without its associated compulsions, here’s what you can do.

Recognize negative thought patterns.

The first step to stopping obsessive thoughts from disrupting your daily life is to identify the thoughts. Often, when you’re stuck in a cognitive loop, you’re engaging in a well-established habit. Like biting your nails or checking your phone every few minutes, obsessions and compulsive behaviors often happen unconsciously. The next time you notice rumination, tell yourself to stop.

After recognizing your negative thoughts, try writing them down. Jotting your thoughts down on paper can help you examine them, understand how they’re triggered, and identify the real problems contributing to your obsessions.

Accept that your thoughts are mostly out of your control.

The only way to cope with OCD thoughts is to practice acceptance. Attempting to avoid, escape, or suppress distressing thoughts ultimately strengthens them, making them worse and worse. Rather than avoiding your thoughts, remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more. As you learn to accept your intrusive thoughts, you’ll have a much better chance of stopping them in their tracks.

To practice accepting obsessive thoughts, plant yourself in the present and be realistic about what you do and don’t have control over. For instance, if you find yourself worrying about the future, ask yourself, ”Can I do anything to fix this right now?” If the answer is yes, identify what you can do and take action. If the answer is no, try your best to accept the situation.

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Practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Obsessive thinking often feels uncomfortable and distressing due to the negative emotions that accompany intrusive thoughts. While you work on challenging rumination by recognizing and accepting them, using meditation and mindfulness techniques can help you combat negative emotional responses and practice positive self-talk.

According to Psychology Today, mindfulness involves “clearing your head and focusing on how your mind and body feel in the moment.” Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help prevent obsessive thinking and relieve anxiety by reorienting you to the present moment.

When you recognize obsessive thoughts, try deep breathing by breathing in for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, and exhaling for another count of four. Alternatively, grounding exercises can help you anchor yourself and break the rumination cycle

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

While obsessive thinking is a normal part of human nature, it can also be a symptom of various mental illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders, according to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If you find yourself struggling with intrusive thoughts, repetitive behaviors, or compulsive rituals, or if you need extra help managing your obsessive thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional mental health support.

Together with your mental health professional, you’ll be able to establish the most effective plan to treat your symptoms. Many comprehensive OCD treatment plans include:

  • Medication: If you’re experiencing persistent, intrusive thoughts combined with compulsions, impulses, or ritualistic behaviors, your mental health professional may recommend treatment with prescription medications. Some medications that have been FDA-approved to treat OCD symptoms include antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Fluvoxamine (Luvox), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Sertraline (Zoloft), Paroxetine (Paxil), and Citalopram (Celexa).

To explore your treatment options, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or counselor you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements.

One of the licensed therapists on the WithTherapy platform will help you take back control of unwanted thoughts, reduce your OCD symptoms, and develop healthy coping mechanisms to improve your quality of life.

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