“Did I pay my phone bill?”
“Did I set my morning alarm?”
“What I leave the house unlocked?”
For someone with obsessive thoughts, these questions will sound all too familiar. Obsessive thinking is the hallmark of many mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The cycling thoughts come unbidden, and no matter how much you try to stop them – they circle back to continue their mental assault.
If you’ve had obsessive or intrusive thought patterns, you’ll know just how challenging it can be to get out of that cycle of negativity. How to stop obsessive thoughts is about much more than merely telling your brain to cut it out. Often, intrusive thoughts seem only to get worse the more you fight against them.
Why can’t you turn them off? Experts believe that suppression is counterproductive to reducing obsessive thoughts. In fact, this fact is scientifically proven.
So what can you do, if our natural inclination to suppress backfires? The truth is that the most effective ways to manage obsessive thinking will seem counterintuitive.
We explain how to stop obsessive thoughts, but this method might surprise you.
What Are Obsessive Thoughts?
Obsessive thinking is often associated with OCD, and stereotyped as illogical obsessions. However, most obsessive thinking stems from anxiety and is often rooted in reasonable concerns (ex: locking the door, washing hands, etc.).
The concern, however, becomes “stuck” in a repetitive thought pattern and becomes progressively more upsetting and compulsive. It quickly transforms from a rational worry into something much darker.
Obsessive thoughts are often intrusive. They appear when you least suspect it and when you are least equipped to handle it.
You may have experienced waking up at 2 am, only to slip out of dreamland and into real-life anxieties about money, relationships, or any other stressor in your life. The middle of the night is not when you can solve the world’s problems, but these thoughts sneak into your subconsciousness and take over.
Although many of us associate obsessional thoughts with OCD, these thoughts are also a significant component of other mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
Intrusive thoughts may develop from everyday anxieties, such as missing the bus to work or an upcoming test at school. They may also turn much darker, into unwanted thoughts of harming a loved one, or of a sexual nature.
If you’ve experienced these, you’ll know they come out of the blue, cannot be stopped, and do not reflect your true nature. It’s as if someone else is thinking about them in your head.
The good news about any obsessive thoughts, even these darker ones, is that you will not act on them. According to Seth Gillihan, a clinical psychiatrist and Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, your reaction to these thoughts is the key indicator you will never act on them.
You are horrified, terrified, and extremely uncomfortable with these violent or sexualized imaginings. No matter how dark the visions, they are common, even for those who do not have OCD.
What Can’t You Tell these Thoughts to ‘Stop’
Studies have shown us that any attempts to suppress these unwanted thoughts tend to backfire, and backfire spectacularly.
In a decade’s old example, a team of researchers asked a group of participants not to think about a white bear during an ongoing conversation. If the white bear popped up in their stream of consciousness, they were asked to ring a bell.
The participants tasked with this simple command, could not keep the white bear out of their mind. The bell rang constantly. As per the study, “they were unable to suppress the thought as instructed.” This study and others have shown us it’s harder to not think about something than to think about it.
Of course, when anxiety or obsessional thoughts cycle through your mind, your first instinct is to suppress them – to push them away. However, thanks to the research, we know this is counterproductive. Suppression tends to increase the frequency of the thought, which continues the cycle.
There is also no difference in experience between someone with a diagnosis and someone without. All of us, to some degree, have problems telling specific thoughts to ‘go away.’
So, if we can’t naturally stop this negative thought pattern, how can we make these thoughts go away?
How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts
If thought suppression doesn’t scientifically work, what can you do to make these intrusive anxieties go away? The solution may feel counterintuitive to those in the depths of an obsessional pattern.
What would happen if you stopped quashing these thoughts, and instead tried to acknowledge it?
While it can feel uncomfortable to look at these alarming and anxiety-ridden thoughts, the first step to working through these thought patterns is to acknowledge them. If they don’t go away on their own, you must learn to work with them.
1. Learn About Obsessive Thought Patterns
The first step is always to learn more about what is happening. Remember, everyone has unwanted thoughts, and everyone, to some degree, has anxieties. These are apart of being human, and part of how our mind keeps us safe.
After all, you probably want to remember to turn the stove off and lock the door, right? A certain level of fear keeps us safe.
If you are experiencing violent or sexualized obsessive thoughts, it can also help to know you aren’t alone. There are four types of obsessions in OCD, sexual or taboo thoughts, and violent thoughts are two of them.
According to the New England OCD Institute, over 90 percent of people report having unwanted and intrusive sexualized thoughts at some point in their lifetime. Roughly 25 percent of people with OCD fall within the sexually intrusive thoughts subset of diagnosis.
While these thoughts can be extremely alarming and only serve to increase your anxieties, know that they are common. You can overcome even the darkest of obsessive thoughts with the right approach.
2. Recognize the Pattern
Recognizing the cognitive loop you find yourself trapped in is the second step. After all, you need to understand you are in a cage before you know to open the door. While this step can take practice, it is crucial to working through the obsessional thought pattern.
Some suggest writing these thoughts down, to get them out of your mind and onto paper. When you feel calm, explore why these thoughts have floated to the surface. Ask yourself, why are they so concerning to you? What is the root cause of your worry about this thought?
For example, are your obsessive thoughts about an upcoming interview? Maybe your root concern is about not getting the job or failing to impress. Keep in mind – you aren’t looking for solutions, just tracing the pattern of the thought.
3. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
While everyone talks about mindfulness these days, it’s not without reason. Mindfulness is the ability to see the thoughts as they appear and allow them to pass without reaction. Mindfulness is awareness and presence.
According to Greater Good Magazine, “Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.”
See these intrusive thoughts, and let them go. Lean into the anxiety to give it space to pass. Don’t try to fight it; think of it as fleeting.
Meditation is the next piece. Through mindful practice, you can learn to alter the pattern of your thoughts. As you may know, meditation takes practice, but it is extremely valuable for reducing anxiety. It can help reduce the urge to suppress intrusive thoughts and create healthy thought patterns.
4. Speak with Someone
Sometimes it can help to speak with a therapist or counselor about troubling obsessive thoughts. Especially if they are taking control of your life, relationships, and mental health. Research has shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy is beneficial for reducing intrusive thought patterns. The techniques usually employed in this type of treatment include:
- Education about “the occurrence and maintenance of obsessive thoughts” (see point number one)
- Exposure to thoughts (see point number two and three)
- Learning to approach these thoughts differently (“cognitive restructuring”)
- Implementing relapse prevention strategies (step four)
In a study looking at the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy for people with OCD, it proved effective over the long term. Follow up analysis of the study participants six months later found the treatment was a continued success.
Learn to Calm the Mind and Reduce Obsessive Thoughts
All of us have obsessive thoughts. They are a part of human existence. To a certain degree, keep us safe by reminding us to lock our doors at night and turn off the stove when we are done the cooking. If they become troublesome and interrupt the daily routine – this is when they become counterproductive.
If you find your obsessive thoughts have become disturbing, it may be time to speak with someone. As we’ve learned, intrusive thoughts aren’t going away because you tell them to stop. Suppression tactics might be our first instinct but aren’t generally helpful in this situation.
Start by learning about obsessive thoughts, which can help to recognize them as they appear. If you acknowledge them when they occur, it might help slow down the anxious spiral.
Next, try to incorporate guided meditations and mindfulness practices into your daily routine. You’ll learn how to accept these thoughts as they appear, but also how to let them pass on through. It takes practice, but with a little patience and dedication, you can learn to move beyond obsessive thought patterns.