Updated on 1/4/2022
It’s a regular Tuesday evening when I realize my Talkspace therapist, who consistently answers twice a day, didn’t respond a second time that night. A fleeting thought darts through my head: “What if she died?” With my life-long history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am no stranger to such macabre thoughts, so I dismiss it. It’s just a thought without evidence.
Soon the intrusive thought pops back into my mind. I open the Talkspace app on my phone. No message, but it’s probably nothing. I answered her too late in the day, she’s busy, she’s taking a well-deserved night off, her app isn’t working…All reasonable explanations.
Not two seconds later, the unwanted thought’s back, and even with all my years of therapy and an arsenal of coping skills for moments just like this, that thought grabs me hook, line, and sinker. I launch into one of my all too common full-blown panic attacks, which eventually proves to be unfounded when my therapist messages me as usual the next morning.
Does this anecdote sound familiar? It’s just one example of obsessive thinking, and I’m confident we’ve all had a version of this experience at some point. These types of common intrusive thoughts are unhelpful at best, and debilitating at worst.
“Rumination can be a problem because it rarely offers new insights or solutions on how to handle a situation,” writes psychotherapist Jodee Virgo for The Everygirl. “Instead it emotionally hijacks us and intensifies our negative feelings.”
Like me, you’ve probably often wondered how to stop intrusive thoughts. To stop obsessive thinking in its tracks, with or without the often-associated compulsive behavior, here’s what you can do.
Understand What Obsessive Thinking Is
Obsessive thinking is a series of thoughts that typically recur, often paired with negative judgements. Many times there is an inability to control these persistent, distressing thoughts and the severity can range from mild but annoying, to all-encompassing and debilitating. These disturbing thoughts can be unflattering self-judgements such as “I’m not good enough,” to worry over small details like forgetting to turn off the oven or lock the door, to more serious ruminations such as fear of falling fatally ill or hurting loved ones.
Obsessive thoughts can impact both your mood and functioning. When bad thoughts enter our mind, generally our first instinct is some level of discomfort, followed by attempts to banish the unwanted visions. This is human nature: When something is bad, we avoid it. The stove is hot, so we don’t touch it. Simple. But obsessive thinking is a different beast.
When we try to avoid negative thoughts while in an obsessive state, the brain keeps reminding us about the unwanted thoughts so we don’t forget to stop thinking about them. It’s the same basic principle behind being told not to think about something — say a pink elephant — and our next thought becoming exactly what we are not supposed to think about.
The secret is that like all thoughts, what we’re ruminating over has no meaning by itself. As Deepak Chopra says, “Thoughts are just fleeting mental images. They have no consequences until you choose to make them important.”
Recognize the Pattern and Name Them
To stop obsessive thinking in its tracks, it’s important to identify these unwanted intrusive thoughts in the first place. Seems simple, but knowing how to stop intrusive thinking is a little trickier than it sounds.
“We have to recognize our patterns before we can change them,” says Virgo. “Often when we are stuck in a cognitive loop, we engage in a well-established habit. It’s similar to biting nails or checking social media every few minutes — it happens unconsciously. The next time you catch yourself ruminating, think: ‘Stop!’”
From here, name the obsessive thoughts and any repetitive behaviors that come with them. Try writing them down so, as Bruce M. Hyman and Cherry Pedrick write in The OCD Workbook, you can “examine these thoughts [to] understand how they’re triggered and how you’re currently responding to them.” It is important to avoid thought suppression by addressing any bad thoughts as they occur.
Once they’re out of your mind, try to identify the underlying cause of the negative thoughts to gain some perspective. If it’s a worry about not getting a text response from a friend, or a potential mistake made on a test, search for the root issue. Not getting a message back could be, “I’m upset about how my friend treated me the last time we met.” Anxiety about a test might be, “I’m afraid of failing this class.”
Accept that Thoughts are Largely Out of Your Control
The next step to stop obsessive thinking is acceptance. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts — a series of neurons firing in the brain, nothing more. As we learn to accept obsessive thoughts, we’ll have a much better chance of stopping them altogether.
“The resulting effort to avoid, suppress, or escape these thoughts unwittingly serves to amplify and strengthen them, making them worse and worse,” advise Hyman and Cherry. “Acceptance, rather than control and avoidance, is the key. By ‘acceptance,’ we don’t mean giving up or resigning,” but rather as their client said, “When I let the thoughts be, they let me be.”
To accept obsessive thoughts, plant yourself firmly in the present and be realistic about what you do and do not have control over.
“When you find yourself obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, ask yourself the following question: ‘Can I do anything about this right now?’” says Jodee Virgo. “If the answer is yes, identify what you can do and do it.…If the answer is no, do your best to accept what is.”
Explore Meditation and Mindfulness Benefits
Partly why obsessive thinking feels so uncomfortable is due to the icky emotions that accompany intrusive thoughts. While you work to cognitively challenge ruminations by naming and accepting them, using mindfulness meditation exercises can help quell the resulting negative emotional responses.
In Psychology Today, Psychologist Seth Meyers defines mindfulness as “clearing your head and focusing on how your mind and body feels in the moment.” To achieve this, mindfulness meditation offers a series of practices to reorient us to the present moment, place, and time, which soothes anxiety.
When obsessive thinking enters the scene, try deep breathing exercises by breathing in slowly to the count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, and then exhale for another count of four. Grounding exercises can also help break the rumination cycle of unwanted intrusive thoughts. Anchor yourself in the present by focusing on the feeling of your feet planted on the ground. Take in your surroundings with all your senses, identifying in turn five things you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel to get into “right now.”
A quick internet search can identify other mindfulness and meditation activities to try. Also consider attending in-person meditation classes to learn different techniques in a supportive environment with others.
Reach Out to a Professional if Needed
Obsessive thinking is a normal part of human nature, but it can also be the hallmark of a variety of mental illnesses, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a range of other anxiety disorders.
If you find yourself struggling with disturbing and persistent obsessive thoughts, or just want a little extra boost to manage obsessive thinking, reach out to a mental health professional. They can help identify OCD symptoms, assist you professionally with intrusive thinking issues, and prescribe you medication if necessary. You can also take a clinically-backed OCD test or anxiety disorder assessment to get a better understanding of how underlying conditions may be contributing to compulsive thoughts.
“If ruminative thoughts are interfering with living the life you want to live, consider reaching out for help,” says Virgo.” Therapy is a great way to learn how to use these techniques with the help and guidance of a professional.”
Our minds are a powerful place, and once we get the hang of stopping obsessive thinking by naming and accepting the thoughts, practicing mindfulness, and getting extra help when needed, we free up space to create something truly amazing for ourselves.
“The greatest power we have is the power to create reality,” says Deepak Chopra. “The essence of wisdom is to see that there is always a solution once you realize that the mind, which seems to create so much suffering, has infinite potential to create fulfillment instead.”