Published On: December 12, 2022
Reviewed On: December 12, 2022
Updated On: November 3, 2023
Research shows that, on average, people think more than 6,000 thoughts every day. While it’s not unusual to be distracted by the occasional unwanted thought, obsessive thoughts aren’t something you can push out of your head. Instead, this type of thinking can be so distressing and distracting it can be challenging to think about anything else.
People often use unhealthy coping mechanisms — including social withdrawal and compulsive behavior — to deal with obsessive thinking. Fortunately, you can learn how to stop obsessive thoughts and keep intrusive thought patterns from taking over your life.
“Obsessive thoughts” is a term that refers to unwelcome and upsetting thoughts you can’t seem to get out of your head. Also known as intrusive thoughts, this type of thinking is a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with an OCD diagnosis use compulsive behaviors to deal with the anxiety their thoughts cause.
Another form of obsessive thinking is rumination, a symptom of OCD, anxiety, and depression. Rumination is a negative thought spiral that doesn’t seem to end. Once the rumination process starts, it can be hard to stop.
While people struggle with many types of obsessive thoughts, some common examples of obsessive thinking might include the following:
If you’re struggling with unwanted intrusive thoughts, your first instinct might be to ignore your thoughts or push them away. Unfortunately, trying to suppress negative thoughts can actually make them worse.
Figuring out how to stop obsessive thoughts isn’t always the best solution at the moment. Rather than try to prevent your thoughts, you should let them happen. Once you address your thoughts, you might find that they fade away.
Acknowledging your thoughts doesn’t mean you have to dwell on them. When an unwanted thought appears, try to accept it and move on. If you can minimize the stress your thoughts cause, you can reduce their impact on your life.
Learning to stop obsessive thoughts means first recognizing harmful thought patterns. Then, by increasing your awareness of obsessive thinking, you can find better ways to cope with thoughts as they arise.
Work on how you react when you find you’re thinking obsessively or engaging in compulsions. For example, instead of trying to push thoughts away, address them by writing them down.
Expert Insight“When you recognize the pattern and give it a name, it’s easier to separate from it or see it as an external force. Obsessive thoughts can be present in different situations, but when you name them, you’re retaking control over what you think.”
Once the thoughts are out of your mind, try to identify what triggered them. For example, increased stress is a common trigger for obsessive thoughts, especially in people with OCD. Recognizing and understanding your triggers can prepare you to deal with obsessive thought patterns in the future.
The next step to stopping obsessive thinking is understanding that you aren’t choosing this. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts — a series of neurons firing in the brain, nothing more. As you begin to understand how obsessive patterns work, you’ll have a better chance of managing them when they occur.
Expert Insight“Thoughts are our brain’s way of keeping us alert, protected, and engaged. We have no control over them, but we have control over how to process them or reframe them. The more we practice mindfulness and reframing, the more positive links we create in our brain.”
To accept obsessive thoughts, plant yourself firmly in the present and be realistic about what you do and do not have control over.
Thoughts aren’t inherently harmful, but obsessive thoughts can cause severe anxiety and distress. Mindfulness is a practice that helps you accept challenging thoughts and feelings. Even if you can’t control your thoughts, mindfulness can help you cope with the emotions that are brought up.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but mindfulness meditation can be beneficial when struggling with intrusive thoughts or rumination. Meditation has a calming effect, and studies show that mindfulness can reduce negative responses to unpleasant thoughts or imagery.
You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere — whether at home, at work, or out with friends. When obsessive thoughts appear, give yourself a few minutes to meditate. Breathe deeply, focus on your breath, and accept your thoughts without judgment.
If you can’t figure out how to stop negative thoughts, look for a distraction. Whether you change your environment or start a new activity, a simple diversion can often disrupt a negative thought cycle before it takes hold. Any sort of diversion can help you break out of obsessive thinking. Try calling a friend, watching a TV show, or popping on your headphones and listening to your favorite songs.
Avoid activities that remind you of unwanted thoughts, such as movies with similar themes. Distraction can be surprisingly effective if you stay away from triggers.
You shouldn’t try to avoid obsessive thoughts altogether, but it might be helpful to put them in perspective. For example, ruminating often involves repetitive negative self-talk, such as “no one likes me” or “I do everything wrong.”
If you take the time to question and challenge these thoughts, you’ll likely find evidence that your thinking isn’t accurate. Try asking yourself: Who told me that? or how do I know this is true?
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an intervention that uses various techniques to identify and reframe negative thoughts. Online cognitive behavioral therapy with Talkspace can help you learn how to deal with obsessive thoughts by replacing them with positive, healthier ones.
While everyone has unwanted thoughts at one point or another, consider reaching out for help if obsessive thinking is something you’re struggling with. These thoughts could be symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A mental health professional can help you understand what’s causing your unwanted thoughts so that you can get the help you need. In addition, a therapist can help you develop coping mechanisms that will make your thoughts more manageable. Your thought patterns might feel overwhelming, but in therapy, you can find ways to keep them from taking over your life.
Obsessive thought spirals can be incredibly difficult to cope with. They can be upsetting, and you may feel guilty or ashamed about your thinking. If you’re overwhelmed by distressing thoughts, Talkspace can support you.
We can match you with a therapist who can teach you how to stop obsessive thoughts. If you’re concerned that your thoughts signify something more is going on, a therapist can talk to you about a psych evaluation. Instead of ignoring your thoughts, work with a professional to help you stop them and deal with them healthily. Reach out to Talkspace today to get started with an OCD test or anxiety test.
Tseng, Julie, and Jordan Poppenk. Nature communications vol. 11,1 3480. 13 Jul. 2020, doi:10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Williams, Monnica T et al. Psychopathology vol. 46,6 (2013): 365-76. doi:10.1159/000348582. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Merino, Hipólito et al. PloS one vol. 11,5 e0156169. 31 May. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156169. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Najmi, Sadia et al. Behaviour research and therapy vol. 45,8 (2007): 1957-65. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.09.014. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Morgado, P et al. Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 4 21. 2 Apr. 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00021. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Keng, Shian-Ling et al. Clinical psychology review vol. 31,6 (2011): 1041-56. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006. Accessed November 22, 2022.
Cynthia Catchings is a trilingual licensed clinical social worker-supervisor, mental health consultant, professor, and trainer for federal law enforcement agencies. Cynthia has over 15 years of experience in the mental health profession. She is passionate about women’s mental health, life transitions, and stress management. Her clinical work, advocacy, and volunteer service have focused on working with domestic violence survivors and conducting mental health research in over 30 countries.