How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts

Do thoughts such as the following ever force themselves into your head?

“I have been contaminated with germs”.

“I left the oven on”.

“I keep having dark sexual fantasies, so I must be a bad person”.

People who repeatedly experience these sorts of thoughts may end up feeling upset stressed, ashamed and out of control. In this article, we provide some suggestions for how to stop them. But first, what exactly are obsessive thoughts?

What Are Obsessive Thoughts?

Obsessive thoughts are ideas, urges or mental images that force their way into your mind. For some, this causes a lot of distress. Often, obsessive thoughts are “ego-dystonic”, meaning that they seem to be in contradiction with a person’s morals and values. Obsessive thoughts are the hallmark of a common psychological disorder called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, intrusive thoughts themselves are normal and natural – not everyone that experiences them necessarily has a psychological disorder.

Ruminative Thoughts

Rumination involves getting stuck in a mental rut where you go over and over an obsessive thought or theme for extended periods. Ruminative thoughts tend to be negative and filled with a sense of hopelessness. So, you end up wasting large amounts of time worrying about the intrusive topic, rather than taking a proactive problem-solving approach. Ruminative thoughts are common amongst people with OCD, but they are also very common amongst people with depression.

Thought-Action Fusion

Thought-action fusion essentially means that you become confused about the distinction between thinking about something and actually doing (or being) that thing. For example, say you’re having intrusive thoughts about molesting a stranger. Naturally, you do not act on these thoughts! Nonetheless, due to thought-action fusion, you experience an overwhelming sense of feeling guilty and immoral – as if having the thought is equal to carrying out the act.

Here’s another example. You struggle with obsessive thoughts about contracting HIV. Every time you think about it, you feel incredibly distressed. On some level, you believe that thinking about HIV makes you more likely to contract the illness. Obviously, this is untrue!

The Monitoring-Thought-Suppression Cycle

To demonstrate this phenomenon, we’d like to ask you to take a quick break from this article. Close your eyes and spend the next thirty seconds making absolutely sure that you do not think about Donald Trump.

Welcome back. I’m willing to bet that you inadvertently thought about Donald Trump. Why? Research shows that the more energy you spend on avoiding a thought, the more likely you are to trigger that thought; and then to become distressed by it.

How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts

People with OCD may find themselves spending a large amount of time “monitoring” themselves for any hint of an obsessive thought. As soon as the thought arises – which it inevitably does – they try their hardest to suppress the thought, which makes it more likely to resurface.

Coping with Repetitive, Intrusive Thoughts

Let’s cover some suggestions for how to stop obsessive thoughts.

Don’t Fight Them (Seriously)

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to realize that fighting against obsessive thoughts simply gives them more power (recall the Donald Trump exercise). Instead, why not try to focus on changing your responses to the obsessive thoughts?

For example, you might consciously choose to observe your obsessive thought with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. Acknowledge the thought; allow it to visit you for as long as it wishes. It will pass; and it may come back – but that’s ok.

See Obsessive Thoughts for What They Really Are

Once you give yourself permission to stop fighting against your obsessive thoughts, you create the opportunity to see them in a new light. At this point, you can embrace your thoughts for what they are: meaningless and harmless firings of neurons in your brain. Remember that a thought is just thought – not an action and not an indication of your value as a person.

Finding Opposite Thoughts/Identifying Values

If you’re still wondering how to stop obsessive thoughts, identifying opposites can be a very powerful approach. Often, an obsessive thought has an opposing value – and it’s possible to find an opposing thought which you can use to combat your obsession.

For example, suppose you have obsessive thoughts about committing violent acts. The very fact that you experience these thoughts as distressing or intrusive provides evidence for the fact that your own morals and values are non-violent. If you were an inherently violent person, thoughts about violence would not be distressing or intrusive: they’d just be thoughts!

Take this a step further by creating your own “opposite” thought that you can bring to mind as a way of countering your unwanted thoughts. Let’s say your obsessive thought is as follows: “I want to kill my neighbor and I’m a horrible person”. An opposite thought might include a) a mental image of you being kind to another person; and b) the words: “I am a good person”.

Find People Who Can Help

Are you still unsure about how to stop obsessive thoughts? If so, why not get some support? There’s absolutely no reason why you should struggle alone. Talking your situation through with a trusted friend or family member may help. Alternatively, you could seek out a therapist or even a support group in your area. For those who would like to receive help from the comfort of their own home, there is always the option of online therapy. Fortunately, today there are many platforms (including ThriveTalk) that enable therapy to take place online over voice, text or video chat.

We are Defined by our Actions, Not by Our Thoughts!

Obsessive thoughts can cause a lot of unnecessary distress. People with OCD often assume that they alone have such thoughts; and that this makes them bad, weak or out of control. But the truth is that intrusive thoughts – even the strangest and ugliest ones – are natural and acceptable!

Millions experience these sorts of thoughts from time-to-time, but they acknowledge them for what they are – random and meaningless. Someone with OCD, by contrast, is likely to get caught up in the emotions and assumptions (“I must be a bad person for having this thought”) that arise. If you’re wondering how to stop obsessive thoughts, then, the answer is simple. Fighting obsessive thoughts doesn’t help, so rather work toward changing how you respond to them!

Daniel Sher
 

Hi there, my name is Daniel. I’m a clinical psychologist, registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. My professional interests as a therapist include long-term psychodynamic work, as well as cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness-based interventions. In my practice, I work as a sex therapist with men who struggle with sexual dysfunction. I also work closely with people who have diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Finally, I have a keen interest in neuropsychology and neuropsychoanalysis. When I’m not practicing, I enjoy writing on the topic of psychology, surfing, hiking and practicing martial arts.