Have you ever found yourself worrying about a situation excessively, even if the scenario you are fixating on is highly unlikely to occur? Perhaps your boss seemed to be in a sour mood at work, and you spent the rest of the day worrying that she is going to fire you. On the other hand, maybe you are concerned about flu season and continue to worry that your son is going to catch the flu and be hospitalized. Whatever your concern is, when you experience repeated thoughts that are unwelcome and uncomfortable, you are likely suffering from what mental health experts would call obsessive thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts can occur when we’re under a considerable amount of stress, and they will get dissipate on their own when life returns to normal. Other times, they can be long lasting or be a symptom of a mental health condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in which people have repeated thoughts that cause them to experience anxiety or distress. Whatever their cause, there are ways to remove the stress of obsessive thoughts from your life.
Learn the Art of Mindfulness
If you are feeling overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts, learning to practice mindfulness may be the answer. Mindfulness is based upon the principle of being fully present in a given moment without passing judgment on your thoughts. Some people engage in mindfulness meditation, in which they focus on their breathing and what they are feeling in their bodies, while trying not to let the mind wander. Even if you don’t go so far as to practice mindfulness meditation, concepts from mindfulness can help you to stop obsessive thoughts. For example, mindfulness teaches us to simply let our thoughts pass by instead of ruminating on them. Mindfulness training can help you to overcome obsessive thoughts so they do not have such a grip on your daily life.
You may wish to seek out a professional who provides mindfulness meditation services, or you can consult online videos that can guide you in mindfulness practices. Some yoga studios also combine yoga poses with mindfulness. If you prefer not to be too formal, you can perform basic mindfulness activities throughout your day if you start to notice obsessive thoughts. For instance, any time an unwelcome thought of the flu creeps in, you can shift yourself to a mindful focus by naming five things you see in the room, or three sounds that you hear. Over time, this practice can become second nature so that you don’t think much of unwelcome thoughts at all.
Take a Movement Break
If you’re experiencing obsessive thoughts and you simply can’t let them go, it may be helpful to take a break to walk. If you’re at home, you can simply take a walk around the block until you feel that you’ve cleared your mind. If you’re in the office, stepping outside to walk around the parking lot or walking to another area of the building may be beneficial. Getting some exercise can boost your mood and help to alleviate some of the anxiety that could be contributing to obsessive thoughts. Physical activity in general appears to be effective for stopping obsessive thoughts. In fact, one study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that after people with OCD completed a workout, they were in a better mood and had fewer obsessive symptoms. Exercise can be another tool for coping with obsessive thoughts.
Practice a Mantra
Sometimes we can let obsessive thoughts wander in and consume us, even when we know they are irrational. To put the brake on these thoughts, it can be helpful to have a mantra or phrase you tell yourself when you notice that you are beginning to obsess about a certain topic. Something as simple as, “Stop” or “This thought is irrational,” or “This isn’t worth ruining my day” can be your catch phrases when obsessive thoughts begin to intrude upon your mind. Repeat your mantra to yourself each time an unwanted thought appears, and you might find that these thoughts disappear altogether.
Therapy for Obsessive Thoughts
Not everyone who experiences obsessive thoughts has a mental health condition, but some people who struggle with ongoing obsessive thinking may find that they cannot stop intrusive thoughts and are spending a significant amount of time worrying. If this is the case with you, it is possible that you are experiencing symptoms of (OCD), and you may benefit from working with a professional counselor for therapy services. You may be living with OCD if you experience repetitive thoughts that cause you significant anxiety, and you are spending so much time trying to cope with these thoughts that it is getting in the way of your relationships or stopping you from reaching your potential at work or school. People who struggle with OCD may engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rituals, to attempt to cope with intrusive thoughts. They may also spend an excessive amount of time praying or ruminating in an effort to stop obsessive thoughts.
If you do find that your obsessive thoughts warrant professional intervention, you may benefit from working with a counselor who provides a treatment like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of treatment assumes that unhelpful thoughts can lead to mental health issues like OCD, and correcting these thoughts can help people to recover. For example, if you repeatedly worry about your child contracting a deadly strain of the flu, you can learn to replace this worrisome thought with a more realistic thought such as, “It is unlikely my child will die from the flu, and I can take steps to keep him healthy.”
If obsessive thoughts have become problematic and you are seeking a therapist to assist you with overcoming them, reach out to a local mental health clinic or counseling center to schedule an appointment with a professional. It may be helpful to ask to work with a counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy or anxiety disorders. Reaching out for help is the first step toward a life that is free from obsessive thoughts.
Jenni Jacobsen, MSW, LSW
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