Obsessive thoughts aren’t necessarily a sign of some kind of psychological illness. They can occur in anyone. For example, when someone’s giving up smoking, their mind will constantly return to thoughts about cigarettes. Sometimes they’ll succumb to these thoughts even if they contradict common sense.
If we haven’t eaten in a long time, our brain won’t allow us to ‘forget’ about this. Thoughts of food will be persistent and you’ll find it hard to control them.
But for some people obsessive thoughts (or fears) take on a more uncontrolled form and are unrelated to external reality. Some can’t stop thinking about dying in an accident; others may constantly think that their husband is cheating on them, even when there’s no actual reason to suspect this. I am going to talk about this kind of obsessive thoughts in this article.
These thoughts don’t serve to help us survive, but just increase our worry and anxiety.
Obsessive thoughts come to different people in different ways. In my view, it isn’t always possible to attribute them to any one isolated problem; generally they arise as a result of other problems – depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, etc. But this isn’t always the case! Obsessive thoughts can also be the result of your fear, a strong attachment or intense desires.
So don’t panic if you’ve noticed in yourself any signs of obsessive thoughts or fears. They come to everyone in one form or another. It’s a problem that can absolutely be resolved, and in this article I’m going to tell you how to do this.
Method 1 – Don’t try to drive obsessive thoughts away!
This is the advice given by many psychologists and it worked for me (I used to have incessant obsessive thoughts). Research has shown that when we try to suppress thoughts they tend to come back; that’s the way our minds work.
If we try to force our consciousness to forget about something, our subconscious will every so often ‘test’ us to see if it’s working. ‘Hey! Have you stopped thinking about how badly it went with that girl which you told yourself not to think about? How about now? And now? I’ll be checking again in half an hour!’
It sounds absurd, but that’s how our minds work. The unconscious constantly reminds the conscious of the things it shouldn’t be thinking about! And this is why the thoughts keep coming back to us.
Trying to use your willpower to drive thoughts away – ‘don’t think about a pink elephant’ – is never successful. I’ll talk about better tactics to ‘combat’ obsessive thoughts below. (I took word ‘combat’ in quotes, because it is like fight without fighting. It is more about acceptance, not combat.)
Method 2 – Accept your obsessive thoughts
Some time ago a thought came into my head related to the functioning of my body. I won’t say exactly what it was so it doesn’t ‘latch on’ to you.
I understood that what I was constantly thinking was a completely nonsense, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head. It just kept coming and coming back to me. I was actually more pestered by the fact that it wouldn’t go away than by the content of the thought itself.
Attempts to drive it away and not think about it didn’t get me anywhere. Sometimes I wouldn’t think about it for a couple of hours then suddenly it would pop up again, and I’d feel really annoyed and oppressed by it. ‘Again! What am I going to do? Is this going to go on for the rest of my life?’
During these moments I realised how ironic my suffering was! When the thought came back, my mood worsened, and when I wasn’t thinking about it, I only had to think, ‘How nice that I’m not thinking about it… Oh, what did I do that for!’ and it was in my head again. My unconscious mind kept reminding me about it.
I only started to make real progress in moving on from this thought when I had a serious think about it: ‘What if this thought really keeps coming back to me for the rest of my life? What then?’
I supposed that I’d sometimes be distracted by it, but I couldn’t in reality have it in my head all the time due to the mass of other thoughts and tasks that would occupy me. If the thought was going to pursue me my whole life, it wouldn’t actually make me unhappy. Sooner or later I’d get used to it. So why not let it stay with me?!
And to my surprise, after a few days I totally stopped thinking about it! When I realised that I wasn’t thinking about it any more, even though this meant I was reminding myself about it, it didn’t weigh on my mind.
I thought, ‘If you come back, welcome! I’m ready to “think you” my whole life!’ It circled in my head for a while and then more or less went away. Sometimes it would come back but each time I’d show it an open-armed welcome and not try to push it away, so its visits became more and more rare.
I’m sure that the reason the thought kept returning was my emotional reaction to its appearance! When this reaction was removed, the thought stopped visiting me. So accept recurring obsessive thoughts, allow them in, be prepared to live alongside them – and don’t try to drive them away!
‘But what if my thoughts are frightening?’ you ask. ‘I’m not just afraid of them appearing, but also of their content.’
If this is the case, read on.
Method 3 – Don’t try to argue against your thoughts logically
The ‘fuel’ for obsessive thoughts is your emotions. These thoughts return to you together with your fear, your anxiety and your desires. You worry about something and get distressed, so thoughts about this start to plague you. As I said in the previous point, you just need to remove the emotional reaction to the thoughts and they’ll pass.
But of course it’s not all as simple as that. What if you’re worried about your health? For example, you’ve undergone tests and they’ve shown you to be fit and healthy, but you still worry: ‘What if the doctors made a mistake? What if they mixed up the tests?’ You have tests done at another clinic, and the results are the same. You calm down for a while, but soon your anxiety about your health returns in the form of new thoughts.
- ‘What if they made a mistake again?’ Even though you’ve had the tests twice.
- ‘What if my son’s been kidnapped?’ Even though he often stays late at school.
- ‘What if my husband’s cheating?’ Even though there’s no reason to suspect this.
It’s completely natural for us to worry about our children and health. But fear hinders us from looking at a situation soberly. We start to think about what we fear, to untangle a skein of unpleasant thoughts, and fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of our disturbing fantasies.
It’s entirely natural that in these moments we try to soothe ourselves, come up with arguments as to why our fears are baseless. But these arguments don’t help us; our mind remains under the control of our anxiety and finds ways to refute them. ‘Surely they couldn’t have made mistakes in both sets of tests?’ – ‘But what if something went wrong? Mistakes happen! You probably are ill!’
When I tried to argue with my obsessive thoughts, I felt like I was at an unfair trial where the judge had already decided I was guilty!
This kind of thing happens because fear and anxiety force your mind to think in a fixed and negative way. In this state practically all your thoughts will be detrimental to you because you are prejudiced by your emotions.
Therefore don’t argue with your obsessive thoughts. At the unfair trial it’s better to keep quiet. Don’t say a word because the anything you say in your defence will just lead to the biased judge finding you guilty of a crime you didn’t commit. Everything you (say) think will be used against you.
So instead of arguing with your thoughts, what should you do?
Method 4 – Come up with a few short affirmations
If for example you’re worried about medical tests and are having incessant obsessive thoughts about the possibility of a medical error, wait until you’re feeling more calm and less blinkered, then come up with some affirmations of ‘defence’ against the negative thoughts.
In the previous point I said that it’s better to ‘keep quiet’. However, a few brief and assured testimonies in your defence that can’t be ‘twisted’ by the court won’t hurt.
For example, say clearly to yourself, ‘I had the tests done several times. I don’t have to worry about it. The probability that they made a mistake is minimal. Being scared of this is like worrying about being struck by a meteorite.’
This is all you need to say to yourself. The statements should be very clear and concise so that your obsessive thoughts can’t pull you into a debate from which you won’t emerge the victor.
If you want to avoid a pointless argument with someone who just doesn’t understand you, then it’s best to succinctly say to him, ‘We really don’t understand each other; we each have our own opinion. Let’s not continue this mindless conversation.’ If you start to respond to his arguments at length and in detail, he’ll again ‘latch on’ to your words and the argument will rage on.
So use these kinds of statements to put up a mental barrier and make a pledge to yourself not to cross it.
‘My son is staying late a school today; this is normal. If he’s later than usual, I’ll phone him so I don’t worry. Until then, I’m not going to think about it.’
And that’s it! Stop there! There’s no need to go any further and come up with new arguments. Don’t get involved in a pointless debate with yourself. Short phrases of encouragement will be enough to protect you a least a bit against disturbing thoughts.
This method will help you to understand how absurd your disturbing thoughts are. If your husband has never given you reason to be jealous, then isn’t it right that there’s nothing to worry about? Don’t listen to your fears. Don’t cross the barrier beyond which logic and sensible thinking end and anxiety and bias begin.
Even after you’ve said to your thoughts, ‘Stop! I don’t want to argue with you!’ they may still keep coming into your head. In order to cope with this, follow the recommendation in the next point.
Method 5 – Refocus your attention
As soon as an obsessive thought comes to you, calmly focus your attention on something else – a book, other thoughts, an interaction, the view from the window, whatever you like. But you must be patient here; you won’t find that you’re able to banish your thoughts the first time you try this, and some people may do it a hundred times without success. Directing your attention, the skill of noticing when your mind has again started to ‘wander’, is a habit you have to train yourself in.
So be prepared for your thoughts to return, even after you’ve focused your attention on something else. But don’t lost patience or berate yourself because it’s not working. Each time you notice that you’re starting to chew this ‘mental gum’, just turn your thoughts to something else.
Try not to react to the fact that the thoughts have come back to you again. Demonstrate as much indifference and patience as possible.
It’s possible that you’ll have to do this many times before you learn to notice when your mind starts thinking of unpleasant things. And even when it starts to get easier for you, there will inevitably be times when you again feel swamped by obsessive thoughts.
But don’t lose patience. Guiding your attention is the most effective means of combatting obsessive thoughts; it’s what helped me deal with the thoughts and fears which constantly came into my head.
Better than simply focusing your attention on something else is observing your mind, watching how these thoughts arise and disappear. You become an outside observer and aren’t drawn into them, i.e. you don’t show any kind of emotional reaction. You can use this method at any time, but the technique outlined below will help you become more proficient in guiding your attention.
Method 6 – Practise meditation
Meditation teaches you to control your attention and watch your emotions and thoughts from the side, without getting caught up in them. Observation is the opposite of suppressing thoughts. In observing, you don’t try to suppress anything; on the contrary, you accept everything that’s going on inside you while remaining an outside observer.
You deprive the obsessive thoughts of their emotional foundation, their ‘fuel’, and just calmly observe how they disappear. They don’t do this because you’re trying to drive them away, but because you’re not showing any interest in them and aren’t letting your mind wander in amongst them.
This principle is hard to understand for those who haven’t practised meditation, as many people have become used to identifying with their thoughts and emotions and can’t imagine being able to observe them from the sidelines. But if you start to meditate, you’ll soon start to understand how it works.
This habit also takes time to master. Your attention will constantly be distracted by your thoughts. But meditation gives you the opportunity to train it; it teaches you to notice when this happens and to return your attention to observing your breathing.
Meditation is an effective technique for combatting obsessive thoughts; it really helped me cope with mine.
But there are yet other methods you can use in place of meditation.
Method 7 – Use the Scarlett O’Hara method
When obsessive thoughts come to you it’s not always easy to be indifferent to them. They try to ensnare you, as if saying, ‘This is important! You have to stop what you’re doing and think about it now!’ But, as I wrote above, it’s hard to come to any kind of sensible decision from inside your anxious state.
Therefore, if the problem doesn’t require a quick resolution (e.g. you suspect your husband of cheating but no one’s demanding that you find out straight away), say to yourself the words of the heroine of Gone With The Wind: ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow’.
This is a way to trick your mind: “Yes, I will definitely devote some time to this thought. But not today”.
When these thoughts start coming back to you again, remember your pledge and focus your attention on something else. The next method will help you with this.
Method 8 – Think about whether your obsessive thoughts will help resolve the problem
Sometimes when we’re ruminating on our inner turmoil, it seems that we’re moving towards some kind of answer or decision, but obsessive thoughts very rarely help us resolve our problems.
Will it really help you to constantly worry about your health? If you’re afraid that you’ve got some illness, go for a check-up. If the doctor doesn’t find anything, what’s the use in worrying about it? If you actually do have some rare malady that the doctor isn’t able to identify, what can you do?
Nothing! So what’s the point in thinking about it? And if you’re fit and well, there’s even less point in worrying!
Where will it get you if you ruminate all day about your death or some trauma happening to you? Will it help keep you out of danger? I don’t think so.
If you think that your problem can be solved, act. If you can’t solve it, leave it as it is. In either case, why think about it all day?
Asking yourself this question will make it much easier for you to not be drawn into your obsessive thoughts. You’ll understand that there’s no point to them! Far from solving problems, they actually create more!
Of course, as I said at the beginning, sometimes obsessive thoughts are communicating a problem to you so you shouldn’t invariably ignore their voice. If there’s a problem to be resolved, just do so calmly. Act instead of thinking about it. All of life’s problems are easier to solve when your mind is calm and impartial.
Guiding your attention, acceptance, meditation and short affirmations very much helped me to deal with my obsessive thoughts. But be prepared for the fact that these thoughts won’t leave immediately. Even after initial success, they will come back to you again. But there’s no need to be afraid of this as it’s completely normal.
Your aim isn’t to force obsessive thoughts to leave forever straight away (this is impossible anyway). Your task is to stop the emotional reaction to the content of the thoughts and not focus your attention on the fact that you’re having them. Allow them in and don’t fight with them.
Emotions are the foundation for obsessive thoughts. When you stop reacting to them emotionally, they’ll either go away completely, or you’ll stop attaching any importance to them when they come back. Sometimes they may continue to bother you, but this is like the fuel gauge in your car flashing empty when you know that there actually is petrol in the tank because you just refilled it. The gauge is faulty, and with time you’ll stop noticing its blinking.
Try not to ‘want’ to get rid of your obsessive thoughts. The more you want this, the stronger your emotional attachment will be to the fact that these thoughts come up and the more difficult it’ll be for you to actually become free of them. Only when you accept these thoughts and think, ‘Let them come back, I don’t care; there’s nothing to be scared of’, will they finally leave.