Obsessive thoughts: How to end the vicious circle
A useful guide to stop repetitive, obsessive thoughts. Find out why we have them, what are the most common and dangerous obsessive thoughts, types, and classifications. Learn how to face and control repetitive, obsessive thoughts.
Obsessive thinking- What is it?
There are some thoughts that sneak up on us frequently and turn into unwanted, obsessive thoughts.In order to get a clear and precise definition, we’ll take some references from the DSM-V:
1. Persistent and recurring thoughts or images that are intrusive and inappropriate and cause anxiety and significant discomfort.
2. The thoughts, impulses, or images aren’t just excessive worries about real-world problems
3. The person tries to ignore or suppress these thoughts or images or tries to neutralize them with other thoughts or actions.
4. The person recognizes these thoughts or images as obsessive and knows that they are a product of their mind
When we talk about obsessive thoughts, we’re not only talking about thoughts, but also about obsessive images. This is because there are people that think in images, as if it were a movie, while others have a type of inner dialog. However, everyone can use both mental thoughts and images.
For a thought or image to be obsessive, it doesn’t only have to be repetitive, but must also cause some degree of discomfort and upset. In other words, it must be both repetitive and unwanted.
It’s important to stress this, because throughout your life you’ll have experiences and thoughts that upset you, and that’s normal.
For example, You’re driving down the street and you see a ball in the road. Your brain automatically creates an image of a child running into the road to get the ball and getting run over by a speeding car. In this example, you would be having an unwanted thought, which comes from a mental association that your brain makes. However, this wouldn’t be an obsessive thought unless you continuously saw the image over a period of time and let it affect your daily life.
The difference between an obsessive thought and an unwanted thought:
- Obsessive thought: Repetitive+unwanted
- Unwanted thought: Normal, possible, and logical
Once you have a good idea of what an obsessive thought is, you can start to ask yourself why you get these thoughts and why they can hurt us.
Why do we have obsessive thoughts? “How could I think about that?”
The process that makes an unwanted thought go from that to an obsessive thought is asking ourselves, “how could I think that?”
Having intrusive or unwanted thoughts isn’t odd or bad in itself. Almost everyone has these kinds of thoughts every once in awhile, especially when you’re stressed or feeling down.
What is an unwanted or “intrusive” thought? How can it become obsessive? Depending on how you were raised, upbringing, attachment, personal experiences, etc. all help you create your beliefs, values, and ideas about yourself and others. These ideas come from how you relate to the world. This is why while one person may put a lot of stock in a thought, someone else might let the same thought pass through their mind without thinking twice.
A bad mood or a stressful situation may bring about these kinds of intrusive, unwanted thoughts. For example, what would happen if, in your thoughts, you had the idea or impulse to get naked in public? It’s possible that some people would be able to let this thought pass through their mind and ignore it easily, but others may have a hard time getting it out of their head.
But what happens when you’re a new father or mother suffering from postpartum depression and you suddenly have the urge or the thought to harm your baby? You might first think that it’s silly and not think more about it, but then you start thinking things like “How could I think about something like that? What kind of mom/dad am I? Am I a danger to my family?”, etc. What do you think could happen later?
It’s possible that nothing happens, that the thought leaves your mind and leaves you unchanged. However, it’s also possible that your mind starts to focus on this intrusive thought and starts worrying about the possibility of harming your baby. This stress may lead to other similar intrusive thoughts, and when they appear, it becomes scarier and scarier. This anxiety may lead to the urge to do something to control it. This is the beginning of OCD.
Unwanted thoughts are not inherently negative, but if the “intrusive” thought is connected to your value system and becomes important to you, all of your attention will be spent trying to reject these ideas. This is when it becomes an obsession.
The brain tries to complete the information that it receives from the outside world and tries to establish coherence between what we perceive, what we think, and how we feel. We subconsciously go through this process to find balance and harmony in our minds. However, the problem arises when our mind makes automatic assumptions that make it impossible to find a coherent explanation. In this case, the brain starts to think about this incoherent thought, trying to find a logical explanation or solution that will never appear.
The danger of obsessive thoughts
We could say that obsessions are dangerous in the sense that they are damaging to our psychological and emotional health.
Obsessive thinking can affect us differently, depending on how believable it is. It’s common that the more we think about something, the more believable it becomes and the more credible it seems. Just thinking about something for a long time can make us believe it’s real, even if it’s not.
For example, if a pregnant woman thinks about stabbing her stomach with a kitchen knife, a child thinks about kicking an old person, or if a teen thinks that when he says something, people will laugh, they will start to believe it and it may affect their daily life.
The people in these situations will start to change their behaviors to match these situations. Maybe they will decide to stay out of the kitchen, cross the street when they see an old person walking their way, avoid speaking in class, or whatever a person’s particular obsessive thought may be.
When you think about it, what is the probability that whatever negative thought you’re thinking about will actually come to pass? Imagine if you constantly thought about winning the lottery. We would all be living in our dream mansions!
Another example may be if a worker sued her boss because she thought about firing her (but hadn’t done it yet), or if a mother grounded her son for thinking about leaving the house. It sounds silly, right?
This is why it’s important to know that your thoughts are your own, and they don’t have to become a reality. Actions are real and tangible and what really exists. Don’t forget that you are free and responsible for deciding whether to act on your thoughts or not.
It’s important to differentiate between rumination and obsessive thoughts. Rumination is completely voluntary and you decide to think about them consciously. Rumination isn’t the type of thought that suddenly appears in your mind. You have to think about thinking and make an effort to do so.
For example, you have probably been in a situation where you kept thinking about something that happened, how you would have liked to respond, what you should have said, etc. After, when you’re feeling frustrated and talk to a friend, you think “I should have done this instead” or “I should have responded like this”.
These kinds of thoughts are dangerous because they keep you from accepting the situation and moving on. You may feel useless because you can’t do as well as you know you can do.
It’s important to know that not acting the best way possible in a certain situation doesn’t mean that you’re useless, and it doesn’t mean that you’re worse for it. Life is a string of experiences that help us learn and grow.
The key to assimilating to these situations is to face them as trial runs, helping you to become better for the next time.
Classification of obsessions and most common topics for intrusive ideas
Intrusive thoughts are often accompanied by a feeling of shame or guilt which causes people to try to hide it. However, this type of thinking is more common than you might think. These are the classifications for the most common obsessive thoughts:
1-Obsessive thoughts about uncleanliness
These are thoughts that focus on the idea of contamination, focused attention on dirtiness, germs, virus, bodily fluids, chemical substances, stickiness, etc.
2- Obsessive thoughts about fear
Recurring ideas about forgetting to lock the door, turn off the stove, walk alone on the street, etc.
3-Obsessive thoughts about symmetry
This type of obsessive thought is quite common because of the representations on television. You would see this type of thought in people who get anxious when things are out of place or not “just right”.
4- Obsessive thoughts related to the body or physical symptoms
Some people have these types of thoughts when thinking about some part of their body. For example, someone may have a larger than normal nose (but nothing exceptional), but they perceive themselves to have a huge mountain on their face.
5-Obsessive thoughts about religion, sacrilege, or blasphemy
This usually happens in very dogmatic or religious people with strict moral codes that are based on their and other people’s behavior. The intrusive thoughts that they have would have content that wouldn’t be allowed in their belief system.
6- Sexual obsessive thoughts
This happens similarly to the previous types of obsessive thinking, where the person who it is happening to does not accept it. This often happens in people who have had bad experiences or who were raised with pressure about sex.
7-Obsessive thoughts about hoarding
People who hoard or collect things and that are unable to throw away used or useless objects, even if they don’t have any type of sentimental value. For example, calendars, bookmarks, golf balls, etc.
8- Obsessive thoughts about violence or aggression
This type of obsessive thinking is one of the most difficult because the person having these types of thoughts finds it to be completely unpleasant. In general, they are afraid of losing control and doing something that they don’t want to do, which is why it causes discomfort and anxiety.
For example, if a pregnant woman thinks about what would happen if she took a knife and stabbed her stomach, she would obviously be scared, anxious, and feel out of control and guilty. However, if she really wanted to do this, she wouldn’t have these feelings.
How to control repetitive and obsessive thinking
Daniel Wegner published a study explaining some methods that may help fight against obsessive thinking. These techniques aren’t remedies, but hypotheses that may help suppress obsessive thoughts.
1-Focused distraction: The goal of this strategy is to disconnect the mind from the thoughts that are bothering you. When your mind is distracted and focused on something else, your obsessive thoughts will likely diminish.
2- Postpone the thoughts that are bothering you: This technique calls for postponing all of your worries or problems for a designated 30 minutes a day. Having a designated time to worry can help alleviate your mind during the majority of the day.
3-Try to avoid stress: Stress makes your obsessive thoughts even stronger.
4- Try to accept unwanted thoughts rather than fighting against them
5- Exposition technique: This strategy works better to better control the obsessive thoughts. It is called “Exposure Therapy”, and consists of consciously thinking about whatever it is that is causing the anxiety. This helps because it shows the person that just because you think it, doesn’t mean that it has to happen. This technique requires therapy in order to help guide you through the thoughts carefully and in a controlled environment.
6-Meditation and mindfulness: this can help against obsessive thinking because it helps to concentrate on the “now”, rather than allowing you to focus on the obsessive thoughts.
7- Write down the obsessive thoughts: Expressing your thoughts and feelings can have a number of benefits, like helping to minimize the persistence of these unwanted thoughts.
Do you have any experiences with obsessive thoughts? Any tips for others? Let us know below!
This article was originally written in Spanish and translated into English
Psicóloga Sanitaria especialista en Psicología clínica.
Enamorada de las relaciones entre pensamientos, emociones y comportamiento humano.
Descubramos conocimientos compartiendo información
“Cada uno es dueño exclusivo de sus pensamientos, hasta que decide compartirlos a través de sus conductas”