May 13

Overcoming obsessive thoughts

obsessive thoughtsIn my last post, I explored the four types of obsessive thoughts that commonly occupy my mind. Today, I want to spend some time discussing techniques we can use to put those obsessive thoughts to rest.

Practice Thought Stopping

Thought stopping is a technique used to halt unwanted or intrusive thoughts in their tracks. You simply have to imagine a big red Stop sign or a loud “Stop!” command every time you are having obsessive thoughts. You can go about this in a lot of different ways, but the basic idea is just to remind yourself that these thoughts are detrimental and unwanted.

While there is some evidence to suggest that thought stopping is not an effective method for dealing with obsessive thoughts, I would say that it’s much worse to allow yourself to continue having these thoughts uninterrupted. Oftentimes these thoughts become so automatic that we don’t even take the time to realize how damaging they are. Thought stopping is a way of reminding yourself that you can control what you’re thinking, rather than letting these thoughts go unchecked.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that focuses on present awareness. I wrote about mindfulness as a tool to improve conversational skills in a previous post, and I will continue to emphasize the importance of mindfulness.

A key aspect of mindfulness is about not letting your thoughts wander. Rather than judging yourself for letting your thoughts wander, you are encouraged to accept that it happens and try to bring your mind back to the present. In other words, mindfulness is about accepting your obsessive thoughts. They’re there, you can’t control what you’re thinking about, but you can guide your thoughts in the right direction.

A quick and easy example: try sitting on the floor with your legs crossed. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself sitting on the beach, listening to the waves roll in. Focus all your attention on the sound of the waves, the feeling of the sun beating down on your skin, and the smell of the sea water. Every time your thoughts wander away from the beach, acknowledge this, and bring them back. Practice this simple activity for a few minutes every day. Eventually, you will notice yourself gaining control over your thoughts.

Mindfulness activities may seem simple – but they’re incredibly difficult to master, especially for those of us with obsessive tendencies. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a couple months now, and I can already see a difference. I’m much better at clearing my mind and not letting worries seep in. But of course, it’s much easier to have control of your mind in peaceful situations than in stressful ones. My ultimate goal is to see my mindfulness skills help me out in my panicked moments. More on that later.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Obsessive thoughts are generally a form of negative self-talk. Unfortunately for us, we rarely obsess over niceties, but rather focus our obsessing on worries and worst-case-scenario thinking.

Naturally, the opposite of negative self-talk is positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is comforting and reassuring yourself, while challenging your negative thoughts. Oftentimes, the best way to approach positive self-talk is to directly counter your negative thoughts.

Here are some examples:

  • Thought: “I’m going to make a fool of myself during my presentation tomorrow”
  • Counter: “I am an intelligent, capable person. I’m well prepared for this presentation, and I know the topic very well. I will not make a fool of myself tomorrow.”
  • Thought: “What if our plane crashes?”
  • Counter: “The likelihood of a plane crashing is very low. Millions of people fly every day, perfectly unharmed. There is no reason to suspect my experience will be any different.”
  • Thought: “I can’t believe how low I scored on that exam…I’m an idiot! I’ll never amount to anything”
  • Counter: “A single exam is not representative of my intelligence. There are many different types of intelligence, and I’ve done well on prior exams. There could have been an error in grading, perhaps I misunderstood some of the questions, or maybe I didn’t fill in my answers correctly. I’m an intelligent person.”

Positive self-talk is a difficult thing for many people. Many of us have spent our entire lives telling ourselves how inadequate we are. Start small if you have to. Instead of saying “I’m an intelligent person,” try saying “There are less intelligent people than me” or “I’m not completely unintelligent.” Any thought that challenges your negative thinking is a good thought.

One caveat: There is some research to suggest that positive self-talk is only effective if you actually believe what you’re saying. That makes total sense to me; if you’re telling yourself something you don’t believe, you just end up strengthening the opposite statement. When you start out with positive self-talk, start small and make sure you’re telling yourself something that you can at least partly believe in.

In Conclusion

Thought stopping, mindfulness and positive self-talk are three techniques you can employ to combat your obsessive thinking. While thought stopping may not be effective over the long term, mindfulness and positive self-talk are two strategies that get easier with practice and will eventually help you win back control of your thoughts.

How do you cope with obsessive thoughts? If you have another strategy, leave a comment – I would love to hear it!

photo by: Neal.

One Comment

  1. Guinevere Skye says:

    Rather than necessarily believing alternative reasoning right away, I consider it ‘playing devil’s advocate’ with myself – I don’t need to believe it.

    Sometimes, with research, consulting, and reaching out, I find an argument I cannot deny, or argue myself into a corner.

    I believe there are good reasons why obsessive, intrusive thoughts occur, but I’ve found many reasons why other opinions and facts are also true, ought to be weighed, and, perhaps, incorporated into my beliefs.

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