Mindset

Stop Obsessive Thinking for Peace of Mind

A man looking at his obsessive thoughts written on a board

Outline: Obsessive Thinking | Obsessive Thinking Vs. Overthinking | What Research Says | Identifying Obsessive Thoughts | Tips on Letting Go of Obsessive Thoughts | Final Thoughts

In life, the things we fear and think most about are often the very things that hold us back. They keep us from going after our dreams, being truly happy, and experiencing a sense of fulfillment. 

However, knowing how to stop overthinking and staying in control will go a long way in taking care of your mental health. 

Staying stuck in obsessive thoughts or overthinking causes us to retreat from going after what we want out of life. 

If you are currently suffering from obsessive thought patterns, it’s time you learn how to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts. One of the best ways to eliminate unwanted thoughts is to develop healthy coping mechanisms and skills. 

What Is Obsessive Thinking?

Obsessive thinking occurs when you have an unwanted and repeated thought, imagery, or urge you cannot discard. 

While most people have unwanted thoughts from time to time, obsessive thinking is much more intrusive and frequent. Such thoughts can become so pervasive that they interrupt one’s focus and attention, causing distress, anxiety, or depression. 

Obsessive Thinking Vs. Overthinking

With obsessive thinking and overthinking, you may find yourself unable to focus on anything else but the thoughts running through your head. 

Overthinking usually involves obsessing over a problem or situation you’re facing and analyzing it from every angle possible. But it’s also possible to focus on something to the point of exhaustion and anxiety, causing you to experience problems sleeping, eating,  concentrating, making decisions, and carrying out plans.

Frequent overthinking that turns to obsessive thoughts may feel like you are constantly ruminating about everything, causing distress and anxiety. Various mental health disorders may lead a person to overthink, including:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • PTSD
  • Trauma
  • Agoraphobia
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder

With OCD, a person will have recurrent obsessions (unwanted thoughts) and compulsions they enact to eliminate the obsessive thoughts. 

For OCD and related mental health disorders, preferred treatment options are cognitive behavioral therapy — specifically, exposure and response prevention — and/or medication.

Still, the lines easily get blurred between obsessive thinking vs. overthinking. Your thoughts shouldn’t rule your day, cause chaos in your life, and keep you from enjoying life to its fullest. 

If it does, it’s important to seek professional help for accurate diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment.

What Research Has to Say About Obsessive Thinking

If obsessive thinking or overthinking rule your thoughts, it’s possible your brain is to blame. 

In one study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers pinpointed the specific brain areas and processes that influence repetitive behaviors, such as those common among people with OCD. 

By comparing brain scans of OCD and non-OCD patients, they found that the brains of those with OCD get stuck in a negative loop. This non-stop loop leads them to enact certain compulsions and keeps them from letting go of obsessive thoughts.

Other research points to brain circuits connecting the brain’s frontal cortex with a collection of structures known as the basal ganglia. 

In people with OCD, the pathway between the frontal cortex and basal ganglia is overly excitable, causing them to be hyper-aware of potential threats in their environment. As a result, they may engage in obsessive thinking that leads to compulsive behavior that they essentially cannot easily “switch off.” 

How Do You Know That You Have Obsessive Thoughts?

An entrepreneur thinking about his business challenges with his hand on his head

Obsessive thoughts repeatedly occur, usually in a way that interferes with your daily life, job, or relationships. These thoughts can surface at any time, even when you’re not trying to think about them. 

Here are some signs of obsessive thinking:

  • You have intrusive and unwanted thoughts that cause significant emotional distress, anxiety, or depression.
  • The content of your thoughts is disturbing enough to disrupt sleep and cause other problems in your life (for example, making it difficult for you to do well at work).
  • You constantly worry about something terrible happening to a loved one.
  • You feel guilty about past events and believe something terrible will happen if you don’t do something about it now.
  • Your obsessive thoughts are persistent, repetitive, and distressing, thus interfering with your day-to-day functioning.

10 Proven Tips on How to Stop Overthinking and Obsessive Thoughts

Whether you have OCD, other mental health condition, or irregular cases of overthinking, the key is to recognize when your thoughts are obsessive. 

The following are some strategies you can try to redirect your thoughts. However, seeking help from a qualified professional who can recommend how to break the cycle of obsessive thinking also works.

1. Identify the Source of Overthinking

If you want to learn how to stop overthinking, try to identify the root source of your thought. 

Is it something specific (an interaction at work) or more general (harm coming to yourself or others)? Once you’ve identified what you’re obsessing about, it will be much easier to deal with it effectively. 

2. Write Down Your Obsessive Thoughts

Write out your thoughts. That is, keep a journal of your obsessive thoughts whenever they occur. 

Writing them down helps you realize how often they come up and how long they last. It also helps to put your thoughts in perspective by giving yourself some distance from them.

3. Challenge Your Obsessive Thoughts With Evidence to the Contrary

When you have an obsession, it’s easy to forget that there are other ways of looking at things — ways that do not take over your life, like obsessive thoughts. 

Keep a list of alternative explanations for why something happened or didn’t happen. So when an obsession pops up, you can refer to this list and remind yourself that other possibilities exist.

4. Practice Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness exercises help reduce stress levels and anxiety, which in turn helps you in overcoming obsessive thoughts. 

There are many different ways to practice mindfulness exercises, including meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques — all of which allow your mind to be present in the moment.

5. Acknowledge That These Thoughts Are Normal

It’s important to realize that obsessive thoughts are a normal part of being human — they’re common, and many people experience them at one point or another. 

They’re also not harmful in and of themselves. But it’s their impact on your daily life that matters most.

6. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps you manage obsessions and compulsions by teaching you how to recognize distorted thinking patterns and change them. 

CBT works on the idea that your thoughts and behaviors are closely connected. It teaches you to recognize when your negative thoughts cause problems and to replace them with healthier, more positive ones.

7. Get Out Into Nature

Being in nature helps reduce anger, fear, and stress while increasing positive emotions. A simple walk in nature may enhance your sense of well-being and physical health by reducing stress hormones and improving your heart rate.

8. Get Creative

The act of painting, playing a musical instrument, writing, and other creative endeavors are good for mental health

Plus, you get the added benefit of learning more about yourself and discovering new passions. In time, you may turn to creative pursuits regularly as a way to deal with obsessive thinking.

9. Stop Judging Yourself So Harshly

Obsessive thoughts often stem from your own “inner critic.” It’s something we all experience, but some people experience it more often than others — and it’s not your fault! 

There is no shame in having obsessive thoughts; no one can control what goes on inside their head. So let yourself off the hook for having these thoughts, recognize that you are valuable and worthy, and implement strategies to improve your self-talk.

10. Take Action

If there’s something specific bothering you, determine what elements of the situation you have control over. For instance, if you find yourself obsessing too much about your job, consider what changes you can make. 

Does it make sense to look for a new job? Are there changes you can make at work that would make your job better, more challenging, or more productive? 

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re just beginning to experience these thoughts or have dealt with them for years, these strategies will help give you some fresh perspective and alleviate stress. 

While everyone’s situation is different, know that many people out there understand what it’s like to have obsessive thoughts and can help you work through them. Sometimes, asking for help can be the first step toward drastically improving your life.

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