You don’t have to be diagnosed with clinical OCD to suffer from obsessive thoughts. In fact, they can range from a simple nuisance that occurs sporadically, to repetitive thoughts that cast a pall of “doom and gloom” over your outlook.
All obsessive thoughts are recurring ideas that often have a negative aspect. A common type is reviewing a conversation, and judging something you might have said offhandedly as “bad” or “offensive.” The thoughts can also be more generalized and vague, such as labeling yourself as a bad person. In most cases, the thoughts are uncontrollable and enduring. It can seem beyond your abilities to limit or ignore them.
These thoughts often prey on a person’s insecurities and fears. That can make them extremely powerful and debilitating. There are, however, basic strategies for dealing with obsessive thinking and taking the fangs out of any negative thoughts you have.
Short-Circuiting The Process
The mind can be an odd thing. For instance, if someone says, “Don’t think of a white building,” it’s incredibly difficult not to think of a white building. That reality, drives the loop of obsessive thinking. Although you are essentially telling your mind that you don’t want to think of the same thought over and over, your mind inevitably jumps right back to it. At the heart of every strategy to short-circuit that loop is recognizing that a thought is just a thought; it’s our own ego, ourselves, that attaches meanings, emotions, and gives power to any given thought. Key to resolving the issue is deciding to let your thoughts go.
- Label negative patterns and thoughts. Resolution begins with identifying obsessive thinking as soon as it occurs. Some sufferers write down the thought and the moment it started. That gives them a chance to study any pattern and recognize it in the future. It is also a way of identifying triggers. For instance, sometimes social engagements produce anxiety that triggers thoughts full of regret: “Did I say the wrong thing to so-and-so?” or “Did I eat too quickly at the dinner party?” The more you label the process and individual thoughts as “obsessive,” “extreme” or any other useful name, the more you can marginalize and compartmentalize those thoughts that you might otherwise obsess over.
- Embrace acceptance. Accept the thought for what it is. Accept that it has no merit, and that your mind has turned to the thought for other reasons, like general social anxiety. For instance, think “Perhaps I did eat too much at the dinner party. I probably didn’t, but it doesn’t matter if I did.”
- Take control. Start with this: It’s not the thoughts, it’s your response to them. Meditation and conscious living can be wonderful ways to reinforce that basic reality. Meditate by making yourself physically comfortable, breathing deeply and slowly, and clearing your mind. Thoughts will arise. Watch them as they do, label each one as just a “thought” and let it go. Another will inevitably arise in its place. Repeat the process. After a while, it will become almost automatic. Mindfulness, or conscious living, involves focusing on the here and now, not the dinner party that you might otherwise obsess about. You focus on the meal you’re eating, or the sights and sounds that surround you during a brisk walk. (For more on this, see our post “Mindfulness Training.”)
- Seek help. If you can’t seem to shake loose of obsessive thoughts no matter what strategy you try—and especially if those thoughts are undermining your quality of life or your ability to function—it may be time to reach out to a professional. A therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist will be able to give you even more tools for dealing with obsessive thinking, and may provide a diagnosis of OCD that they can then treat directly.
(For more tools to deal with obsessive thoughts and actions, check out our post, “The Magic of Micropractices.”)
Remember that you are not alone when you fall into the trap of obsessive thoughts. Many people deal with this issue, and there are lots of effective strategies for calming your mind. You control your mind, whether you realize it or not. The answer to controlling obsessive thoughts lies in understanding and embracing that truth.
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