How to Stop Obsessing

Patient Expert

Think about something you saw earlier today. Try to get a clear picture in your mind of what it was. As you are thinking about this, try to imagine how what you saw could be a threat to you. Do your best to get a clear picture in your mind.

Once you imagine this vivid scenario, think about it again. And again. And again. And again.

The above exercise is helpful in understanding what it’s like to obsess over something. When you obsess, you can’t think about anything but the vivid mental picture. The worst part is, that picture keeps repeating in your mind.

Obsessions are repetitive thoughts, intense urges, or graphic mental images that cause anxiety. These include:

  • Fear of getting germs, contamination, or illness
  • Taboo thoughts such as harming someone, or something sex-related
  • Aggressive and violent thoughts
  • Whether things in your physical space are symmetrical, or in perfect order

I live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” It’s a challenge that 1 percent of the population in the United States struggles with.

In my experience, obsessing itself is harmless. But the pattern of thinking can make it difficult to concentrate, perform successfully at work, and enjoy healthy relationships.

So how do you get your obsessing under control? It’s a question that I have been pondering for most of my life.

“I think that the reality of how to deal with obsessive thoughts is not quite what you think," Fred Penzel, Ph.D., of Western Suffolk Psychiatric Services writes in an email interview. “Obsessions are repetitive, intrusive, negative, and often doubtful thoughts, and are generally the result of problems of brain chemistry — at least in the case of OCD.”

As with any mental health issue, it's important to seek treatment for obsessive thoughts. Treatment may involve medication and require reprogramming your brain through hard work.

"To even have a shot at gaining some level of control over obsessive thoughts means that you need to stop escaping and avoiding, and face the very thing you fear. Obsessive thoughts are internal mental events that run on their own biology, independent of your other thought processes, and therefore can’t simply be shut off. They are not something in your external environment that can be run away from. The truth is, there is no escape from what you fear, and therefore the only real option you have is to face it. If you look carefully at any good treatment for fears, phobias, and anxieties, they are all ultimately based on facing what you fear," writes Dr. Penzel in his article How to Defeat OCD By Surrendering.

"In dealing with obsessions, we teach people to allow the thoughts to be there and to not try to escape or avoid them. We also teach them to agree with the thoughts and say they are all true and that all the bad consequences they fear will actually happen. In addition, they are instructed to not question, argue with, or analyze their obsessive thoughts. They are also discouraged from reassuring themselves about the thoughts. We teach them that by demanding to not think about a particular thought, the effect is paradoxical — that is, when you tell yourself to not think about a particular thing, you are already thinking about the very thing you are not supposed to think about. It is like the old example of being told — 'Try not to think of a white bear.'

"By staying with the thoughts, people ultimately build up a tolerance to the thoughts and even become bored with them. This technique should work for any kind of repetitive thought — not just the types of obsessions we see in OCD. All this sounds simple, but in reality, it can be more complicated than that. In the case of OCD, it can take weeks and even months of hard work to wear out a person's obsessions. It takes hard work, discipline, and determination."

Dr. Penzel's process for treatment only scratches the surface of the complexity of dealing with your obsessions. The first step is to take the most uncomfortable step of all, which is admitting that you need help.