Tackling Negative Thinking, Compulsions and Obsessions

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

In a previous post I looked at the most common treatments for Obsessions and Compulsions and concluded by looking at self-help ideas. In this post I'm extending the self-help theme a little further by considering some of the main issues associated with obsessions and compulsions.

Breaking into the cycle of obsessions and compulsions is no easy thing and negative thinking is a strong element that fuels the problem. Self-criticism is common if, for example, a basin or toilet isn't cleaned several times a day. There may be a sense of things getting out of control or putting others in danger if switches or locks aren't continually checked. Negative thinking is also a common feature of depression so it isn't surprising to find that many people with OCD also experience low moods or depression. Negative thinking can however be tackled by some fairly easy means.

First, try to identify and articulate (perhaps on paper) the actual thoughts going through your mind that may be leading to low moods. Keep the record going until it becomes clear you are unlikely to be introducing previously listed thoughts. Now work on ways of countering these thoughts by coming up with arguments against them. Try to remember these, by referring to your list if it helps, when these thoughts come to mind.

A similar method can be used for times of compulsive checking. Here, you write down the things you check. You'll probably identify that some things are more important than others. Organize your list in such a way that the most difficult or anxiety provoking issue becomes number 1, the next worst number 2, and so on. Then, when you've worked out the least difficult issue, make a decision to cut down the number of times a day you will check. Go for the minimum number of times you feel you can manage and stick to it. Once you feel comfortable, move up to the next issue and so on.

In some people with OCD a repeated thought - usually something too terrible to contemplate - is neutralized with another thought. For example, an intrusive thought might be thinking of a loved one being eaten away by some terrible disease. The guilt at thinking such thoughts might lead to a counter-measure of thinking happy thoughts about the person - a process that could go on for hours at a time. When one thought becomes a substitute for another it may seem more of a challenge but the solution is actually fairly straightforward.

It can help to know that everyone has a whole variety of weird and colorful thoughts throughout their lives. The idea that a thought is as bad as a deed simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If this were the case we should probably all be locked up. Thinking of something bad or upsetting isn't a reflection of you as a bad person. It is simply a thought or a reflection of some anxiety brought the mind in the form of a story, image or fantasy. Trying to neutralize such thoughts with alternatives doesn't work, although it may appear to give some relief in the short term. The more you try to put a thought out of your mind the longer it will stay. Don't be afraid of thoughts and don't make special efforts to get rid of them. They will fade with time.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.