Are there times when you have one thought that seems to replay over and over in your mind? Do you find it affects your feelings and sometimes your behavior?
You are not alone. Many people have obsessive thoughts. Approximately 2.2 million people have obsessions and it occurs equally in men and
women (http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.) These thoughts can be quite consuming, sometimes keeping you from working effectively or distracting you from other parts of your lives.
Obsessive thoughts are a product of anxiety. If a client tells me obsessive thoughts have increased, I often ask “what new stressors are you experiencing?” or “what has recently changed for you that you feel some new or increased anxiety?”
When we are anxious, we might feel out of control. “I don’t know what they’ll think of me when they meet me”, “I’m not sure what the questions will be on the test”, “Did I lock the door today?” Unfortunately, these thoughts might stay with us throughout the day and keep our anxiety elevated. Some people, in order to manage this anxiety, use their behavior to feel in control. These are called compulsions and occur when someone feels the need to adjust their behavior to find some relief by controlling something. Unfortunately, the behavior might be time-consuming and instead of feeling relief, a person feels propelled to continue the behavior. For example, someone may need to check and recheck their door being closed or locked or perhaps someone washes their hands over and over. Sometimes the compulsions don’t make a lot of sense and often a person understands they are extreme, but it’s difficult to stop them because the thoughts are still active and the anxiety is still felt.
A couple of things can bring relief. First, it is important to reduce anxiety symptoms. This might include deep breathing exercises daily or throughout the day, taking time to relax, or doing a distracting activity like exercise can be helpful.
Secondly, be gentle with yourself. When a repetitive thought occurs, just recognize it is there, and let it go. You can think of a smokestack and puffs of smoke representing the thought, going up and disappearing into the air. If the thought comes up again, do the same visualization and let the thought go up into the air. The more we try to fight the thought, the harder it is to release it. So, again, be gentle with yourself; acknowledge it and let it go.
Thirdly, practice some mindfulness or present-focused thoughts to aid in redirecting your thoughts to the here and now instead of somewhere in the past or future. For example, “I’m going to focus on the lyrics of this song right now” or “I’ll spend time with my son and talk to him.” Bringing your thoughts to
the present can calm your mind from those distracting thoughts and may even allow you to enjoy the current moments.
The above steps take time to master, so practice them during intervals in the day when it’s convenient for you. Doing so can allow your thoughts to become more manageable and provide you some relief. And always remember that you are not alone.
Kathy Leahy, LCPC, NCC