Obsessions are like intruders in our minds. Persistent, invasive, unwanted, inappropriate, these thoughts stir up a considerable amount of anxiety and distress. Obsessions can become so distressing that they manifest as panic attacks. Obsessive thoughts left unchecked are like a wildfire of intense desire provoking a person to act out in one maladaptive form of behavior or another.

Most people deal with obsessive thoughts from time to time which is quite common. However, according to the diagnostic criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, these thoughts and the subsequent repetitive behaviors are persistent, distressing, and intense enough to interfere with all aspects of a person’s life.

People with OCD understand that obsessive thoughts and images are produced in their minds. They also know that these obsessions, compulsions, or both are extreme and unrealistic. However, there seems to be a substantial gap between knowing something is wrong and having the power to break free from it. OCD is oppressive for those who suffer from it.

What Causes OCD to Develop?

Just like other symptoms of anxiety such as worry, obsessions and compulsions do serve some kind of purpose. We come to know early in life that the world can be a dangerous place. Harmful things can happen unexpectedly and instantly.

For some people, the uncertainty and unpredictability of life and all its unknown dangers is difficult to tolerate, especially if he/she has experienced a traumatic event in the past. Evidence shows that OCD often develops after such events in an attempt to establish some sense of controllability, predictability, certainty, or safety.

The content of obsessive thoughts is incredibly distressing and anxiety-provoking. As a result, when obsessive thoughts or images come into your mind, they will quickly grab your attention. Additionally, once you notice the obsessive thought or image, your anxiety will increase, which will intensify the obsession.

This cycle will continue until you can act to neutralize the obsession. However, this will be effective only in the short term. In the long term, trying to push down an obsessive thought is like trying to hold an inflated beach ball underwater; it will just cause those obsessions to pop up again.

Remember: A Thought Is Just a Thought

One way to counteract the problem of getting stuck in your thoughts is to take a step back in your mind and see your thoughts for what they are. They are just thoughts, no more, no less. Just having a thought doesn’t make it true or make it something that you must act on now or in the future. Thoughts and actions are two different things.

Just think of all the times when you have had a thought but didn’t act on it. So, remember that even if it feels powerful, compelling, and important, as obsessions often do, you should look beneath the surface and recognize that you are most likely feeling afraid that something bad will happen.

Learn to calm the fear instead of obsessing over it.

When it comes to noticing your thoughts, there are a few strategies that you can practice such as getting into a quiet space and imagining your thoughts on train cars and watching them roll by or imagine that you are sitting on the side of a small, grassy hill the sun is shining warm across your shoulders, the birds are singing in a nearby tree, and there are spring flowers scattered about in the grass and filling the air with their sweet fragrance.

Do your best to jump into this scene and imagine all the sights, sounds, textures, and smells that you notice. Imagine that in the distance a train is chugging down the tracks. As it goes by, notice each passing train car moving past at a steady, medium pace; not too slow and not too fast.

Whenever a thought enters your mind, just “see” it on the train car as it goes by. Watch the thought on the train car pass then look for the next one and see what thought you place on that train car. Don’t jump on the thought train; just let it continue to go by. Remind yourself that a thought is just a thought.

You can do this same exercise imagining that your thoughts are riding on the crest of the waves on the sea, running to the shoreline, and then drifting back out again. Or imagine that your thoughts are written on the clouds as they drift overhead in the sky or across the leaves floating past in a stream – whatever works for you.

Another strategy is to learn to stop your thoughts. Whenever you notice a worrisome thought, stop yourself there, pay attention to the thought, and then quickly categorize it. Find a category in which to put the thought.

For example, if you were in the produce section of the grocery store feeling self-conscious that people were judging the way you choose fruits and vegetables with gloves on, you could put those thoughts in a category labeled: thoughts about how I am perceived by others.

Grounding techniques may also be helpful. When your thoughts become overwhelming take a step back and pay attention and notice all the sensations now. Bring yourself into the here and now and out of the excessive and unrealistic imaginings.

When you catch yourself getting all tangled up in your thoughts, leap out of your head and into your current surroundings. Then label and describe what you see, smell, hear, touch, or taste with laser-sharp focus. Keep your mind anchored in your external environment. Whatever thoughts begin to pull you in, gently guide your mind back to your surroundings.

One way to reduce the frequency and power of obsessions is by resisting the urge to engage in the compulsions that are associated with them. In the short term, the compulsion may supply a sense of relief and help to lessen the anxiety.

However, by engaging in a compulsion, you are also verifying that the obsession was true or valid which increases the likelihood that it will come up again. Therefore, it is particularly important to take steps to resist urges to engage in compulsion. Resisting compulsions is one of the most important things, and one of the hardest things you can do for yourself.

Here are a few helpful steps:

  1. To resist the compulsion, you must first be quick to recognize how you are feeling. You are most likely feeling “pushed” or “driven” to do it. Obsessive thoughts are like a harsh tyrant but remember, you are the one who is in control and not your thoughts. Get familiar with the sensations you are feeling to be prepared to deal with them when they come, then put your foot down!
  2. The next step is to remind yourself that most fears or anxieties you are probably experiencing are false alarms. it’s not true and it may not happen at all so there is no need to act on it.
  3. The next step is to use the opposite action. By choosing to do the opposite of what you want to do that could be harmful, choose instead to do something that will produce something good. Making this choice will fill you with a sense of empowerment and confidence.
  4. Distractions are also an effective tool to redirect your thoughts onto something else. Your brain will go where your mind tells it to go and you are the one in control of your mind, not the other way around.

Distraction is one of the distress tolerance skills, and it turns out to be one of the best ways to avoid acting on impulses or urges. Get your mind busy with distracting activities that fill up your brain so that there’s little room left for your compulsions or obsessions.

In other words, get out of yourself and out of your head by engaging in an activity that grabs your attention and enlivens your senses such as: eating a strongly flavored food, having a good workout, or going for a run, placing an ice pack on your forehead or shoulders. Keep doing it until the compulsion dies down.

The world can be a scary place, so it makes sense that you would be concerned for your own safety and wellbeing and that of those you love. This is part of the human condition and perfectly normal. Nevertheless, although obsessions and compulsions may bring about a sense of relief and security in the short term, their cost is great.

The truth is that when you try to control your life, you will only lose it and be left with a sense of helplessness in the end. This can interfere with your ability to feel connected to others and build a meaningful and productive life. Although overcoming obsessions and compulsions can be a difficult journey, be patient and kind to yourself and celebrate every win along the way. With God, all things are possible.

Here are a few of God’s promises to you if you trust Him:

Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you. – 1 Peter 5:7

I waited patiently for the LORD, and He turned to me and heard my cry for help. He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.Psalm 40: 1-3

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.Romans 12:2

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise…and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:9

“Tree at Sunset”, Courtesy of Zoltan Tasi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “I Hate How I Look”, Courtesy of James Dryden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mountain Train”, Courtesy of Piotr Guzik, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez