Dealing with obsessive thoughts

Obsessive thoughts can be a challenge ...

Dealing with obsessive thoughts is frequently a challenge when recovering from anxiety disorders. The mind is a very tricky customer! It loves to latch on to ideas and spiral around them at the best of times, but when you feel anxious this can happen even more easily.

I recently received this email from an anxiety unravelled visitor and it shows how easily obsessive thoughts can arise:

I've read your article about unwanted thoughts and I found a lot of it very useful. Except I got really caught up in something that you said and took it too literally and now it has really thrown me off. Can you please elaborate on what you mean when you say "Don’t go back to check whether [the thoughts] are gone! – that will immediately bring them back."

I used to have obsessive thoughts such as obsessing over my breathing. With a psychologist I was able to eliminate it by just letting the thoughts be  … when I checked and realised they were gone, the thought might pop back a little but when they did come it would be just a passing thought. I realised they were just thoughts. When you say don't check on them, every time I do realise they are gone, your comment immediately jumps out and I think I am doing the wrong thing and my anxiety spikes and the thoughts are back. Whereas before I'd check in on them and realize they are gone and this gave me confidence that I was doing the right thing and just continued to let them be.

I showed my psychologist your comment and she said that I shouldn't take it too literally and I can’t assume what you meant. You might have even meant it in a cheeky way.

But now every time I realise that my thoughts are gone, instead of being confident I was doing the right thing and continuing to let them be, I get anxious about you saying "do not check" and the vicious cycle starts again.

I am very good at letting my thoughts be, but I can't 'not' check in on my thoughts- i think that's natural and what everyone does even if it does bring back the thought. You just let it be and it will be a passing thought too. I really thought I was doing the right thing.  Can you please help me by explaining your comment … I really think that I took it too literally... I think it would be immensely helpful if I heard it from you. Thank you so much! S

If it's working for you, keep doing it!

S. is quite right about the technique she was using. It seems like it was working really well and I encouraged her to continue doing exactly what she had been doing.  I really sympathise with S. and I understand how when anxiety is high it can attach itself to just about anything. And this is a good example of how that happens.

Of course I felt bad that my comment had caused difficulties. It was meant it in the context of the other things in the article, for example:

"Unwanted thoughts [or obsessive thoughts] will inevitably arise – don’t try to push them away 
or resist them or fight them, this is negative attention – in other words, 
it is still attention... Gently replace the thoughts with something else and 
allow the unwanted thoughts to go."

There are no rules!

"Don't go looking for them" was really just a tip, not so much a definite rule or something to be fearful of. If you need to have a look and see if they’re still there, it's absolutely fine.  Then just practise noticing the thoughts if they return and letting them go again, in exactly the same way that we do in meditation.

It’s important to be really gentle with yourself. There are no hard and fast rules for recovery – only tips. These will help but it’s not the end of the world if you slip up. As long as you are practicing some of the tips, and taking on board some of the recommendations for settling your nervous system, even if it’s not all the time, you will slowly but surely get better and obsessive thoughts will become less troublesome.

Return from Obsessive thoughts to Articles