Relentless and negative thoughts are identified as one of the most common signs of an anxiety disorder. Obviously, these thoughts are rarely positive and they are usually related to your fears or emotions.
Anxiety makes it almost impossible to stop focusing on these unwanted thoughts and, in many cases, they result in even more anxious feelings which then lead to more obsessions.
Obsessive thoughts are one of the most common features of the obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Obsessive Thoughts and Anxiety Disorders
If you are struggling with obsessive thoughts, you may have a form of anxiety. The idea of “obsession” revolves around the inability to focus on anything other than a specific issue.
Regardless of your efforts, you simply can’t distract yourself and are stuck with a repeated chain of thoughts which may not only be distracting but also deeply disturbing for you however trivial they may seem to other people.
Not all obsessive thoughts are caused by or result in anxiety disorders. For example, being obsessed with a voice or a face of your favorite pop star when you were in your teens, or constantly thinking about your first love, or getting into your college basketball team and scoring the winning points in the finals are a few examples which don’t usually result in anxiety disorders.
Negative thoughts, however, which simply won’t leave you alone, on the other hand, are likely to be symptoms of one of the anxiety disorders. They will prevent you from living a normal life and often distract you from your studies or work, attending social functions or even doing normal daily chores such as shopping, cooking or looking after your family.
You will eventually lose your healthy and rational way of reasoning and start living out your obsessions through repetitive compulsive actions. Once that happens, you will need some form of treatment.
Obsessive Thoughts and Compulsive Actions –Symptoms of OCD
Obsessions — unwanted intrusive thoughts
- Constant, irrational worry about germs, bacteria, dirt or contamination.
- Excessive concern with the order, position of things or symmetry.
- Preoccupation with losing or throwing away objects with little or no value.
- Feeling overly responsible for the safety of others.
- Excessive concern about accidentally or purposefully injuring another person.
- Distasteful religious and sexual thoughts or images.
- Fear that negative or aggressive thoughts or impulses will cause personal harm or harm to a loved one.
- Various doubts which are irrational or excessive.
Compulsions — repeated ritualistic behaviors and routines aiming to ease anxiety or distress
- Cleaning — Repeatedly washing one’s hands, bathing, or cleaning household items, often for hours at a time, several times a day.
- Checking — Checking and re-checking several to hundreds of times a day that the doors are locked, the windows shut, the stove is turned off, the hairdryer is unplugged, etc.
- Repeating — Inability to stop repeating a name, phrase, or simple activity (such as going through a doorway over and over again).
- Mental rituals — Endless reviewing of conversations, counting, repeatedly summoning “good” thoughts to get rid of “bad” thoughts or obsessions as well as excessive praying and using special words or phrases to neutralize obsessions.
Obsessive thoughts developed in other anxiety disorders
It’s also possible to develop various obsessive thoughts with other anxiety disorders as well. These obsessions will not be as severe or disturbing as the thoughts in OCD, and you’re unlikely to develop compulsions as a result.
However, there are often some similarities between anxiety disorders. Your therapist will diagnose which disorder you have based on the exam and the analysis of your thoughts and behaviors.
Obsessive thoughts may be symptoms of:
Panic Disorder – People with panic disorder and panic attacks may develop hypochondria (health phobia) and be constantly worried that something is wrong with their health. The causes of panic attacks can be various traumas or increasingly stressful way of life. People may develop a fear of the panic attacks to such a degree that it is all they ever worry and think about. The fear itself becomes obsessive thought.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Those with PTSD often find themselves obsessing over the trauma they experienced. Again, the fear and beliefs that the same trauma will occur again can develop into an obsession.
Specific Phobias – Those with various severe phobias may start to think about the object of their fear to the point of developing a specific obsession. It may be being stuck in an elevator, being bitten by a dog, being alone in an empty house etc.
Social Phobia – People with social anxiety may constantly worry about embarrassing themselves in social situations, being laughed at or plain ridiculed. In some cases, it may be a result of something that happened that brings up obsessive thoughts. In other cases, it can be a constant picturing of worst-case-scenarios in every social situation.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is a disorder that causes numerous worries of various kinds, causes, and resulting behaviors. Anything from fear of getting fired to worries about your loved ones may turn into obsessive thoughts.
To sum up, the prevailing belief that obsessive thoughts are only present in OCD is not true. As we have stated, obsessive thoughts and possible resulting compulsions can be found in almost any type of anxiety disorder.
How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts
The relief from obsessive thoughts in the form of compulsive actions does not last and is not a solution. On the contrary, the obsessive thoughts usually come back stronger. The compulsive rituals and behaviors often cause more anxiety themselves as they become more demanding and time-consuming.
As you can see, you need to break the cycle. Targeting only the obsessive thoughts will not be as effective as targeting your anxiety as a whole. This will enable your therapist and you to properly address the way your disorder affects you. You will also be more likely to cope with future stresses successfully.
Accept your OCD
You need to learn to accept your thoughts for what they are: the symptoms of your anxiety. You need to stop trying to chase these thoughts away. The more you try, the more often your brain will remind you that you need to not think about your obsession and then you will think even more about how not to think about the intrusive thoughts.
The first thing you need to achieve is to accept the fact that your thoughts are not in your control. Learning to accept that your obsessive thoughts are a natural part of your disorder will result in the willingness to treat and cure your disorder and not to eliminate the symptoms. They will go away gradually during the treatment and the recovery process.
Write out your persistent thoughts
Sometimes you’ll have a thought that isn’t so much obsessive as it is persistent. In some cases, these thoughts can start bothering you enough to cause worrying whether they will eventually become obsessive thoughts.
Try writing those thoughts out in a dedicated diary. You’ll realize that your mind has a tendency to focus on persistent thoughts less often when it knows that they’re being kept in a permanent place.
Get Used to the Anxiety
This is one of the hardest parts for the people living with their obsessive thoughts. The idea that they should just live with the anxiety seems difficult to accept. Learning to be okay with your anxiety is actually a very effective treatment.
Part of this comes from acceptance and part which is even more significant is the fact that you have learned to let yourself worry, rather than immediately go through your compulsive actions.
Compulsions have a tendency to provide too quick a solution to the obsessions, causing you to avoid actually dealing with the anxiety. But if you resist the compulsions for some time and let yourself be as anxious as possible for a while, you’ll find that the obsessions cause a little less fear. This is because you will start to think and feel that nothing bad is going to happen.
This is often achieved in treatment and with your therapist present. Your therapist will teach you the steps which are effective in the process of learning how to stop trying to solve your obsessive thoughts. You will acquire the skills to let your thoughts be obsessive, but also to allow yourself to feel the anxiety of the obsessive thoughts in order to avoid unhelpful compulsions.
Try to cause your own anxiety
Another method you can try with the approval of your therapist is to try and cause the anxiety yourself. Try to purposely think about the thing that causes you that much distress.
The idea behind this technique is behavioral habituation: if you stop fighting the thought and start experiencing it as often as possible on purpose, the thought will eventually become less stressful, maybe even boring to the point that it goes away on its own.
You can try and get your hands dirty, keep your door unlocked, purposefully disorganize your apartment, or do anything that bothers you otherwise. The aim of this is to get used to what the anxiety feels like and learn to fear the anxiety less.
If it’s something that you simply think to yourself, like worrying or other unpleasant or disturbing thoughts, you can try to have those thoughts on purpose until you accept that they have no real meaning or purpose. Eventually, you may find them less irritating.
It’s often best to do these in the presence of a professional because this method might be too much or simply too overwhelming in some cases. However, it’s been proven that the more you accept the anxieties, the easier it will be to handle it.
Not all obsessive thoughts are an anxiety disorder
If you have an occasional unusually obsessive thought or a small compulsion that otherwise has little to no impact on your wellbeing, chances are you do NOT have OCD.
But if your obsessions are causing you significant distress and turn into compulsive actions, it’s very likely that you do have some sort of anxiety disorder which you need to accept and seek treatment. Your disorder will cause obsessive thoughts, so the only way to truly stop these thoughts is to stop the disorder or make it more tolerable.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder treatment may not always result in a cure, but it can help bring symptoms under control so that they don’t rule and ruin your daily life. Some people might need treatment for the rest of their lives.
The two main effective treatments for OCD are psychotherapy and medications. The treatment is most effective with a combination of these two.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy which can be applied in individual, family or group sessions. It has proven to be effective for many people with OCD.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a type of CBT therapy which involves gradually exposing you to a feared object or obsession. It may be disorganized living space or dirt. It aims to teach you healthy ways to cope with your anxiety. ERP takes effort and practice, but you should gradually enjoy a better quality of life once you learn to manage your obsessions and compulsions.
Certain psychiatric medications can help control your obsessions and compulsions resulting from OCD. Most commonly, doctors will try antidepressants first.
Antidepressants approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat OCD include:
- Clomipramine (Anafranil) for adults and children 10 years and older
- Fluoxetine (Prozac) for adults and children 7 years and older
- Fluvoxamine for adults and children 8 years and older
- Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva) for adults only
- Sertraline (Zoloft) for adults and children 6 years and older
Your doctor may also prescribe other antidepressants or psychiatric medications. The important thing to remember is NOT to diagnose your condition or choose medications yourself. This may result in terrible consequences and as a responsible individual, you must seek help only from a qualified medical professional.
Also, bear in mind that there are types of obsessive thoughts which are present in other types of anxiety disorders that won’t necessarily cause a diagnosis of OCD. According to some sources, OCD is seen as a unique, not anxiety-related condition.
The future research and studies will surely focus even more on this common and fascinating condition.