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How to Break the Cycle of Obsessive Thoughts

Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that are intrusive, unwanted, and make most people anxious. They can be a major source of psychological distress and are a defining feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In this article, we’ll be exploring coping strategies for obsessive thoughts and ways to manage OCD with professional support and lifestyle changes.

Key Takeaways

  • Identify the triggers that lead to obsessive thoughts and recognize their impact on your mental state.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, to stay present and reduce the power of obsessive thoughts.
  • Challenge irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions associated with obsessive thoughts by questioning their validity.
  • Consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in OCD treatment.
  • Explore alternative therapies and treatment options, such as medication and complementary treatments, under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as a long-lasting disorder in which a person experiences uncontrollable and recurring thoughts (obsessions), engages in repetitive behaviors (compulsions), or both. 

OCD is among one of the most common psychiatric illnesses, affecting up to one in forty US adults. Around half of those with OCD experience serious impairment. 

Common OCD Symptoms and Associated Compulsions

OCD symptoms are often related to compulsions that aim to alleviate the mental anguish associated with obsessive thoughts. Here are some examples:

OCD SymptomAssociated Compulsion
Fear of contaminationExcessive handwashing, avoidance of certain places
Excessive doubt and uncertaintyRepetitive checking behaviors
Unwanted intrusive thoughtsMental rituals, seeking reassurance
Hoarding and difficulty discardingExcessive collecting, inability to discard items
Need for symmetry and orderArranging objects in precise patterns, counting

Recognizing Triggers for Obsessive Thoughts

Identifying the triggers that lead to obsessive thoughts is crucial in breaking the cycle. Triggers can be specific situations, thoughts, or feelings that provoke obsessive thoughts and increase anxiety. By recognizing these triggers, individuals can learn to anticipate and manage them more effectively. 

The causes of obsessive thoughts can vary from person to person. While some triggers may be external, such as specific environments or social situations, others may be internal, originating from within the individual’s thoughts or emotions. 

Common OCD Triggers and Examples

For individuals with OCD, common triggers include:

  • Contamination fears: Triggers related to germs, dirt, or substances that are perceived as unclean.
  • Checking compulsions: Triggers that lead to repetitive behaviors, such as checking locks, appliances, or personal belongings.
  • Order and symmetry concerns: Triggers related to a need for precision, symmetry, or exactness.
  • Intrusive thoughts: Triggers that lead to distressing or unwanted thoughts, often involving harm or aggression.
  • Taboo or aggressive thoughts: Triggers related to socially unacceptable or morally distressing thoughts.

By identifying specific patterns or situations that trigger obsessive thinking, individuals can work towards modifying their responses and reducing the impact of these thoughts on their daily lives.

Coping Strategies for Managing Obsessive Thoughts

Practicing Mindfulness to Stay Present

In the quest to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts, practicing mindfulness is a powerful technique that can make a significant difference. Mindfulness allows individuals to stay present and focus on the current moment, ultimately reducing the power of obsessive thoughts.

One effective way to cultivate mindfulness is through mindfulness meditation. By engaging in this practice, individuals bring their attention to the present experience without judgment.

Mindfulness meditation involves comfortably with your spine straight, such as in a cross-legged position or on a chair, and taking attention to the breath. For instance, you might focus on the sensation of air moving in and out of the belly. When you find your mind in thought, re-focus your attention on the breath.  

Benefits of Mindfulness for Obsessive Thoughts

Through regular practice of mindfulness, those with OCD may experience less meaning and power attached to their thoughts. This could decrease their need to engage in compulsions and reduce the distress they may experience. 

Highlighting these benefits, one 2017 study found OCD patients who underwent an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program showed improvements in the following:

  • OCD symptoms
  • Depression symptoms
  • Anxiety symptoms
  • Obsessive beliefs
  • Mindfulness skills
  • Self-compassion  

Challenging Irrational Beliefs and Cognitive Distortions

Obsessive thoughts can be fueled by irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions. By challenging these beliefs and restructuring our cognitive framework, we can break free from the grips of obsessive thoughts and regain control of our minds.

One common cognitive distortion associated with obsessive thoughts is “catastrophic thinking.” This distortion involves imagining the worst-case scenarios and catastrophizing the potential outcomes. For example, a person with obsessive thoughts about germs may catastrophize by believing that if they don’t wash their hands a certain number of times, they will contract a severe illness.

To challenge this cognitive distortion, it is important to question the validity of these thoughts and explore alternative explanations. Asking ourselves, “What is the evidence supporting this belief?” or “Is there a more realistic explanation for this thought?” can help us gain perspective and challenge the irrationality of our obsessive thoughts.

Cognitive restructuring techniques can be particularly useful in challenging irrational beliefs and reframing our thinking patterns. Cognitive restructuring aims to replace stress-producing thoughts with more balanced thoughts that don’t produce stress or anxiety.

This involves deconstructing the thought, rationally considering the evidence that does and doesn’t support the thought, and thinking of an alternative, balanced view. 

Let’s consider an example of someone with OCD who has an obsessive thought related to contamination.

  1. Deconstructing the Thought:
  • The individual identifies the obsessive thought that touching a doorknob will lead to severe illness. They break down the thought into its components, realizing it involves an exaggerated fear of contamination and a catastrophic outcome.
  1. Rationally Considering the Evidence:
  • The person critically examines the evidence that supports and contradicts the thought. They may recognize that they have touched doorknobs many times without harmful consequences. Additionally, they might gather information about the actual likelihood of getting seriously ill from touching shared surfaces.
  1. Thinking of an Alternative, Balanced View:
  • With a more rational perspective, the individual considers alternative explanations for the obsessive thought. They might acknowledge that their fear is disproportionate to the actual risk and recognize that not all doorknobs carry the same level of risk. They may also reflect on past experiences where their fears didn’t materialize.

Seeking Professional Help for Support

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first-line treatment for OCD. This therapeutic approach targets distorted thought patterns and behaviors. It includes cognitive restructuring to change negative thoughts, exposure and response prevention (ERP) to reduce anxiety, and skill-building for coping.

Brain scans also show CBT may be able to alter neural connectivity patterns in the brain of OCD patients. This could help “re-wire” neural pathways associated with obsessive thoughts. 

Benefits of Seeking Professional Help

Seeking professional help not only provides a structured and evidence-based approach to managing obsessive thoughts, but also offers the following benefits:

  • Expertise: Therapists and counselors specializing in OCD have extensive knowledge and experience in treating its symptoms, providing tailored interventions for obsessive thoughts.
  • Validation and Support: Professionals offer a safe and non-judgmental space for individuals to express their concerns, fears, and struggles, offering validation and support throughout their therapy journey.
  • Individualized Treatment: Every person’s experience with obsessive thoughts is unique, and therapy provides individualized treatment plans that address specific needs and challenges.
  • Medication Evaluation and Support: In some cases, medication may be recommended alongside therapy. Qualified professionals can evaluate the need for medication and provide ongoing support and monitoring.

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Choosing the Right Therapist or Counselor

When seeking professional help, it is important to find a therapist or counselor who specializes in OCD treatment and has experience working with individuals dealing with obsessive thoughts. Consider the following factors when choosing a professional:

  1. Qualifications and Credentials: Ensure the therapist has the appropriate education, certifications, and licensing in their field.
  2. Experience: Look for professionals with experience treating OCD and a track record of success in helping clients manage obsessive thoughts.
  3. Compatibility: Establishing a strong therapeutic alliance is crucial for effective treatment. Find someone with whom you feel comfortable and can establish a trusting relationship.

Alternative Therapies and Treatment Options

Medication for OCD

In severe OCD cases, doctors may consider prescribing medication. The most commonly prescribed medication is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are antidepressants that help increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. This chemical messenger plays a vital role in regulating mood, and serotonin imbalances are thought to explain some of the mechanisms underlying OCD.

Not everybody with OCD responds to SSRs. However, of those who do, symptoms are usually reduced by between 40-60%, according to the International OCD Foundation.

Complementary Treatments for OCD

Complementary treatments offer additional avenues for tackling obsessive thoughts and symptoms associated with OCD. Mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness meditation and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), can help individuals cultivate awareness of their thoughts and emotions while developing acceptance and coping strategies.

These practices promote a non-judgmental and compassionate attitude towards one’s thoughts, reducing the impact of obsessive thoughts on daily functioning.

Other complementary treatments for OCD include art therapy, yoga, and acupuncture. Art therapy allows individuals to express their thoughts and emotions creatively, while yoga promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety.

Acupuncture, also helps reduce anxiety, and is believed to help rebalance the body’s energy flow. While these treatments may not be as extensively researched as CBT or medication, they can still be explored as complementary options on an individual basis.

It is important to note that alternative therapies should be discussed with a healthcare professional to ensure they are used appropriately and in conjunction with evidence-based treatments like CBT. The combination of alternative therapies and traditional treatments can provide a holistic approach to managing obsessive thoughts, enhancing overall well-being, and facilitating long-term recovery.

Supportive Networks and Peer Groups

When it comes to breaking the cycle of obsessive thoughts, connecting with others who have had similar experiences can be a game-changer. Support groups and peer networks offer a safe space where individuals can share their journey, gain valuable insights, and receive the encouragement they need to keep moving forward.

Support groups for OCD bring together people who understand the challenges and struggles associated with obsessive thoughts. By participating in these groups, individuals can find comfort in knowing they are not alone and learn from others who have already made progress.

A list of support and treatment groups can be found on the International Association for OCD webpage.

Lifestyle Changes to Support Mental Well-being

Healthy Habits for OCD

Making certain lifestyle changes is crucial in supporting mental well-being and breaking the cycle of obsessive thoughts. By adopting healthy habits and practicing self-care, individuals can effectively manage their OCD symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.

1. Adopt a Regular Exercise Routine

Regular exercise has been shown to have numerous benefits for mental health, including reducing anxiety and improving mood. Engaging in physical activity can help distract from obsessive thoughts and release endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming, on most days of the week.

2. Practice Stress Management Techniques

Stress can exacerbate obsessive thoughts and intensify anxiety. Implementing stress management techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or journaling, can help reduce stress levels and promote a calmer mind. Find what works best for you and make it a regular part of your routine.

3. Prioritize Getting Enough Sleep

Adequate sleep is essential for good mental health. Lack of sleep can worsen OCD symptoms and increase the likelihood of obsessive thoughts. Create a relaxing bedtime routine, limit caffeine intake, and ensure you have a comfortable sleep environment to promote quality sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

4. Engage in Activities That Bring Joy and Relaxation

Finding activities that bring joy and relaxation can provide a much-needed distraction from obsessive thoughts. Whether it’s pursuing a hobby, spending time in nature, or practicing artistic endeavors, prioritize activities that bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment to your life. Schedule regular time for these activities and make them a priority.


Breaking the cycle of obsessive thoughts is achievable through a combination of practical strategies and support. By identifying triggers that provoke obsessive thoughts, individuals can gain control over their minds and reduce anxiety.

Practicing mindfulness can help decrease the power of obsessive thoughts, and through challenging irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions, individuals can help reframe negative thinking patterns.

Seeking professional help from therapists and counselors specializing in OCD is one of the most valuable tools in helping achieve these goals. Medication and lifestyle changes, such as adopting healthy habits and engaging in self-care, are also helpful.


How Can I Recognize Triggers for Obsessive Thoughts?

Recognizing triggers is crucial in breaking the cycle of obsessive thoughts. Triggers can be specific situations, thoughts, or feelings that provoke obsessive thoughts and increase anxiety. By identifying these triggers, individuals can learn to anticipate and manage them more effectively.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. It was previously considered treatment-resistant, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, has shown significant efficacy in reducing OCD symptoms.

How Can I Break the Cycle of Obsessive Thoughts?

To break the cycle of obsessive thoughts, you can implement practical strategies and adopt new approaches. These include identifying triggers, practicing mindfulness, challenging irrational beliefs, seeking professional help, and making lifestyle changes. Each person’s journey is unique, so finding the right combination of techniques and support is key to success.

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