How to curb obsessive thoughts

10 Tips to Stop Repetitive Thoughts

You can stop repetitive dark thoughts with methods that include distracting yourself or meditating. Lingering in these thoughts may intensify feelings of depression.

Has your head ever been filled with one single thought, or a string of thoughts, that just keep repeating… and repeating… and repeating themselves?

The process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark, is called rumination.

A habit of rumination can be dangerous to your mental health, as it can prolong or intensify depression as well as impair your ability to think and process emotions. It may also cause you to feel isolated and can, in reality, push people away.

People ruminate for a variety of reasons. According to the American Psychological Association, some common reasons for rumination include:

  • belief that by ruminating, you’ll gain insight into your life or a problem
  • having a history of emotional or physical trauma
  • facing ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled

Ruminating is also common in people who possess certain personality characteristics, which include perfectionism, neuroticism, and an excessive focus on one’s relationships with others.

You might have a tendency to overvalue your relationships with others so much that you’ll make large personal sacrifices to maintain your relationships, even if they’re not working for you.

Once you get stuck in a ruminating thought cycle, it can be hard to get out of it. If you do enter a cycle of such thoughts, it’s important to stop them as quickly as possible to prevent them from becoming more intense.

As when a ball is rolling downhill, it’s easier to stop the ruminating thoughts when they first start rolling and have less speed than when they’ve gathered speed over time.

So, what can you do to stop these obsessive thoughts from running through your mind?

Here are 10 tips to try when you begin to experience the same thought, or set of thoughts, swirling around your head:

1. Distract yourself

When you realize you’re starting to ruminate, finding a distraction can break your thought cycle. Look around you, quickly choose something else to do, and don’t give it a second thought. Consider:

  • calling a friend or family member
  • doing chores around your house
  • watching a movie
  • drawing a picture
  • reading a book
  • walking around your neighborhood

2. Plan to take action

Instead of repeating the same negative thought over and over again, take that thought and make a plan to take action to address it.

In your head, outline each step you need to take to address the problem, or write it down on a piece of paper. Be as specific as possible and also realistic with your expectations.

Doing this will disrupt your rumination. It will also help you move forward in the attempt to get a negative thought out of your head once and for all.

3. Take action

Once you’ve outlined a plan of action to address your ruminating thoughts, take one small step to address the issue. Refer to the plan you made to solve the problem you’ve been obsessing over.

Move forward with each step slowly and incrementally until your mind is put at ease.

4. Question your thoughts

We often ruminate when we think we’ve made a major mistake or when something traumatic has happened to us that we feel responsible for.

If you start ruminating on a troubling thought, try putting your repetitive thought in perspective.

Thinking more about how your troubling thought might not be accurate may help you stop ruminating because you realize the thought makes little sense.

5. Readjust your life’s goals

Perfectionism and unrealistic goal setting can lead to rumination. If you set goals that are unrealistic, you may start to focus on why and how you haven’t reached a goal, or what you should have done to reach it.

Setting more realistic goals that you’re capable of achieving can reduce the risks of overthinking your own actions.

6. Work on enhancing your self-esteem

Many people who ruminate report difficulties with self-esteem. In fact, lack of self-esteem can be associated with increased rumination. It’s also been linked with increased risk of depression.

Enhancement of self-esteem can be accomplished in many ways. For instance, building on existing strengths can add to a sense of mastery, which can enhance self-esteem.

Some people may choose to work on the enhancement of self-esteem in psychotherapy. As you enhance your self-esteem, self-efficacy may also be enhanced. You may find that you’re better able to control rumination.

7. Try meditation

Meditating can reduce rumination because it involves clearing your mind to arrive at an emotionally calm state.

When you find yourself with a repeating loop of thoughts in your mind, seek out a quiet space. Sit down, breathe deeply, and focus on nothing but breathing.

8. Understand your triggers

Each time you find yourself ruminating, make a mental note of the situation you’re in. This includes where you are, what time of day it is, who’s around you (if anyone), and what you’ve been doing that day.

Developing ways to avoid or manage these triggers can reduce your rumination.

9. Talk to a friend

Ruminating thoughts can make you feel isolated. Talking about your thoughts with a friend who can offer an outside perspective may help break the cycle.

Be sure to speak with a friend who can give you that perspective rather than ruminate with you.

10. Try therapy

If your ruminating thoughts are taking over your life, you may want to consider therapy. A therapist can help you identify why you’re ruminating and how to address the problems at their core.

Lifestyle changes

If you’re a long-time ruminator who wants to bring an end to your repetitive negative thoughts, here are some simple changes you can make to your life that can help do just that:

  • Be proactive in trying to solve your problems. First identify problems in your life and then start taking actions to solve your problems, one step at a time
  • Set your own expectations. Negative ruminating thoughts can creep in when we question our self-worth. Praise yourself for your successes and forgive yourself for your mistakes. Constantly work on building your self-esteem by taking care of yourself and doing things you enjoy and excel at.
  • Create a support system. Having friends and family members, and maybe even a therapist, any of whom you can call on for help when something goes wrong or when you’re having a bad day, is so important. These special people may distract you from your ruminating thoughts and are also likely to boost your self-esteem.

If you’re a ruminator, it’s important to know some tips that may help you to stop your thought cycle in its tracks before it spirals out of control.

It’s also important to be proactive and take steps to prevent yourself from ruminating in the first place.

With awareness and some lifestyle changes, it’s possible to free yourself from ruminating thoughts. If you find that you’re unable to use these tips to help your rumination, you should consider contacting a mental health professional for assistance.

How to Stop Obsessive Thinking & Intrusive Thoughts —Talkspace

Updated on 2/1/2023

Research shows that, on average, people think more than 6,000 thoughts every day. While it’s not unusual to be distracted by the occasional unwanted thought, obsessive thoughts aren’t something you can push out of your head. Instead, this type of thinking can be so distressing and distracting it can be challenging to think about anything else. 

People often use unhealthy coping mechanisms — including social withdrawal and compulsive behavior — to deal with obsessive thinking. Fortunately, you can learn how to stop obsessive thoughts and keep intrusive thought patterns from taking over your life. 

What is Obsessive Thinking?

“Obsessive thoughts” is a term that refers to unwelcome and upsetting thoughts you can’t seem to get out of your head. Also known as intrusive thoughts, this type of thinking is a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with an OCD diagnosis use compulsive behaviors to deal with the anxiety their thoughts cause.  

Another form of obsessive thinking is rumination, a symptom of OCD, anxiety, and depression. Rumination is a negative thought spiral that doesn’t seem to end. Once the rumination process starts, it can be hard to stop. 

While people struggle with many types of obsessive thoughts, some common examples of obsessive thinking might include the following:

  • Worrying about germs or contamination 
  • Fixating on an unsolved problem 
  • Excessive concerns about living up to your religious or moral standards
  • Negative self-talk 
  • Fearing you’ll harm others
  • Concerns you’ve forgotten something important 

How to Deal with Obsessive Thoughts: 7 Tips

1. Acknowledge your thoughts

If you’re struggling with unwanted intrusive thoughts, your first instinct might be to ignore your thoughts or push them away. Unfortunately, trying to suppress negative thoughts can actually make them worse. 

Figuring out how to stop obsessive thoughts isn’t always the best solution at the moment. Rather than try to prevent your thoughts, you should let them happen. Once you address your thoughts, you might find that they fade away.

Acknowledging your thoughts doesn’t mean you have to dwell on them. When an unwanted thought appears, try to accept it and move on. If you can minimize the stress your thoughts cause, you can reduce their impact on your life.

2. Recognize the patterns and name them

Learning to stop obsessive thoughts means first recognizing harmful thought patterns. Then, by increasing your awareness of obsessive thinking, you can find better ways to cope with thoughts as they arise.

Work on how you react when you find you’re thinking obsessively or engaging in compulsions. For example, instead of trying to push thoughts away, address them by writing them down. 

“When you recognize the pattern and give it a name, it’s easier to separate from it or see it as an external force. Obsessive thoughts can be present in different situations, but when you name them, you’re retaking control over what you think.

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

Once the thoughts are out of your mind, try to identify what triggered them. For example, increased stress is a common trigger for obsessive thoughts, especially in people with OCD. Recognizing and understanding your triggers can prepare you to deal with obsessive thought patterns in the future.

3. Accept that it’s out of your control, but manageable

The next step to stopping obsessive thinking is understanding that you aren’t choosing this. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts — a series of neurons firing in the brain, nothing more. As you begin to understand how obsessive patterns work, you’ll have a better chance of managing them when they occur.

“Thoughts are our brain’s way of keeping us alert, protected, and engaged. We have no control over them, but we have control over how to process them or reframe them. The more we practice mindfulness and reframing, the more positive links we create in our brain.

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

To accept obsessive thoughts, plant yourself firmly in the present and be realistic about what you do and do not have control over.

4. Explore meditation and mindfulness benefits

Thoughts aren’t inherently harmful, but obsessive thoughts can cause severe anxiety and distress. Mindfulness is a practice that helps you accept challenging thoughts and feelings. Even if you can’t control your thoughts, mindfulness can help you cope with the emotions that are brought up. 

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but mindfulness meditation can be beneficial when struggling with intrusive thoughts or rumination. Meditation has a calming effect, and studies show that mindfulness can reduce negative responses to unpleasant thoughts or imagery.

You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere — whether at home, at work, or out with friends. When obsessive thoughts appear, give yourself a few minutes to meditate. Breathe deeply, focus on your breath, and accept your thoughts without judgment.

5. Find ways to distract yourself

If you can’t figure out how to stop negative thoughts, look for a distraction. Whether you change your environment or start a new activity, a simple diversion can often disrupt a negative thought cycle before it takes hold. Any sort of diversion can help you break out of obsessive thinking. Try calling a friend, watching a TV show, or popping on your headphones and listening to your favorite songs.  

Avoid activities that remind you of unwanted thoughts, such as movies with similar themes. Distraction can be surprisingly effective if you stay away from triggers.

6. Challenge your thinking

You shouldn’t try to avoid obsessive thoughts altogether, but it might be helpful to put them in perspective. For example, ruminating often involves repetitive negative self-talk, such as “no one likes me” or “I do everything wrong.

If you take the time to question and challenge these thoughts, you’ll likely find evidence that your thinking isn’t accurate. Try asking yourself: Who told me that? or how do I know this is true?

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an intervention that uses various techniques to identify and reframe negative thoughts. Online cognitive behavioral therapy with Talkspace can help you learn how to deal with obsessive thoughts by replacing them with positive, healthier ones.

7. Seek Therapy

While everyone has unwanted thoughts at one point or another, consider reaching out for help if obsessive thinking is something you’re struggling with. These thoughts could be symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

A mental health professional can help you understand what’s causing your unwanted thoughts so that you can get the help you need. In addition, a therapist can help you develop coping mechanisms that will make your thoughts more manageable. Your thought patterns might feel overwhelming, but in therapy, you can find ways to keep them from taking over your life.

Overcome Obsessive Patterns with Talkspace

Obsessive thought spirals can be incredibly difficult to cope with. They can be upsetting, and you may feel guilty or ashamed about your thinking. If you’re overwhelmed by distressing thoughts, Talkspace can support you. 

We can match you with a therapist who can teach you how to stop obsessive thoughts. If you’re concerned that your thoughts signify something more is going on, a therapist can talk to you about a psych evaluation. Instead of ignoring your thoughts, work with a professional to help you stop them and deal with them healthily. Reach out to Talkspace today to get started with an OCD test or anxiety test. 

See references

  • Tseng J, Poppenk J. Brain Meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism.
  • Williams MT, Mugno B, Franklin M, Faber S. Symptom dimensions in obsessive-compulsive disorder: Phenomenology and treatment outcomes with exposure and ritual prevention.
  • Merino H, Senra C, Ferreiro F. Are worry and rumination specific pathways linking neuroticism and symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and mixed anxiety-depressive disorder?
  • Najmi S, Wegner DM, Nock MK. Thought suppression and self-injurious thoughts and behaviors. Behaviour Research and Therapy.
  • Morgado P, Freitas D, Bessa JM, Sousa N, Cerqueira JJ. Perceived stress in obsessive–compulsive disorder is related with obsessive but not compulsive symptoms.
  • Keng S-L, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

Talkspace mental health services

Obsessive thoughts: how to get rid of and why setting to control will not work

Ekaterina Sbornova

Many at least once in their lives have heard the phrase “don’t cheat!” in their address. Familiar, isn't it? The reason why they say so is sometimes unknown to us. It all starts with a small and seemingly insignificant thought. It comes from nowhere, easily and naturally, but for some reason we leave it in our minds: “I have an important event tomorrow, I need to look perfect. What if the room is hot and everyone notices traces of sweat on my clothes? The example is rather obvious, but indicative.

Our fears and doubts are sometimes so irrational and strong that they prevent us from feeling control over our own lives. Nancy Collier in the book "Obsessive Thoughts" tells how to free yourself from the endless monologue of our mind and become more confident and calm.

How thinking affects you

The thought process is a necessary tool of existence. It brings us joy, allows us to create, find solutions, and plan. We suffer not from the thought process, but from identifying our personality with the thoughts that come into consciousness: "Everything I think about reflects my essence." A good person doesn't think about the bad, does he? It is this attitude that is the cause of a spoiled and depressed mood, it leads to confusion and fatigue.

Don't try to push obsessive thoughts away by forbidding yourself to think: the greater the resistance, the harder we think. The main goal: not to get rid of thoughts, but to find freedom in them.

How can we understand that we are hostages of our own mind? Ask yourself a few questions:

  • did thinking create problems in major areas of life (family, health, finances, personal development)?
  • Was it getting harder for me to fulfill my obligations at home/work?
  • Did I spend more time thinking?
  • Has the time allotted to your favorite activities decreased?
  • did I look forward to the opportunity to immerse myself in thoughts?

If you answered yes to most of the questions, this indicates that you are addicted to thinking - this addiction worsens the general well-being and psychological health of a person.

Liberation begins when we change our attitude towards thoughts, reconsider the value we attribute to them, analyze how we are attached to specific thoughts.

Why it is not necessary to control thoughts

There is a premise in the theory of positive thinking: we can and should be able to control our thoughts. If we repeat every day “I deserve better”, then, according to supporters of positive thinking, after a while these words will come to life in our minds, and we will truly believe in them. Unfortunately, this psychological technique does not always bring results, and sometimes even causes even more worries and stress.

The way out of the battle with thinking begins with the statement that our well-being does not depend at all on the correction of thoughts and, therefore, on whether we like our thoughts and agree with them or not.

How to curb your thoughts. Two exercises

You can see and hear your thoughts, observe from the side, but not participate in the discussion. Freedom begins with the relinquishment of the responsibility to control what is observed.

How to achieve this? Let's take an example. Everyone sees the sky, but in completely different ways: someone looking up will see an airplane, another a bird, a third a cloud. However, the sky itself is left unattended, because we tend to pay attention to those things that are close to our life experience. The point is to see exactly the sky in your mind: not to identify thoughts with experience and prejudices, but to remain only an observer who is interested in the expanse of consciousness.

Everyone has their own sky. Source

How to achieve this level of awareness?

Mindfulness, like any other skill, needs to be trained. Start small. As with physical exercises: if you do 30 squats every day, then over time you will feel strength in your legs. Repeating simple actions on an ongoing basis brings results. The same thing happens with the practice of mindfulness.

You can learn not to merge with thoughts and not to dissolve in them, to stop putting everything “on the shelves”, to separate “I” from thoughts with the help of simple observation. As with the sky: try to look at objects, the environment, without getting involved in the content and information. Don't look for anything specific, just watch.

Mindfulness Basics Exercise

Let's practice right now: let's try to imagine the thought process as a movie that plays in your head.

1. Imagine that right now you are pointing a camera lens at your mind. What do you hear and see?

2. Watch what is happening right here in your head. Are there many thoughts or just a few scattered ones? Are these thoughts specific enough that you can make out the words and images they contain, or are they more like scenery and background noise?

3. What is the mood of these thoughts? How do they feel (if you do not delve into the content)?

Ironically, the purpose of the exercise is not to answer questions. These are just pointers to help you see your thoughts without any attempt to change them.

These questions serve only one purpose: to learn to freeze and watch a movie inside your head.

Exercise "Focus on the Object"

Breathing practice is an effective exercise for unloading the thought process.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position on a chair (sit is better than lying down, so as not to lose concentration).
  2. Breathe evenly and deeply. Focus on your breath.
  3. Place your hand on your stomach and feel it rise and fall.
  4. Notice any sensations in your body, but keep your focus on the breath.
  5. If you notice that you are distracted by thoughts, note this and return to breathing. Do not blame yourself for being distracted by thoughts - with frequent repetition of the practice, you will notice that you return to thinking less often.
  6. Practice for 10 minutes.

Watch your thoughts. Source

When you are alone with the breath and notice the thoughts that arise in you without being carried away by them, you pump the awareness muscle, disentangle yourself from the thoughts, without identifying yourself with the contents of your mind. With practice, you will eventually begin to see yourself as the awareness within which thoughts arise, and not as the thoughts themselves.

In Obsessive Thoughts you will find tools for freeing the mind and practices for mindfulness training

Post cover:

How to get rid of obsessive thoughts: 6 lifehacks


© Baran Lotfollahi/Unsplash

Author Irina Rudevich

October 23, 2020

Sometimes it’s hard to stop the flow of unpleasant thoughts that seem to burst into your head and haunt you. We tell you how to eliminate the anxiety that has arisen and not dwell on this state

What are obsessive thoughts

Excessive experiences and repetitive dialogue occur spontaneously. You can go about your daily activities or get ready for bed, but suddenly a thought appears that draws all attention to itself. For many, it seems to get stuck in place, causing discomfort, disrupting biorhythms and disrupting plans. Obsessive thinking is a series of images that are repeated in combination with negative perceptions. The severity of their influence can range from mild but annoying to severe and all-encompassing. Particularly debilitating cases that prevent a person from living a full life are considered in psychiatry as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

10 brain traps that change reality

Advertising on RBC

Why do we think about unpleasant things

Psychologists do not have a clear answer to the question of where obsessive thoughts come from. According to one theory, repeated anxious thoughts indicate that a person has an unresolved issue and a life stage that has not been completed. It could be stress at work, relationship problems, or an unpleasant conversation with a stranger that happened a few days ago. But they are not always based on real events.

© Cottonbro/Pexels

Everyone at least once left for work with the thought: “Did I turn off the iron?”, which haunted until the evening. “Thinking can be a problem because it rarely offers new ideas or solutions to fix a situation,” writes psychotherapist Jody Virgo [1]. Instead, they emotionally capture the person and reinforce negative feelings.

Against depression: what activities “teach” the brain to be happier and healthier

It's not easy not to think

It would seem that you just need to switch and forbid yourself to play the same record in your head. But our minds are built differently: when a person tries to avoid thinking, being under the influence of obsessive thoughts, the brain continues to remind us of them with greater force. It's the same principle that when you hear "don't think about the pink elephant" the first thing you do is imagine it. At the same time, thoughts without decisions and actions only take time and emotional resources. “They have no practical consequences, and in themselves they are unimportant,” says physician and writer Deepak Chopra [2]. But that doesn't change the fact that people suffer from obsessive thinking. Here are a few principles to help you deal with it:

  • Recognize the thought pattern
  • Put your thought on paper
  • Think about a solution
  • Accept separateness of thoughts
  • Practice Meditation and Conscious Thinking
  • Contact a specialist

Recognize the thought pattern

To overcome intrusive thoughts, you need to identify them. The patterns may vary, but most of them are repeated over and over again. If a person often gets stuck in a cognitive cycle, then they turn into a habit that is more difficult to get rid of. It's like biting your nails or checking your email every few minutes, that is, actions (or thoughts) occur unconsciously. Caught yourself in a compulsive cycle - study it carefully. As Bruce M. Hyman and Cherry Pedrick write in The OCD Workbook, it pays to “examine these thoughts to understand how they arise and how you respond to them” [3].

Inverse thinking: how to lose weight and get rid of debt by thinking bad

Put your thought on paper

As soon as you write down an obsession in a notebook or phone notes, it will no longer cyclically spin your head. But the work is not over yet. It is important to determine the root cause of the negative experience.

© Lisa Fotios/Pexels

For example, you're worried about not getting a response from a friend, or you're worried that you weren't good enough during your presentation. Formulate a problem: “I’m upset because I think I offended a loved one in some way” or “I’m afraid that they didn’t take me seriously because I was very nervous during the speech.”

Neuroplasticity: how to make the brain work better

Think about a solution

Sometimes obsessive thoughts are justified and require certain actions. If you seriously think that you have not turned off the iron, ask a family member or neighbor to come in and check if everything is in order. When you're worried about relationship problems, it's easier to ask your partner directly if everything is okay, rather than oppressing yourself with destructive thoughts. Sometimes thoughts cling to the past or rush into the future, and you worry about the future. Try to learn from the experience and evaluate what can be done to minimize stress in the coming changes.

Chronic Stress: How to Detect, Manage and Prevent

Accept Separateness of Thoughts

A difficult but important step in dealing with a problem is to recognize that thoughts do not always depend on you. This is a series of neurons that fire in the brain as a result of not always obvious reactions, associations and experiences. Attempts to avoid obsessive thinking, to forcibly get rid of it, can only aggravate the situation. Acceptance can be the key to liberation, but not in the sense that you should give up and leave your mind to be torn apart by disturbing ideas. It is necessary to allow these thoughts to exist, to evaluate them, but not to try to control them.

8 ways to develop creative thinking

Practice meditation and mindful thinking

Obsessive thoughts cause discomfort because they are accompanied by negative emotions. Meditation and mindfulness exercises will help you get rid of oppressive experiences while you study the “enemy”. Psychologist Seth Meyers, in an article for Psychology Today, defines conscious thinking as “clearing and focusing on what your mind and body are feeling in the present moment” [4].

© Cottonbro/Pexels

If you have obsessive thoughts, try a few simple breaths, counting slowly to five as you inhale and exhale. You can supplement the practice with physical exercises for "grounding": fix yourself in space, standing on the floor and focusing on the sensation in your legs. Look around, identify five things in turn that you feel with your senses in order to linger in the state of “here and now”.

How to change your life through meditation: scientific arguments and practice

Consult a specialist

If obsessive thoughts are firmly planted in your mind, you cannot find their root cause and eliminate them, you should consult a psychologist.

Learn more