How to deal with obsessive thoughts: 7 practical tips

Obsessive thoughts, also called negative automatic thoughts (AP), are common in anxiety disorders and major depression, although they also occur in people without emotional problems.

They involve a huge investment in cognitive effort and can lead to a physiological response similar to that which would be observed if the dreaded fact actually occurred.

Most people who experience them attribute to them the ability to persist despite deliberate efforts to eliminate them, which makes them desperate and further increases their worry.

In this article, we will offer you various tips for dealing with obsessive thoughts, All based on current scientific knowledge.

    What is obsessive thinking?

    An obsessive thought is mental content that comes in the form of words or images, nature is threatening and it accesses the mind automatically and unwanted. This can take the form of worrying about a future event or reliving an event in the past, which is accompanied by very difficult emotions, the intensity of which can deplete emotional resources.

    Threatening content often involves a physiological response to fear, with the difference that the stimulus that causes it is not really present, but wanders somewhere between the future and the past. The sympathetic nervous system (one of the branches that make up the autonomic nervous system) interprets the situation in a manner analogous to that of direct experience, setting in motion all the resources to fight or flee (anxiety).

    How to deal with obsessive thoughts

    There is data that demonstrates the existence of strategies for properly handling obsessive thoughts, which we describe in the following lines.

    1. Concern about a problem that can really be solved

    Problems are generally divided into two broad groups: those that can be solved and those that cannot.. Each of them requires a different approach, otherwise our efforts could be unsuccessful or counterproductive. The first step that we need to do is to analyze the possible cause of our obsessive thoughts, because they can be associated with an objective situation which can be changed in its very essence.

    It is not uncommon for people, when overwhelmed by a host of stressful situations or a particularly difficult one-off event, to postpone the problem or to believe that avoiding it will ultimately lead to the long-awaited solution. Scientific evidence tells us that, in the face of modifiable circumstances, adopting a passive attitude is associated with worse consequences for emotional health in the medium and long term.

    To avoid this circumstance, there are specific procedures intended to resolve problems, such as the one proposed by Nezu and D’Zurilla. It consists of five well-defined steps, in the form of a sequence: description of the problem (write it in a simple and operational way), generation of alternatives (many, varied and delaying the test), exploration of the viability of the different alternatives. taking into account the positive or negative consequences that may result in the medium or long term) and the implementation of the best possible solutions.

    This model, known as Decision Making Training (ETD), has been the subject of much research with the aim of verifying its effectiveness in very different contexts and problems, demonstrating its potential as a therapeutic tool.

      2. Time out and distraction

      One procedure that is useful to many people is what is called “downtime”. Since obsessive thoughts can linger for many hours each day, it is possible that the victim will end up immersing themselves in them most of the time. The purpose of the procedure we are talking about is to establish in advance a specific time of day when such thoughts will be allowed, Limiting in the rest.

      This procedure has the advantage that the person does not try to eliminate his negative thoughts, but reserves him a space in which to exist and devotes the rest of the time to productive activities. So it’s not a form of experiential avoidance; but simply a different management of their resources. Evidence indicates that the encapsulation of worry reduces the intensity of thoughts through an underlying process of satiety and by increasing the subjective sense of control.

      3. Stop thinking

      Thought arrest techniques do not have enough evidence, so this advice aims to question its usefulness. We now know that when the person struggles with a thought to consider it inappropriate, a paradoxical effect occurs: This increases not only quantitatively but also qualitatively (intensity and frequency). And is trying not to think of something enough to make it knock insistently on the doors of our brain.

      When a thought comes to mind, the brain cannot identify whether what we want is to avoid it or to recall it. It simply activates a synapse pattern that evokes sensations and emotions directly related to it, which increases the availability to consciousness.

      Certain procedures, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, demonstrate the ability of this experiential avoidance to contribute to the development and maintenance of emotional problems.

      4. Mindfulness

      Mindfulness is not a relaxation exercise, but a meditative practice. It comes from Buddhist monastic traditions, although it has been devoid of its religious nuances to be used as a therapeutic procedure that directs one’s attention to the active maintenance of a mindful awareness. This form of attention allows us to focus on the present moment, avoiding judgments about facts and the tendency to wander between the past and the future.

      There are many studies that, using functional and structural neuroimaging techniques, detect subtle changes in the structure and function of the brain as a result of continued practice of mindfulness. The areas on which an effect is perceived relate to functions such as processing emotional experience and regulating thought flow, thus facilitating a “witness mind” of internal experience.

      Today, there are many techniques based on mindfulness, many of which can be practiced in a variety of real-life situations (from eating to walking). In case of anxiety, it may be necessary to consult a specialist before practicing it, as the focus of attention on certain bodily processes (such as breathing) can accentuate symptoms when they are interpreted catastrophically.

      This last detail can be extended to diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, Which involves the coordinated tension and distension of large muscle groups in a logical sequence (always accompanied by inspiration and expiration). There is ample evidence for its beneficial action on the physiological and cognitive components of anxiety, but this may also require prior consultation with a mental health specialist.

      5. Breakdown dynamics

      The presence of obsessive thoughts tends to divert attention to one’s own mental processesForcing us to escape excess of those things around us. This abstraction tends to resolve itself, occasionally, by modifying the activity in which we are immersed.

      It is possible that something as simple as changing rooms or a walk in an unfamiliar area redirects attentional processes outward.

      6. Exhibition

      There are many negative and repetitive thoughts associated with fear of events that might occur in the future, but this rarely happens. This phenomenon is common in generalized anxiety disorder, Where worry acquires more notoriety for be seen as an effective coping strategy (a kind of mechanism to reduce the risk of manifesting their fears). It is also common in some phobias, such as agoraphobia and social phobia.

      Exposure techniques have been shown to be the best approach to fears, which are often the root of many automatic negative thoughts. These can be very varied, from one that involves direct contact with the dreaded (in vivo) to one that uses the imagination to make possible a series of successive approaches to the phobic stimulus, and even there are procedures using the virtual reality. techniques.

      If it is true that when we avoid what we fear we feel immediate relief, this effect conceals the trap of the perpetuation of the emotion and even accentuate on successive occasions when we may be reunited with the dreaded situation or stimulus. To stand face to face with the monster that we have created with our hands, from perpetual flight, can cause some anxiety; but each firm step represents a milestone that gives us greater personal efficiency and fuels our chances of success.


      Obsessive thoughts are often credited with enormous credibility. There are people who even feel extremely unhappy with the isolated fact of having experienced them, which, along with the loss of control they generate in them, only worsens their feelings of anguish and helplessness. The truth is that mental contents of this nature present no danger to the person who experiences them, And that there are also effective ways to overcome it.

      Catastrophic (belief that the occurrence of a fact would be impossible to tolerate), polarization (expressing thoughts in absolute and dichotomous terms) or “should” (imposing a need on what is really a desire); they are common cognitive distortions in many people, because they are heuristics through which we interpret reality when it exceeds the cognitive resources available to our species.

      There are four criteria from which we can assess whether a thought is irrational, that is, it has no objective basis (we have no evidence to prove its veracity), generates emotions overflowing, is useless in adaptive terms and it is constructed with concise or absolutist terms. In all of these cases, there are specific cognitive restructuring techniques that have proven to be effective in the hands of a good therapist.

      When to seek professional help

      Certain obsessive thoughts follow one another in the context of major mental disorders, Such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. In these cases, the person is overwhelmed by thoughts over which he has no control, which are relieved by the implementation of a compulsion (counting, washing hands, etc.). The link between obsession and compulsion tends to be clearly illogical, and although the person recognizes it as such, they have enormous difficulty breaking it.

      Thoughts of this nature can also exist with major depression. (Particularly focused on past events or a very marked pessimism about the future), as well as post-traumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.These hypotheses should be evaluated by a mental health professional, you do not should therefore not hesitate to consult one if you think you suffer from it.

      Bibliographical references:

      • American Psychiatric Association -APA- (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Madrid: Panamericana.
      • Pérez, M .; Fernandez, JR; Fernández, C. and Amic, I. (2010). Guide to effective psychological treatments I and II :. Madrid: Pyramid.

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