Why You Have Obsessive Thoughts, and What to Do About Them

Intrusive thoughts are a common for people struggling with chronic stress, mental illness and trauma.

For 20 years, Dionne Murphy was at war with her thoughts.

She experienced obsessive thoughts, which she describes as “troublesome, excessive and intrusive thoughts that attach themselves to our mind in a way that brings on anxiety or fear.”

Obsessive thoughts can take root in different things for different people, but Murphy’s stemmed from “superstitious beliefs, limiting beliefs and feelings of me not being good enough.”

“Each of us has intrusive or troublesome thoughts from time to time,” said Murphy, a health coach. “Those thoughts are like email. Some of us can delete them like junk mail, while for some of us the email gets stuck and we read the email, or thought, over and over.”

For some people who experience obsessive thoughts, they’re so frequent and intense that they affect sleep and the ability to stay focused during the day, says Nancy Irwin, clinical psychologist at Seasons in Malibu, an addiction treatment center. Over time, these thoughts can affect relationships and physical health. They’re typically negative or dark, and they can feel really scary.

They can take the form of daily suicidal thoughts, constant criticism of your body or irrational worry that something bad is going to happen to someone you love, among many other things.

“It’s as if our brain is saying, ‘Maybe if I keep this top of mind, I can make sure nothing bad happens,'” said Adam M. Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “But since it’s usually something we can’t legitimately control, we get stuck in a loop.”

If your brain feels stuck on the same worries every day, there are things you can do to stop the endless loop, or at least feel more in control.

It took a lot of practice, but Murphy was able to get there.

People who “experience obsessive thoughts can absolutely thrive and live a wonderful life,” she said. “I am living proof.”

[ICYMI: What It’s Like to Live With Daily Suicidal Thoughts]

What’s going on in your brain?

Obsessive thoughts can cause anxiety — as you worry about why you’re worrying so much — but they can also be caused by anxiety, Irwin said.

Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of other mental illnesses, too, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder and even burnout or chronic stress, therapist Kristin Erskine said.

Some people are genetically predisposed to obsessive thoughts. They can also be triggered by “witnessing a tragedy, death in the family, severe illness, abuse — verbal, physical or sexual — (and) rigid family or societal belief systems,” she said. They can even be caused by a head injury.

Sometimes, obsessive thoughts indicate your brain is trying to process difficult information, Moore said.

“When our brains put these thoughts on replay, it’s as if we’re trying to make sense of what happened or how we should deal with some difficult situation,” he said. “When this happens, it’s probably a good time to talk to people we trust and get some clarity.

“Obsessive thoughts might also be a sign that we feel out of control. If I obsess about something, I may feel like it’s bigger than I can handle, overwhelming in some way.”

Our thoughts cause a physical response in the body, hypnotherapist Lorie Solay said. When we catastrophize, or obsess about the worst possible outcomes of a situation, it triggers a fight, flight or freeze response in the nervous system and the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline, she said.

Your body’s response makes it difficult to focus on anything but the thoughts or to counteract them with rational thoughts.

What can you do about obsessive thoughts?

It’s helpful to see a mental health professional and get diagnosed in order to address them most effectively, Erskine said. Sometimes there’s more than one cause.

But, no matter what, trying not to have obsessive thoughts, or shaming yourself for having them, will only exacerbate the problem.

A bearded man sits in an arm chair with his eyes closed, smiling. Rewire PBS Living Obsessive ThoughtsCredit: Adobe
When you feel intrusive thoughts bubbling up, don’t judge yourself. Instead acknowledge them as your brain acting up, and let them pass.

“While counterintuitive, the best thing we can do is accept that these thoughts are occurring and not judge ourselves harshly for our brain’s pattern of thinking,” therapist Lauren Cook said. “By taking a nonjudgmental attitude towards our thoughts, it often decreases our anxiety.

“When we can say to ourselves, ‘There goes my brain being silly again. Brains do that sometimes,’ our stress level decreases and we can begin to respond directly.”

Mindfulness can help with this. When you feel yourself begin to catastrophize, force yourself into mindfulness mode.

“Be still. Carefully pay attention to the moment. Notice your own breathing,” Moore said. “As your thoughts return to the obsessions, just notice them without judgment. Allow the thought to exist. But then refocus back on the present moment and your breathing. No thought can remain forever stuck in your brain.”

For Murphy, controlling intrusive thoughts took lots of hard work. But it paid off.

She developed the method that worked for her after lots of research.

“I had to capture the obsessive thought immediately and replace it with a positive thought,” she said. “I had to affirm the exact opposite of the obsessive thought. For example, if the obsessive thought was, ‘You are going to have a flat tire and flip over,’ I would affirm that my tires are perfectly fine and I am not going to have an accident. …

“This took tons of courage and practice but it became second nature to me after a while.”

You don’t have to confront this challenge alone. If you’re struggling to control obsessive thoughts on your own, you should see a doctor or mental health professional, Moore said.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.