Patricia McBride

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Obsessive Thoughts - Ten Ways to Quieten your Mind

(Ezine article)


Do obsessive thoughts intrude throughout your day, causing you stress? If so, you’re not alone. Obsessive thoughts are surprisingly common, most people experience them at some time. However, they can become overwhelming, affecting everyday life, causing low moods and sometimes depression. Some obsessive thought types are:


*     Disaster - expecting something terrible to happen.

*     Checking - checking, for example, that the cooker is turned off or the front door is locked. Often there is a belief that doing this checking will stop some sort of disaster.

*     Hoarding - there are thought to be three types of hoarding:

*     Fear of harm where the person believes that hoarding items will prevent something terrible happening.

*     Deprivation hoarding - where the person feels they may experience deprivation later if they get rid of an item. This is more common in people who have suffered deprivation earlier in life, such as as a result of food rationing or poverty.

*     Emotional hoarding - when items are kept because they have an emotional significance. Most people do this with a few items, but a hoarder will apply this thinking to many items.

Love object. Having obsessive thoughts about a loved one.


If you recognise that you experience these thoughts, it’s important to understand that you are not at fault - none of us ask thoughts to pop into our heads. But by using the simple techniques below, you can learn to lessen their impact or eliminate them altogether. Why not give them a try?


1. Name the fear - identify the fear that is producing these thoughts. Once you are clear what the issue is, you are in a better place to deal with it.


2. Find the Thinking Distortion - obsessive thoughts are distorted. Some examples of distorted thinking are:


Black and white thinking - this is when you think in extremes, ignoring all the possibilities between two extremes. Example - ‘I didn’t do that work perfectly. The boss will think I’m useless. I am useless.’ If you find yourself using this type of black and white thinking, ask yourself what someone else might say in the circumstances or try to think of a different interpretation.


Negative self-labelling - this is when you call yourself names: ‘I’m an idiot, a failure, I never do anything right.’ If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself what someone who cares for you would say about you. Relax your body and try to absorb their viewpoint, almost as though it is a suit of clothes you can try on. As you do so, think again about the issue. You may well find yourself thinking: ‘I made a mistake there and I need to learn from that, but I’m an okay person nonetheless.’ Be kind to yourself.


Catastrophising - this is when you assume the worst will happen in a given situation. To overcome this, start by relaxing your body. The easiest way to do this quickly is to raise your shoulders to your ears and let them drop to their relaxed position. Now start to breathe from low in your chest. When stressed we breathe from high in the chest which sends a fight/flight/freeze response to our brain and body, so changing your breathing gets you back in control quickly. When your body is relaxed, ask yourself: ‘How likely is this to really happen?’ ‘What percentage of likelihood would anyone else give it?’ If you are picturing the event in your mind’s eye, change the picture to a more positive one.


Ignoring the positives - you ignore compliments, rarely praise yourself for work well done, don’t notice the good things in life. To counter this, get a notebook, an attractive one that you will enjoy using. At the end of each day, write three good things you noticed during the day. They can be quite small (‘the sun shone for ten minutes’) or big, it doesn’t matter. As long as you noticed them, that’s fine. In a different part of the book write things you have achieved that day. Again, they can be big or small things. Finally, write down one thing you know you can achieve the next day. Commit yourself to doing this for a minimum of six weeks. You’ll really notice the benefits as your mood lifts.


3. Allocate rumination time - decide on a time each day when you will ruminate for, say, ten minutes. Then when an obsessive thought appears, gently push it aside until your allocated time daily. When you start your ruminating time, put on a timer so you know when to stop.


4. Laugh at it - think the thought in a silly voice. Go on, ham it up. Use a Mickey Mouse or Road Runner voice or any voice that sounds crazy. This sounds silly, but it is incredibly powerful. I bet you’ll find yourself laughing at the thought. Give it a try, you’ve got nothing to lose.


5. Ping it away - ping an elastic band on your wrist each time the thought occurs. It will bring you out of the obsessive thought ‘trance’.


6. Rub it away - relax your body and then visualise the thought (in words) on a whiteboard. Next, imagine rubbing the words away and replacing them with the word ‘Calm’ or ‘Happy’ or whatever word would be more helpful. Enjoy looking at the this new word for a while.


7. Forgive yourself - you don’t ask to have the intrusive thoughts, they are not your fault. Forgive yourself for having them, and know that you are learning to overcome them. Relax your body and say: ‘These thoughts are not my fault, not my responsibility, I don’t have to act on them. I can let them go.’


8. Imagine the worst - if your intrusive thoughts are of the disaster movie type, sit and work out what you would do if the worst happened. It almost certainly won’t, but knowing what you would do helps you to feel more in control.


9. Interrupt yourself - when the thought appears, say to yourself ‘STOP!’, gently let the thought drift away, and think of something more positive. Make sure you don’t tell yourself off for the negative thought, be kind to yourself.


10. Practice mindfulness - one way to think of something else is to concentrate on the here and now. Relax your body then concentrate, in great detail, on what you are doing or what is around you. This might involve, for example, thinking: ‘I am opening the gate and the metal feels cool to the skin on my hand. Next to the gate are some attractive pink flowers with yellow middles, the flowers are tiny. There is a bicycle propped up against the wall. The bicycle is blue and has a basket made of wicker.‘  This will slow you down and allow you to be more relaxed. You will easily find more guidelines on using mindfulness online.


Choose one or more of these techniques that you think will work for you and try them. Remember, you may need to use them several times before your brain starts to change its patterns. Have confidence that this will happen, you have more control over those thoughts than you believed.




Obsessive Thoughts - How to Stop Thinking in Extremes


There are many types of obsessive thoughts and a common characteristic of them all is that they involve faulty thinking. As the name suggests, this is thinking that is flawed; that stops us seeing a situation as it really is. Faulty thinking can lead to low moods and even depression. It is usually a feature of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), although you can have these thoughts without having OCD.


In this article, I’m going to concentrate on one type of faulty thinking - Black and White Thinking. I’ll explain what it is and give you some tips, and a couple of exercises, to help you overcome it.


Black and white thinking (sometimes called all-or-nothing thinking) is when we think in extremes, making subjective judgements. Things are either fantastic or terrible. Some examples are:


‘My boss didn’t speak to me when she walked past. She must hate me.’

‘I made a mistake in that column of figures. I’m useless. I’ll never get promotion.’

‘I haven’t had a partner for two years. No one will ever love me.’

‘My new man is absolutely perfect!’


We are more likely to resort to black and white thinking when under stress. This is because our mature thinking gets hijacked by strong emotions, and strong emotions tend to make us stupid. So we often resort to unhelpful child-like responses.


People using black and white thinking often use ‘universal words’ such as: ‘everyone’, ‘no-one’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘perfect’, ‘terrible’, ‘nothing’, ‘everything’. They rarely recognise that much of life is between the two extremes of black and white. Yet there is rarely only one way to look at an issue.


So what can you do to overcome Black and White Thinking?


Catch that thought. If you hear yourself using one of the universal words above, stop and ask yourself:

*     ‘Is that true?’

*      ‘What proof is there that it is true?’

*     ‘How does this thought make me think/behave?

*     ‘What else could I think instead that would be more helpful?’

*     ‘What would my feelings/behaviour be with this new thought?’


Often, just recognising that you are using Black and White thinking and asking yourself these questions is enough to stop it dead. Of course, this may need some repetition before your brain patterns are finally changed so that you can see the many shades of grey in life.


Ask others to point out your black and white statements. Ask someone you trust to let you know when you’ve made one of these statements. You’ll need to explain to them what they are first. They will probably be relieved to help you in this way.


Remember beliefs that you once had, but have now changed. Black and white thinking is based on beliefs - often incorrect beliefs. Beliefs are just beliefs, but we often think they are true. For example, some people know that there is a God, while others know there is no God. Some people have superstitions and act on them, while others ignore them. By noticing your black and white thoughts, you can examine the beliefs behind them. Using a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach you can:


1. Observe that you had the thought

Ask yourself what belief is behind the thought

Note the behaviour or feelings that happen as a result of that thought and belief.

Identify another possible belief.

Note the behaviour or feelings that would happen as a result of this new belief.


Here’s an example:

*     Observe the thought - ‘My boss ignored me this morning, she must hate me.’

*     Belief - ‘If my boss ignores me, she must hate me.’

*     Feelings and behaviour - Feeling low, unable to concentrate

*     Alternative possible belief - ‘My boss ignored me, she must have something on her mind.’

*     Feelings and behaviour - Feeling calm, maybe ask boss if she is okay.


Sometimes you will need to try several alternative beliefs before you find one that seems right. That’s okay. Allow yourself time to do this. You’ll really notice the difference.


Find the shades of grey

Try this exercise to train your brain to spot the shades of grey. Listed below are pairs of words - extremes. Grab a pen and write a word to describe the middle of these two. For example:


Black and White - the middle word is grey


Give it a go!


High, Low

Good, Bad

Perfect, Terrible

Beautiful, Ugly

Easy, Difficult

Young, Ancient

Introvert, Extravert

Withdrawn, Outgoing

Clean, Filthy

Calm, Excitable

Depressed, Happy


Letting go of Black and White thinking is one way to reduce your stress level, allowing you to feel calmer, more in control and enjoy life more. Give it a try!