Breaking the cycle means ending a repetitive pattern of harmful behavior or thoughts. Examples include:
- Changing a habit (binging, smoking, alcohol, starving, overspending)
- Leaving behind a life event that was traumatic or abusive
- Changing a routine
- Ending an abusive or demeaning relationship (job, partner, relative)
For people with an anxiety disorder, however, breaking the cycle of obsessive thinking can be especially difficult.
What is obsessive thinking?
Obsessive thinking involves scary or intrusive thoughts or images that don’t always get followed by compulsions. It’s a difficult symptom of anxiety to overcome, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
People who suffer from anxiety disorders often struggle with repetitive, uncomfortable, disturbing thoughts, and it can be difficult to break out of this toxic cycle. Obsessive thinking can make people feel like they are not in control of their own mind. And when they start feeling like they are going crazy, they only feel more anxiety and thus continue the cycle
However, while not easy, it is possible to break the cycle of obsessive thinking with determination, repetitious self-talk, and guided visualizations.
What are examples of obsessive thinking cycles?
OCD sufferers often fall into one of the following groups:
- Washers are afraid of germs and have a cleaning or hand-washing compulsion.
- Checkers repetitively check things that they associate with harm or danger. Some examples include turning off the oven or locking the door.
- Doubters and sinners are afraid that something terrible will happen if they don’t do things perfectly. They also believe that they may get punished for failing to do things perfectly.
- Counters and arrangers are obsessed with arrangements and symmetry. They may have superstitions about certain numbers, colors or arrangements.
How can you break the cycle of obsessive thinking?
- Distract yourself: Try distracting yourself by breaking the thought cycle:
- Read a book
- Call a friend or family member
- Draw a picture
- Talk a walk around your neighborhood
- Do household chores
- Enhance your self-esteem: Negative thoughts about yourself can lead to depressive thinking. Don’t get impatient if you aren’t making progress, and don’t compare yourself with others.
- Understand your triggers: When you start to have harmful thoughts, make a mental note of the situation. Try noting the time, circumstances, place, people around you, and your activity at that time. This will help you develop tactics to avoid or manage these triggers.
- Don’t push away your thoughts: The only way to overcome a fear is to confront it, so don’t try to push your thoughts away. Trying to not think your thoughts may have the opposite effect of making you think even more obsessively.
- Talk to someone you trust: Talking to a friend or family member can help you give vent to your feelings as well as to hear another person’s perspective. Try to stay away from the people who put you down.
- Avoid the trap of perfectionism: If you’re striving for perfection, it’s easy to start getting obsessive about every detail. Try to see the bigger picture and learn to take things as they come.
- Seek professional help: If the obsessions seem to take over your life, try talking to a mental health professional.
Medically Reviewed on 7/13/2021
Law BM. Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle. Monitor on Psychology. 2005; 36(10): 38. https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle
Smith M, Robinson L, Segal J. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/obssessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd.htm