How to Minimize Obsessive Thoughts
Once you start obsessing over something, those thoughts can take up residence in your mind and block out all other thoughts. I’m not talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is an uncontrollable urge to repeat certain rituals or behaviors, such as locking and unlocking the door. And I’m not talking about horrifying obsessive thoughts, such as what was experienced by the woman who had an overwhelming fear of being destroyed by a plague of locusts and required professional assistance.
No, I’m talking about the normal tendency to occasionally get hung up on a particular thought until it dominates your mental bandwidth. Such obsessions are often about understandable worries, like whether you’ll meet the upcoming deadline or how you’ll cope with your new and fearsome boss.
Fighting an obsessive thought is likely to intensify it. Therefore, if you’re tormented by an obsessive thought, the best starting point may be to recognize it and accept it. Sometimes, the thought takes hold because you haven’t taken time to adequately address it. So take a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings. When you can say to yourself, “There it is again,” you can start to work on minimizing it.
At that point, it can help to write down the obsessive thought and identify three counter-thoughts. For example, if your obsessive worry is that your upcoming presentation will be a disaster, one counter-thought might be that you’ve never bombed before, so the odds of it happening this time are slim. A second counter-thought might be that you still have time to prepare and practice, which will reduce the odds of failing. And a third might be that you can be far from perfect and still be viewed as a success.
An alternative approach is to postpone the obsessive thought by telling yourself that you’ll pay attention to it at some future time, but not right now. That future time might be five minutes from now or it might be next week; it’s up to you. When the appointed time arrives, you can focus on your obsession—or, ideally, you can postpone it again ... and again.
Another option is simply not to let the obsessive thought get the best of you. Focusing on it can put you in a trance state in which you lose awareness of your physical surroundings, much as you do when you’re daydreaming. But if you take some specific and mildly punitive action when you catch yourself obsessing, such as unobtrusively pinching yourself, you may be able to help yourself snap out of it and resume contact with the real world.