Obsessive Thoughts: a Common Anxiety Symptom
Persistent and negative thoughts are one of the most common signs of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety makes it nearly impossible to stop focusing on things that you don’t want to focus on. These thoughts are rarely positive, often related to either your fears or your emotions, and in many cases the existence of the thought causes further anxiety and often leads to more obsessions.
Obsessive thoughts are the hallmark of obsessive compulsive disorder, but there are types of "obsessive" thoughts that are present in a variety of anxiety disorders that won't necessarily cause a diagnosis of OCD. Below, we'll look at examples of these obsessive thoughts and how they affect you.
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All Types of Anxiety Can Lead to Obsessive Thoughts
The idea of "obsession" is that you cannot focus on anything other than a specific issue (or a few issues), and no matter how hard you try you cannot distract yourself. Many people have these thoughts without anxiety disorders. For example, your first crush back in high school probably became an obsessive thought, since their affection was all you could think about.
But when these thoughts are negative or cause you anxiety/stress, then it's highly likely you have an anxiety disorder. Take my anxiety test and learn more about anxiety disorders and their treatments.
Obsessions from OCD
Obsessive thoughts are required for someone to be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. These obsessive thoughts are often violent, sexual, or fearful in nature. The thought may change depending on the situation (more on that in a moment), but once they've entered your mind, you'll often do anything you can to shake it.
Some examples of obsessive thoughts include:
- Fear of getting sick.
- Thinking about hurting a loved one or stranger.
- Focusing on some type of aggressive sexual act (with someone you know or strangers).
- Need for organization or symmetry.
- Worry over little things (did I lock the door, etc.).
Notice that some of these are obviously far more negative than others. There are those that have unwanted fantasies about murder or rape, while others may simply constantly fear they haven't turned off the stove. But one thing they all have in common is that they cause significant distress, and once the thought enters a person's mind, it becomes impossible to shake without some type of action.
That's what causes compulsions. Compulsions are the action that the person completes in order to reduce this obsessive thought. When the person fears germs, they may need to wash their hands. When the person fears the door being closed, they may need to lock in 3 or more times to stop that fear. Those that fear something violent or sexual may develop any habit that appears to cause the thought to decrease.
It's crucial to remember that anxiety genuinely causes these negative thoughts and negative thinking. The way that anxiety alters your brain chemistry makes it very hard to focus on the positives or the future, and so it's not your fault that you can't distract yourself from these thoughts or that you're having them at all.
The More You Try To Stop Them…
Numerous scientific studies have shown that trying too hard to "not" think about something actually causes you to think about it more than if you tried to think about it. That's because the brain keeps reminding you of the thought in order to remind you not to think about it. It's a strange way the brain works that makes it very hard for someone that wants to end their obsessive thoughts to actually stop it.
That's a serious problem for those that deal with obsessive thoughts from OCD. If they experience too much shame or fear over these thoughts they'll try not to have them, and this will cause them to have the thoughts even more.
Obsessive Thoughts in Other Anxiety Disorders
It's also possible to develop types of obsessive thoughts with other anxiety disorders as well. Generally these will not quite be as severe or overwhelming as the thoughts in OCD, and you're unlikely to develop compulsions as a result, but there are often some similarities between both anxiety disorders. Your psychologist will be the one to diagnose which problem you have. Some examples of how these thoughts work include:
- Panic Disorder – Those with panic disorder and panic attacks may develop hypochondria or health phobias, worried that something is wrong with their health. They may also fear the panic attacks to such a degree that it is all they think about.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Those with PTSD often find themselves obsessing over the trauma they experienced, or the belief that the trauma will occur again.
- Phobias – Those with very severe phobias may start to think about the object of that fear more and more with everything they do. For example, checking your clothes for spiders and having someone look through your house regularly may be a phobia obsession.
- Social Phobia – Those with social phobia may think about embarrassing themselves in social situations. In some cases it may be a thought of something that happened, while in others it may be worse-case-scenario thinking.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is a disorder that causes numerous worries. It's possible that some of these worries persist. For example, worrying that your son/daughter is in danger after they go off to college may be a sign of GAD, and also an obsessive thought.
So while generally an obsessive thought is considered a problem for those with OCD, it is something that can affect those with nearly any type of anxiety disorder in some way.
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How to Stop Obsessive Thoughts
You need to take a holistic approach to your anxiety. Don't just try to target the obsessive thoughts. Try to target your anxiety as a whole in order to properly address the way it affects you and cope with future stresses. However, you can also try the following:
Stop Shaming Yourself
First and foremost, you need to learn to accept your thoughts for what they are: a symptom of your anxiety. You need to stop shaming yourself, and stop feeling like you need to push these thoughts away.
Acceptance is crucial. These thoughts are not in your control, and not something you should expect to control. Learn to accept that they're a natural part of the disorder, and that when you cure your disorder you'll have fewer of the thoughts.
This is obviously very hard for people, but you need to find a way. Your thoughts are what they are – they may cause you to do silly or "irrational" things, but so what? Who cares if you check a lock three times or wash your hands multiple times a day? Who cares if you occasionally think about unusually sexual or fearful things?
Yes, it's something you'll need to cure, but while they're occurring, it's much like being sick with a cold. You don't get mad at yourself for sneezing, so you shouldn't try to fight your thoughts or see them as a bad part of your personality while you're still dealing with your disorder.
Write Out Persistent Thoughts
Sometimes you'll have a thought that isn't so much obsessive as it is persistent. In some cases, these can bother you enough that you start to worry they'll become obsessive thoughts.
Try writing those thoughts out in some type of journal or diary. Your mind has a tendency to focus on persistent thoughts less often when it knows they're being kept in a permanent place.
Get Used to the Anxiety
One of the hardest parts for those living with obsessive thoughts is the idea that they should just live with the anxiety. But learning to be okay with the anxiety is actually an effective treatment.
Part of this will come from acceptance, as mentioned above. But a big part of it is simply learning to let yourself worry.
Compulsions have a tendency to provide too quick a solution to the obsessions, causing you to avoid actually dealing with the anxiety. But if you fight the compulsions as best you can and let yourself be as anxious as possible for a while, you'll often find that the obsessions cause a bit less fear, because you know nothing will come of it.
This often needs to be completed in the presence of a therapist, that will teach you the tricks necessary to stop trying to solve your obsessive thoughts and simply let them be obsessive, but allowing yourself to feel the anxiety of the obsessive thoughts can help.
Cause Your Own Anxiety
Finally, another thing you can try with the approval of your therapist is the idea of causing the anxiety yourself – in other words, purposely think about the thing that causes you that much distress.
The idea behind this is behavioral habituation. If you stop fighting the thought and start experiencing it as often as possible on purpose, the thought will eventually become less stressful (and possibly even boring).
If it's something you can do, like get your hands dirty, keep your door unlocked, purposefully disorganize your apartment, etc., then you do it so that you get used to what the anxiety feels like and learn to fear the anxiety less. If it's something that you simply think to yourself, like violent thoughts, then try to have the violent thoughts on purpose until you accept that they have no meaning and allow yourself to find them less irritating.
It's often best to do these in the presence of a professional, because this type of technique may not be right for everyone. Nevertheless, it's been shown that the more you accept the anxieties, the easier they may be to handle.
Not All Obsessive Thoughts Are An Anxiety Disorder
One of the reasons that OCD and other anxiety disorders are so misunderstood is because many people claim that they have OCD or obsessive thoughts when they do not. You'll hear numerous celebrities, for example, that say that they have OCD because they like their fork a certain way or they dislike when they get dirty.
Millions of people have these issues but do not otherwise have an anxiety disorder. For your obsessive thoughts or compulsions to be part of an anxiety disorder they need to happen frequently; to such a degree that they drastically impact a person's quality of life. If you have the occasional unusually obsessive thought or even a small compulsion or two that otherwise has little to no impact on your wellbeing, chances are you do not have OCD.
But if your obsessions are causing you significant distress, then it's very likely that you have anxiety.
The Overall Solution to Obsessive Thoughts
No matter what you do at home in your spare time, you will still need to address your anxiety directly. Remember, your disorder causes obsessive thoughts, so the only way to truly stop these thoughts is to stop the disorder.
Take my 7 minute anxiety test if you haven't already. It'll give you an idea of whether or not you're suffering from anxiety, how severe your anxiety is compared to the rest of the population, and what you can do to treat it.