It’s natural, on occasion, to turn things over and over in your mind. You worry that you said the wrong thing to someone or to regret making a mistake. It’s also natural to become so involved with a form of entertainment (movie, song, TV show, online game), celebrity, or cause that you find yourself somewhat preoccupied with those thoughts. Becoming absorbed into your hobbies, favorite sports teams, and activity around the house (cooking, gardening, woodworking, sewing), can also take up much of the room in your mental attic. You may feel that thoughts are crowding out the productive ones that you need to keep your job, family, or friends, you may start to wonder if there’s any way you can call a halt to them. Fortunately, there are ways to clear out your mental clutter.
An obsession is an unwanted thought that you would like to, but cannot, control. Often accompanying obsessions are compulsions, which are actions that the individual does not want to perform but cannot control. For example, an individual may obsessed with germs and at the same time be driven compulsively to make sure that everything he or she touches is completely germ-free.
People whose obsessions truly interfere with their daily life, cause serious distress, or become completely unstoppable may have a form of psychological disorder called “obsessive compulsive disorder.” Once thought to be a form of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder is being reclassified as a disorder of impulse control when the American Psychiatric Association publishes its revised diagnostic guide next year. In either case, the actual psychological disorder is not what we’re discussing here. Instead, I’d like to focus on those persistent thoughts that you may sometimes find difficult to silence. Mild, passing obsessional thinking is a state of mind that, with the right approach, you can control on your own.
Returning to the nature of those obsessional thoughts, I’ve already mentioned the kinds that occur when your mind becomes excessively focused on people, hobbies, or stressful interactions with others. Obsessional thoughts can also take over when you feel a strong desire to have something and won’t stop until you get it. For example, let’s say there’s a rare item you decide you want to track down online. Perhaps it’s a favorite toy you had as a child, a piece of clothing you lost or misplaced, or an out-of-print book. Attacking all the search engines at your disposal, you’ve given up 3 hours of your weekend (or worse, work day) before you even know that the time has gone by. You’re frustrated by the non-productive use of your time, but you persist anyhow.
You may notice that these obsessional thoughts are worst when you’re particularly stressed. A relationship ends badly, and before long, you find you can’t stop thinking about the lost glove that you absolutely need to have, right now. Perhaps you haven’t seen that glove in a year. All of a sudden, though, it’s the focus of your whole world. You don’t even have to suffer a major life event to experience this kind of reaction. Ordinary daily stresses can also drive people’s thoughts into unproductive and seemingly nonsensical areas. You might find yourself scouring your closet for that glove at the end of a long day in which nothing seemed to go right.
Of the many forms of treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to have the greatest support. In this method, therapists help their clients reduce the frequency of their symptoms by changing the way they think about them. A CBT therapist would help you see that your thoughts are irrational and would help you find ways to counter them with other thoughts or actions.
An alternative approach to CBT targets obsessions (and related compulsions) by helping people manage their stress levels. University of British Columbia psychologist Sheila Woody and collaborators (2011) compared individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder who participated in 12 weeks of CBT or 12 weeks of stress management. CBT was the more effective treatment for people with the most severe symptoms of the disorder, but stress management worked just as well to reduce the symptoms of people whose disorder was mild to moderate.
Now let’s translate these findings to what happens when people without this disorder experience everyday obsessions from time to time. CBT would suggest that you challenge your irrational thoughts and try to make them go away by replacing them with rational thoughts (“It’s ridiculous for me to care about my lost glove, I don’t really need it!”). My guess is that you’ve tried that, anyhow, and it hasn’t really helped. Instead, by reducing your stress levels, Woody’s research would suggest that your obsessional thoughts will disappear all by themselves.
Based on their work, these 4 steps may help you reduce the occasional obsessional thoughts that you feel when you’re stressed:
1. Identify the stressful areas of your life. What’s going on with you right now that’s putting you on edge? Have you lost something or someone important to you (and I don’t mean your glove)? Are you having a hard time at work? Is paying the bills becoming an issue for you? Make a list of the stressors in your life right now (no matter how small they may seem to be). Examine them and decide which ones are bothering you the most. In Steps #3 and 4 you'll tackle them one at a time.
2. Learn a few basic relaxation techniques. The simplest form of relaxation involves alternatively tensing up and then letting go in progressive fashion through the muscles of your body (the top of your head to the tips of your toes). Taking control of your breathing is another way to relax your body. Close your eyes and pay attention as you breathe in and out, progressively trying to slow down your breathing until you feel an inner calm. Visualization and imagery of peaceful scenes are additional ways to help yourself relax, as is playing calm and meditative music. According to Woody and her collaborators, by learning to relax, you’ll feel more confident that you can take control of your obsessional thoughts.
3. Learn to cope with interpersonal stress. Woody’s stress management method was based on the idea that it’s interpersonal stress that we find most difficult to cope with. Therefore, the therapists helped their clients boost their ability to deal with criticism, resolve conflicts, and become (appropriately) more assertive. They believed it was particularly important to help their stressed clients learn to interact with others based on “genuineness” rather than being afraid of their opinions or attitudes. Look at your list from Step #1, and decide which of the stressors are interpersonal, and address them with these coping methods.
4. Become an effective time manager. The clients in Woody’s stress management program learned to organize their lives more effectively so that they were less likely to procrastinate or otherwise fail to complete their life tasks effectively. The more effectively you manage your time, the more successful you are at doing what you need to do, and therefore the less likely you are to feel like you’re falling behind or failing. Looking back at your list from Step #1, see which stressors are due to poor time management, and plan ways to organize yourself so that you can get them done more efficiently.
To sum up, just by knowing that stress can cause you to develop obsessional thoughts might be a relief in and of itself. Whether or not you find yourself bothered by such thoughts, however, everyone can benefit from these simple but effective ways to manage and control our daily stresses.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Woody, S. R., Whittal, M. L., & McLean, P. D. (2011). Mechanisms of symptom reduction in treatment for obsessions. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, 79(5), 653-664. doi:10.1037/a0024827