Teen girl sitting on a couch in a dark room having obsessive thoughts

How to Break the Cycle of Obsessive Thoughts and Compulsions

May 14, 2023

8 min.

Everyone feels overwhelmed by negative thoughts on occasion, but for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the cycle of obsessive thinking that they experience is severe and can negatively affect their ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

We all know what it is like not to be able to stop thinking about something. Maybe you had an argument with your friend or you said something embarrassing at work or school and you keep replaying the situation in your mind.

While everyone worries or feels overwhelmed by negative thoughts on occasion, for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the cycle of obsessive thinking that they experience is severe and persistent and can negatively affect their ability to function on a day-to-day basis. This article will explore the concept of obsessive thoughts and offer some insight into how to break the cycle of this debilitating thought process. 

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How to break the OCD cycle

The amount of time that you need to dedicate to managing your obsessive thinking and the associated rituals can make it feel like you are losing precious time – the time you would rather be using to engage with friends and family, work towards personal growth, and gain more independence in your life. 

The sense that you have lost control of your ability to make your own decisions can be overwhelming, but luckily, help is available. Reaching out to a mental health professional like those at Charlie Health can be a great first step in addressing your obsessive thought patterns. You can learn skills to help better manage your life with obsessive thinking, and through collaboration with your mental health counselor and with a willingness to change, a better life is possible. 

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is one of the most effective treatment modalities for OCD. This therapy, which is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), aims to help you confront your fears through planned exposure techniques. It also teaches you skills to delay compulsive behavior. While this type of therapy may sound overwhelming, it is the first-line therapy for OCD and has been shown to be helpful in approximately 80% of cases. It should also be mentioned that there are several medications that have been shown to be helpful in the management of OCD symptoms that are worth discussing with your mental healthcare provider.

What are obsessive thoughts?

Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety and distress. Obsessions are also sometimes referred to as intrusive thoughts. As mentioned before, while this type of thinking occasionally occurs for many people, in the context of OCD, the individual experiencing obsessive thoughts has immense difficulty controlling their thought patterns. It is as if their mind has been hijacked by negative thoughts, and the cycle feels inescapable. Some common obsessions for people with OCD include:

  • Fear of germs or contamination 
  • Fear of forgetting, losing, or misplacing something 
  • Fear of losing control over actions and behaviors
  • Unwanted or taboo thoughts about sex, religion, or harm
  • Need for symmetry, order, and precision 
  • Preoccupation with bodily wastes 

Individuals can develop negative coping mechanisms to alleviate the overwhelming nature of obsessive thinking. For some, this might be social isolation or substance use, but for others, they can develop uncontrollable urges that give them a temporary feeling of control and relief from their obsessive thoughts. These urges interfere with their ability to engage in daily activities of living and are known as compulsions. 

What are compulsions?

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. While most adults realize that their compulsive behavior does not make logical sense, it is the case that some adults, as well as many children that deal with this type of disordered thinking and behavior, do not recognize their behavior as a compulsion, but rather see it as something that they do to temporarily “feel better,” even if the behavior causes additional difficulty in their life. Common compulsions include:

  • Excessive cleaning or hand washing 
  • Ordering or arranging items in a particular, precise way 
  • Repeatedly checking things, such as that the door is locked or the oven is off
  • Compulsive counting 

For individuals with OCD, the cycle of obsessive thoughts leads to the development of compulsive behavior. In other words, compulsions are a response to the obsessions. That being said, while rare, it is possible for teens to experience obsessions without any compulsion. 

The OCD Cycle 

Stage 1: Obsession 

As mentioned previously, obsessions can vary from person to person but always causes a level of anxiety and unease that leaves the individual trapped in a looped negative thought process. According to the DSM-5, a person’s level of insight concerning their obsession can be categorized into three levels:

  • Good or fair insight: the individual can acknowledge that their OCD thoughts are definitely or probably not true 
  • Poor insight: the individual thinks their OCD thoughts are probably true 
  • Absent insight/ delusional beliefs: the individual is convinced their OCD thoughts are true 

It is easy to understand how the seriousness of the obsession can depend greatly on how true or real the person believes their thoughts to be.

Stage 2: Anxiety 

The obsession leads to varying levels of anxiety and unease. The need to engage in compulsive behavior arises due to this feeling of discomfort. 

Stage 3: Compulsion

The individual develops a ritual or behavior meant to eliminate anxious and uneasy feelings caused by obsessive thinking. This can manifest as external behaviors or as internal thoughts. In certain cases, there may be no logical relationship between the obsession and the compulsion. 

This idea can be exemplified by the children’s rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”  Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk due to the belief that it will inadvertently cause someone else harm is an example of a compulsion that lacks any realistic connection with the obsession. 

Conversely, to use another example, having an obsession with privacy and safety and having the compulsion to check if your door is locked after you come home five times every hour is an example of an obsession-compulsion relationship that has more grounding in reality. Yet, it is easy to comprehend how this type of behavior is still considered illogical and maladaptive and would cause issues in the management of daily living. 

Stage 4: Relief 

Once the person has engaged in compulsive behavior, there is a temporary feeling of relief. To reference the example used previously, while checking that the door is locked five times in one hour will suffice to alleviate the anxiety that the person is experiencing for a short period of time, the obsession with privacy and safety along with the anxiety it produces will arise again, leading to the individual to engage in the cycle once again. 

How do I know if I have OCD?

As mentioned throughout Charlie Health’s Resource Library, it is important to consult a mental health professional and avoid trying to self-diagnose if you find yourself identifying with any of the information presented above. That being said, more often than not, the difference between what can be considered normal mental processes and what can be considered diagnosable in mental health is the level at which the thinking patterns and behaviors affect your ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Here is some information that can be helpful when considering whether or not your mental fixations and associated behaviors might represent a diagnosable mental health disorder.  

In general, individuals with OCD:

  • Can’t control their obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, even when they recognize those thoughts or behaviors as excessive
  • Spend at least one hour per day on these obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors
  • Don’t get pleasure when performing compulsive behaviors or rituals, but may feel brief relief from the anxiety brought on by obsessive thoughts
  • Experience significant problems in daily life due to these thoughts or behaviors

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Here are some tips on how to break the cycle of obsessive thinking: 

  1. Avoid avoiding

Avoiding certain triggering situations and uncomfortable places only gives more power to your OCD thinking. Your obsessive thinking has convinced you that the world is dangerous and that life is something to be feared. More often than not, engaging in your rituals only gives you temporary relief from a fear or anxiety that does not have much grounding in reality. 

While it will take patience, practice, and courage, engaging with the world in ways that your obsessive thinking tells you not to can help you realize that life isn’t as scary as you once thought. OCD thinking can make it feel like your fears and anxieties are in control. Challenging your thinking and facing uncomfortable situations can help you practice courage and perseverance in the face of fear and help you take back control of your life. 

  1. Accept uncertainty

Obsessive thinking is incredibly persuasive. It has a way of convincing you of certain things. The anxious thoughts and fears can drive you to avoid situations that, under different circumstances, you would happily engage in. 

When you are trying to engage in an activity that your OCD thoughts are telling you not to, try to ask yourself, “How can I be sure that something bad will happen if I actually do this?” The answer will most likely be that you can’t be sure. In other words, recognizing that your obsessive thoughts might not have the authority you previously gave them can help you let them go to a certain degree. 

  1. Avoid seeking reassurance

Obsessive thinking can make you doubt yourself. To use the previous example about checking your front door to make sure it is locked, your compulsion to check the door repeatedly comes from anxiety about safety and privacy but also from a lack of self-assurance that you have locked the door the first time. Do your best to recognize that you have locked the door and don’t have to doubt yourself. 

  1. Mindfulness and meditation

Practicing different forms of mindfulness and meditation can aid in slowing down your obsessive thinking and help ground you back to the present moment. This skill set can also be employed when you feel the compulsion to engage in a ritual. Different forms of meditation and mindfulness practices are effective in alleviating the discomfort that occurs in several different psychiatric diseases and other general medical conditions such as chronic pain. 

  1. Find a distraction 

Obsessive thinking can send your mind into overdrive. Once a fear or anxiety is triggered in your mind, it can feel like that thought has taken over, and nothing else matters except alleviating that feeling with a compulsive action. 

Trying to find a distraction that will help redirect your thoughts can be a helpful tool. Disrupting negative thought patterns before they take over through changing your environment, listening to music, watching television, or any other type of distraction can be useful. 

How Charlie Health can help 

If you’re struggling with obsessive thinking that is affecting your ability to live a fulfilling life, we’re here to help. Our team of therapists and mental health experts can help you to understand your thought processes and behaviors better and work with you to develop a plan of action.

Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) can help give you the tools and personalized care you need to address your mental health concerns. Reach out today by clicking here to start your journey toward a better tomorrow. 

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