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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Negative Thoughts

Author:NeuroGym Team

How You Can Stop Fixating on Negative Thoughts

Try something while reading this. Do not think of a pink elephant. Under no circumstances should you think of a pink elephant. Do not create the image of a pink elephant in your mind. Absolutely do not imagine a pink elephant.

What are you thinking of? A pink elephant, right? It’s okay, we’re not mad at you. That’s actually the way thoughts work in our brains. The more we tell ourselves not to think of something, the more we inevitably think about it.

In the example above, the thought is fairly harmless. However, when we start to obsess over thoughts that are negative or damaging, we begin to suffer. We have all  dealt with intrusive thoughts that trouble us, but for some, it’s worse. Some people live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and are constantly dealing with thoughts they don’t want.

Thankfully, we have the ability to reframe our thoughts, and the way we think about our thoughts. Let’s take a look at what OCD is, why we focus on thoughts that are negative, and how we can adjust the way we think.

What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a psychiatric disorder. It involves constant, recurring, unwanted thoughts that can trigger the feeling of needing to complete a repetitive action. A person with OCD will feel like they absolutely have to carry out specific actions in order to satisfy their obsessive thoughts. Common repetitive actions involved in OCD are handwashing, counting, mental exercises, and checking things (such as seeing if the lights are turned off even though they remember turning them off).

Obsessive thoughts in people with OCD can vary in their nature. Common ones include fearing they will be contaminated, images which they find disturbing, thoughts of themselves or a loved one being harmed, fear they may lose something, and random images or words that don’t seem to have any particular meaning. These unwanted thoughts are distressing to those who experience them.

Do Unwanted Thoughts Mean I Have OCD?

We all have unwanted thoughts at times. And everybody undertakes repetitive behaviors. However, in people with OCD these thoughts and behaviors interfere with daily life. The behaviors are also very rigid and cannot be easily broken. When someone has OCD, it is very difficult for them to stop themselves from performing their compulsions or to disengage from their obsessions.

Simply having unwanted thoughts or doing things repetitively is not OCD in and of itself. The OCD symptoms have to persist in a way that causes great distress and disrupts daily life. As well as this, the thoughts and actions have to take up a great deal of time. Generally, a psychiatrist would diagnose somebody with OCD, however, a GP may also be able to give guidance.

In short, having intrusive negative thoughts is normal, and we all have some kind of repetitive behaviors. If the intrusive thoughts are not causing significant distress, and the repetitive behavior is not disruptive to daily life, they are not a sign of OCD. Disruptions to daily life often include avoiding certain places, missing out on socializing, or struggling to get outside. It is common for people to have certain symptoms of OCD but to still not fall into the category of a person with OCD.

Why Do Negative Thoughts Have Power?

We are all constantly thinking, whether it’s through our conscious or subconscious. Thoughts are based on our memories, and negative ones are generally prioritized.

This is because of the negativity bias. When it comes to things we remember, we tend to focus on the negative. If somebody asks you to describe a negative memory and a positive memory, you will likely be able to describe the negative one in greater detail and remember it more clearly. If we wake up in the morning and have two things to do during the day, one being something positive we are looking forward to, and one being something negative we are anxious about, we will often dwell more on the negative thing.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Scientific studies have shown that the brain is more active when we experience something negative. This is not just a random quirk of our brains, it’s actually down to evolution. When humans were a more primitive species and not living as comfortable a life as we are now, it was important to be on constant alert and aware of anything negative, be it predators or bad weather. Nowadays, humans have no natural predators and live a much more secure life, but that part of our brain still exists.

We all deal with the negativity effect. Some experts suggest we will work harder to avoid a great loss, and it may take five good interactions with the same person to make up for just one bad one. This is all part of the way our brains evolved to ensure we survive to pass on our genes. In some cases, focusing on negative thoughts can be good, as it can keep us focused and help us avoid danger. But if we obsess over negative things that have happened or may happen, it will lead to anxiety, avoidance, and being overwhelmed.

Reframe the Way You Think

Thoughts just kind of happen, whether we want them to or not. We can’t stop thinking, it’s a constant. It’s not something we can control, but we can control what we do with them. As with the example of the pink elephant above (which you are now thinking of again!), we cannot make ourselves stop thinking of something. But you can reframe your thoughts so they don’t cause as much damage and don’t become troubling obsessions.

Reframing your thoughts involves being aware of when your thoughts are unhelpful. When we can actively register that certain thoughts are not constructive, we can reframe them to be more helpful.

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When a negative thought enters your mind, ask yourself how you can turn it into a helpful thought. Maybe you’re worried about something you have to do for work or school. Well, first off, sitting around worrying isn’t going to help you. The more constructive thing to do is to ask yourself “What can I do to help?” and put a plan in place. This way you are turning your negative thought into something constructive.

Another way to refashion your intrusive thoughts is through cognitive reframing. This is a method of adjusting the way you are looking at a situation to change your point of view. When you’re feeling upset about something, it can be helpful to think about what you would say to a loved one in the same situation. Oftentimes we are kinder to other people when something goes wrong than we are to ourselves. When you are feeling anxious or upset, ask yourself if you can look at things in a different way.

For example, maybe you have just started a new job. It’s one of your first days, and you just made a big mistake. Naturally, you’ll feel disheartened and disappointed, and probably worried. You may think you are not capable of doing the job, but you could look at it a different way and tell yourself you are new to this role and are still learning. Instead of beating yourself up, you can show yourself compassion, and think about how it is understandable you aren’t perfect when you are just starting. Rather than saying, “I did bad today,” turn that into a constructive thought and ask yourself “what can I improve on?” while not being too hard on yourself.

Advice for Dealing With Obsessive Thoughts

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive thoughts are a challenge to deal with. You may not be able to tell your thoughts to just go away, but you can learn skills to help you deal with them. One of the best techniques to use when you become overwhelmed is STOPP. This stands for:

  • Stop: Just say the word “stop” to yourself and interrupt what you’re doing and thinking.
  • Take a breath: Often, when we’re struggling, we lose control of our breathing; take a moment to take a deep breath.
  • Observe: Ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you are feeling. Why are you thinking the way you are? What are you reacting to?
  • Perspective: Try to see the situation from another point of view. Is there a different way of looking at it? Will this matter in six months?
  • Practice what works: Do something helpful. It won’t necessarily be what you want to do, but rather what will be beneficial in the long run.

It can be helpful to name the emotions you are experiencing and ask how you feel in your body. Are you angry? Are you anxious? This allows you to ground yourself in the present. Oftentimes, obsessive thoughts are based on things that have happened in the past, or things that may happen. Ask yourself, are you being reasonable?

Remember that your thought patterns are learned over time. They are like bad habits, and they will take time to break free of. It can be a struggle to change thinking patterns, but with consistent work it is possible. In fact, there’s a whole area of psychiatry, called cognitive behavioral therapy, which works on understanding and reframing your thoughts!

In Summary

In a world where it’s easy to dwell on the negative, it’s helpful to reframe things in a more positive way. While we are hardwired to obsess over bad things, with work, you can reframe the way you think and help dilute negative obsessions. We all deserve self-love, so don’t be so hard on yourself!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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