The human brain is one of the most complex organs in existence. This three-pound organ controls all functions of the body and interprets information from the outside world. Intelligence, creativity, emotions, and memory are tied directly to the brain and how it operates. So, it can be difficult when it comes to figuring out why brains do what they do.
One of the more bizarre side effects on the brain is its tendency to allow intrusive and obsessive thoughts. A brain will be functioning normally when, all of a sudden, a violent and disturbing thought will appear, triggering intense worry and anxiety. These strange feelings may be intense for most people, but they usually disappear as fast as they enter. For some people, these thoughts stick around and manifest into fixations and obsessions.
What Are Obsessive Thoughts?
Studies have shown that roughly 94 percent of people have had unwanted and intrusive thoughts at some point or another. So in a way, having a bizarre thought pop into your head is one of the most normal things a human can experience. Now what takes that from a normal everyday occurrence into potentially dangerous territory is what happens after the thought enters the brain.
For the majority of those 94 percent, the thoughts will disappear quickly, perhaps followed by a sense of shame or embarrassment for having the thought, but that will be the end of it. However, for some people, the thought will remain and replay endlessly.
Their inability to control these persistent thoughts can range from annoying (like a song stuck in your head) to devastating (overwhelming fear of invisible things like germs).
Some of the most common obsessive thoughts are:
- Worry: The anxious preoccupation and fixation with anticipated events. Having a little bit of worry is completely normal and even healthy. Worry can alert us to potential problems that may arise and help to motivate problem-solving.
However, once the problem solving has started, worrying is generally reduced. Once the problem is eliminated, the worry disappears completely.
For some people, this is not the case. Their minds become trapped in an endless simulation of the future and what the problem will do to them. These worries will often be completely ludicrous and disastrous over something relatively simple, yet, nevertheless, the obsessive thought will replay repeatedly, causing severe anxiety and distress.
- Rumination: A preoccupation with perceived mistakes, regrets and opportunities forever lost. Just about everyone has some regret in their life and may wish things could have happened differently. That’s a completely normal thought to have. But the difference is the amount of time spent dwelling on the thought.
Maybe it comes up every now and again, and you may daydream about how different things could have been, but you can snap out of it and accept it can not be changed.Obsessive thinkers do not have this option. They will stay in the past and replay their mistakes or failures over and over again. They often develop harsh judgment, criticism, grudges, and anger directed at themselves or others.
As a result of the near-constant bombardment of these types of intrusive and obsessive thoughts, there is a noted tendency for those suffering from them to develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What Is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder where a person will experience recurrent and persistent thoughts, images, or impulses that are intrusive and unwanted. As a result of these obsessions, they will perform repetitive and almost ritualistic actions that are often excessive, time-consuming, and even distressing. These acts are referred to as compulsions.
Now just because someone may suffer from obsessive thoughts does not necessarily mean they have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD has just as much to do with the compulsions as it does with the obsessions. However, in some cases, people with OCD will not even be aware they have any compulsions as they are often just their natural responses to their stressful, intrusive thoughts.
Obsessive Symptoms of OCD
Most of the obsessive-compulsive disorder obsessions are just extremely exaggerated versions of everyday concerns and worries. Being at least mildly concerned with some of these fears would be completely reasonable but not to the level of those suffering from OCD. In some cases, these obsessions can have triggers such as physical objects, situations, smells, or something heard. These obsessions can change and almost never respond to logic.
Here are some of the more common obsessions:
- Fear of contamination from germs, dirt, poison, and other physical or environmental substances
- Fear of harm from an illness, accident or death that may occur to oneself or a loved one. They are often accompanied by an excessive sense of responsibility to prevent potential harm.
- Invasive thoughts relating to sex or violence or sometimes both
- Excessive focus with symmetry, orderliness, and cleanliness
- Obsessive concerns about religion or morality
Compulsive Symptoms of OCD
Compulsions are classified as either behavioral (physical actions) or mental (thoughts). These compulsions are repetitive in nature and are often carried out in a very specific pattern and according to strict rules. These actions are generally performed in order to either prevent an obsessive fear from occurring, to reduce the anxiety the obsessive thought creates, or just to make things “feel right.”
Some of the more common compulsions are:
- Excessive showering, washing of hands, and brushing of teeth
- Excessive cleaning and washing of house, food, car, and other household items
- Excessive checking of locks, electrical and gas appliances, and other safety oriented items
- Repetition of routine activities like reading, writing, walking, picking up an item, or opening/closing doors
- Application of extremely rigid rules and patterns to the placement of objects, furniture, books, clothes, and other household items
- Touching, tapping, moving or contacting items in a particular way or a certain number of times
- Constantly asking questions in order to seek reassurance
- Mental repetition of words or numbers for a specific amount of times with an emphasis on “good” or “safe” numbers
Can Obsessive Thoughts Be Stopped?
While there is no clear way to prevent obsessive thoughts or obsessive compulsive disorder, there are a few options for potential treatment. There are a lot of things we just don’t yet understand about the human brain or how it operates and why it does what it does. Current treatments are not guaranteed to end all obsessive thoughts but, at the very least, can help someone understand them better and how to live with them easier.
The treatments include:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy: This therapy aims to change a person’s patterns of thinking, beliefs and behaviors that may trigger anxiety or obsessive thoughts. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) uses education to promote control over the symptoms. Part of the therapy includes very gradually exposing the person to the situations that trigger their obsessions and as a result help them to reduce their compulsions. The exposure is repeated daily and consistently until anxiety decreases and, over time, will help the person rebuild trust in their capacity to manage and function with their anxiety.
- Anxiety Management Techniques: These techniques are designed to help someone manage their anxiety and compulsive tendencies. They include relaxation training, slow breathing techniques, mindfulness meditation and hyperventilation control. With regular practice these techniques can help reduce the effects of obsessive thinking and compulsions.
- Support Groups and Education: Support groups can help people suffering from obsessive thoughts to better understand their condition in a comfortable and safe place. Developing social networks, giving and receiving support can help someone not feel so alone in their suffering and help them potentially seek other treatments.
- Medication: Some medications, such as antidepressants that affect serotonin levels, have been known to reduce symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. There may be severe side effects involved and medication should only be prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner but it could help to reduce some of the issues brought on by obsessive thoughts.
Living with obsessive thoughts can be an agonizing daily struggle. However, with better understanding and education, there are ways to help reduce their effects — if not severely decrease the number of episodes.
While there is still so much we do not know about how our brains work, there is a lot that we do know. Between scientific research and behavioural psychology, our knowledge is growing every year.
One of the first things anyone experiencing intrusive and obsessive thoughts should do is to seek a licensed professional therapist. Most people with a broken arm wouldn’t try to fix it themselves or just hope it will mend on its own. Obsessive thinking should be treated with the same consideration. Seeking professional help and education about a condition can go a very long way to reducing the negative effects of obsessive thoughts.