How to Break the Cycle of Obsessive Thoughts

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

To break the cycle of obsessive thoughts, practice mindfulness techniques, focusing on the present moment rather than intrusive thoughts. Engage in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to challenge and reframe negative thinking patterns. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and seeking support from mental health professionals can also be effective strategies for managing and reducing the frequency of obsessive thoughts.

Almost everyone, at some point, has had thoughts about something that they can’t seem to get out of their minds. Research shows 94% of participants had at least one intrusive thought in the three months before the study. Most of the intrusive thoughts center on doubting themselves.

In this article, we define obsessive thoughts and discuss ways to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts, like working with a mental health professional, medication, therapies, and self-care.

What Are Obsessive Thoughts?

Obsessive thoughts are unwanted, unusual, bothersome thoughts that can feel hard to control. An example of an obsessive thought is worrying about whether you turned off the stove or other appliance after leaving your house or about making a mistake or embarrassing yourself in public. Most of the time, these intrusive thoughts fade quickly. For some, the thoughts stick around and interfere with daily functioning.

Obsessive thoughts are involuntary, and while they can be positive and negative, people usually find it’s the negative thoughts that do not seem to go away. Obsessive thoughts pop into your mind out of nowhere. They are unwanted and can make someone feel a lack of control. However, there are many things you can do to handle them and break the cycle of obsessive thoughts.

Evaluate Your Obsessive Thoughts with a Professional

Before overcoming obsessive thoughts, you must figure out why you are having them. Work with a mental health professional. They have specific assessments to give you the necessary answers. There are many reasons for obsessive thoughts, and some may be the result of mental health disorders, including the following:

  • Stress
  • Hormones
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress

Recognize Obsessive Thoughts

One way to overcome obsessive thinking is to recognize your thoughts. The sooner you can identify them as obsessive thoughts, the sooner you can take steps to cope with them appropriately. Examples of common obsessive thoughts include the following:

  • Thoughts about gaining weight
  • Doubting that your partner is faithful
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or someone else
  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Thinking of doing something against the law
  • Negative self-talk
  • Memories of past traumatic events

There are many other examples; each person will experience different obsessive thoughts. Once you begin recognizing them, you can immediately take action to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts.

Cope With Obsessive Thoughts

A mental health counselor can teach you specific coping skills to utilize when you experience an obsessive thought. You will learn dos and don’ts when trying to break the cycle. For example:

  • Do identify and label the thoughts as obsessive right away.
  • Remind yourself that obsessive thoughts randomly pop up, and you do not make them happen.
  • All the thoughts come and go naturally.
  • Remind yourself that you do not agree with the negative thoughts.
  • At the same time, here are some tips on what not to do:
  • Do not try to figure out why you are having obsessive thoughts.
  • Do not try to eliminate or force them out of your mind.
  • Do not judge yourself for having obsessive thoughts.

Therapies Dealing with Obsessive Thoughts

Many people with counselors have multiple tools to help them deal with obsessive thinking, many focusing on thoughts and the behaviors that follow. Below is a brief list of effective therapies:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Research shows that 75% of people in CBT found it effective, with both in-person and virtual therapy showing benefits. CBT improves the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If one area has a problem, the others will be affected. Techniques include thought stopping and replacing, thought records, emotional reasoning, and scheduling positive activities.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT teaches you how to create a healthier relationship with yourself and obsessive thoughts by increasing awareness and flexibility and reducing anxiety associated with obsessive thinking. You learn to separate yourself from the thoughts to decide how to handle them.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

If your obsessive thoughts involve flashbacks or memories of a previous trauma, it can mean you have unprocessed memories. EMDR can help you reprocess the trauma and the memories so you can move forward.


Depending on the source, medication may be a solution to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts. Many people with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress or another mental illness benefit from medication.


Mindfulness helps you become present and aware of what is happening at the moment rather than letting your mind wander to obsessive thoughts. Mindfulness techniques include mindfulness meditation, thought observation, focused breathing, labeling thoughts, and mindfulness acceptance. Mindfulness reduces stress, rumination, and emotional reactivity (APA). At the same time, it increases memory, focus, and relationship satisfaction.

Help is available for anyone wanting to know how to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts. The Mental Health Center, for example, is a great starting place to connect with psychiatrists, therapists, and other providers who specialize in treating obsessive thinking.

Getting Started with Treatment

Treatment for obsessive thinking is a process that begins with a comprehensive evaluation by a licensed mental health professional. The information you provide helps therapists and doctors create an appropriate treatment plan unique to your needs. Your plan will likely include learning more about obsessive thoughts, figuring out why you have obsessive thoughts, and teaching you how to recognize and cope with obsessive thoughts.

Your therapist will use various treatment methods to ensure you break the cycle of obsessive thoughts. Methods may include CBT, ACT, EMDR, and Mindfulness. When necessary, you may benefit from a referral to a psychiatrist to discuss medications to control obsessive thoughts.

You can get started with treatment today. Call the Mental Health Center and tell them you are ready to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts. They will assist you in finding the right provider.