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How to Overcome Obsessive Thinking

Identify your need for guarantees and then address its illogic.

Are you plagued with obsessive thinking and experiencing annoying, intrusive, unproductive, ruminative, fixed thoughts that feel out of control? Consider the example of obsessing about getting COVID-19 to illustrate how to address obsessive thinking.

The Steps to Address Obsessive Thinking

Step 1: Identify your demand. Am I thinking something like "Because I strongly prefer I not get COVID I absolutely must not?" If so, accept the reality that as an imperfect human with an imperfect immune system, you may get COVID, and, if you do, there's no reason you absolutely must not. The reality is what it is and not what you think it must be. Clearly, you prefer not to get COVID, but a preference does not equal a necessity.

If you're telling yourself you couldn't stand getting COVID, then as long as it doesn't kill you (an unlikely event for the large majority of people) you're standing it. Although it would be very unpleasant to get COVID, you've survived the discomfort of being ill before and will stand it again in the future.

At worst, contracting COVID would be extremely unpleasant and undesirable but obsessively protesting against it doesn't help and only makes you feel worse. Recognize that although some vulnerability to it can be a great obstace, it's not the end of your world.

Step 2: Identify a demand for a guarantee. Ask yourself if your obsessing is caused by a demand for a guarantee. Are you telling yourself, for example, "Although it's unlikely I'll get COVID, I must have an absolute guarantee I'll escape it"? If so, practice internalizing the reality: "There are no guarantees, and even if there were, having a guarantee will not make my entire life a dream."

Step 3: Proceed with your life. Force yourself to focus on your day's goals and diligently work toward completing them while accepting the reality that intrusive thoughts can slow you down, but they can't prevent you from achieving your goals.

Step 4: Use the ABCs. Regularly write and think through three-minute exercises. Here's an example:

  • A. Activating event: I might get COVID.
  • B. Irrational belief: I must have an iron-clad guarantee I won't get COVD.
  • C. Undesirable emotional consequences: Obsessing, worrying, and ruminating about getting COVID.
  • D. Disputing and questioning your irrational belief: What is the evidence I have to have a guarantee I won't get COVID?
  • E. Effective new thinking: There is no evidence, data, or logic proving I must have an absolute guarantee I'll never get COVID. Although it would be great if the universe could protect me from contracting COVID, there's no reason it must care about me or give me a personal guarantee. I had best accept that in life there are no guarantees, only probabilities—and the probability is that if I get COVID I would survive since millions of other people have and I'm otherwise healthy. Having COVID would be frustrating and even extremely unpleasant but not the end of the world. Demanding a guarantee doesn't help me but only makes me feel worse. My problem is that I'm obsessing about this, caused by my irrational "must" thinking, and I can change my thinking. With practice, I can learn to accept life's risks even though I'll never like having them.
  • F. New feeling: Concerned and careful, not worried or obsessing. Unconditional acceptance of life's uncertainties.

Give yourself an assignment to write a three-minute exercise similar to this one three times daily to change your perspective on a deeper level. Learn to regard your goals in life as strong preferences, not as musts, shoulds, or have-tos.


For more Three-Minute Therapy, click here.

More from Michael R Edelstein Ph.D.
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