Overcoming anxiety and obsessive thoughts

I’ve served countless folks who feared they lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) because they found themselves having frequent irrational and/or unwanted thoughts. OCD is a fairly rare condition, but occasionally experiencing obsessive thought patterns is pretty common. Think of it this way:

Do you ever avoid the cracks in the sidewalk? Ever feel like you need to touch both sides of the doorway as you walk through?  Ever find yourself counting your footsteps or the cars driving by your window?

Then you catch yourself doing it and wonder WTF?

Chances are this occurs during times of heightened stress or when you’re preoccupied with something that fills you with either anticipation or dread.

Obsession is almost always a product of anxiety. It’s counterintuitive but simple – we obsess over unimportant things that we can easily control as a way to avoid things we’re profoundly uncomfortable with: The job interview tomorrow, the break up we sense is coming, the bills we can’t pay.

The frequency and intensity of obsession is usually proportionate to the amount of fear we have on board. The child who is afraid to go home counts the tiles on the classroom wall rapidly and repeatedly. The adult child who knows their beloved parent is terminal taps her fingers together nonstop.

Sometimes the obsessions are far darker and more specific. Like a bad song that gets stuck in your head, sometimes we just can’t seem to move past it. I was talking with a friend recently who confided, “Sometimes all I can think about is dying and I can’t move past it. It becomes the basis for all of my bad decisions. I think, ‘F it, I’m just going to end up dying alone anyway…”

Here’s the key to that – any thought that absolves us of personal responsibility to ourselves and those we love is bullshit.

In my friend’s case, a recent loss that he has yet to grieve is what’s driving his dark thoughts. That’s the key – when we find ourselves with obsessions (thoughts we don’t want) and/or compulsions (feeling we must act on that unwanted thought) we can simply and honestly take stock by asking:

  • What am I not being honest with myself about?
  • What am I avoiding?
  • How am I doing overall in my life?
  • What do I need?
  • Who could I be sharing my struggles with?

Obsession is a manifestation of anxiety, which is increasingly common in today’s world. To experience anxiety fleetingly/occasionally is something all people experience. If we find that it’s a fairly common occurrence, we can:

  • Consider the emotions we’re uncomfortable feeling and expressing (fuel to the fire of anxiety)
  • Consider the outlets (forms of release) we use for the inevitabilities of stress and Notice the ways in which anxiety detracts from our physical health and seek advice from our primary care physicians (and find a really good massage therapist like Kevin Gilgan )
  • Improve our overall self-care by integrating strategies proven to reduce anxiety: meditation, yoga, exercise, acupuncture, and seeking active support from friends and family (the experience of emotional intimacy helps us to externalize our struggles and increase our sense of connection and belonging).
Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.