How can I get "out of my head" and stop obsessive thoughts?

Often times I find myself thinking scary thoughts and sometimes I even scare myself into thinking that something bad is going to happen to me. Once it starts, the thought continues going through my head and I can't get it out. How can I stop these thoughts?

Elizabeth Anderson
Elizabeth Anderson
MFT Registered Intern

Scary thoughts can feel overwhelming at times as well as feeling quite real. I want to acknowledge how scary they can feel, but there is hope and new skills you can learn to work with these types of thoughts. The first step in working with scary or negative thoughts is to acknowledge that they are just thoughts and we can choose to follow the scary thought streams or work with cutting them off or ignoring them. I also realize that might seem really hard to do, but here's a good way to think about the brain and how thought patterns work. Thoughts arise in the mind all the time, our brain is a thought machine. Many thoughts drift by like clouds and we don't pay any attention while other thoughts arise and they trigger us in a particulate way, i.e., scary, angry, happy, sad, and when those thoughts arise we can chose to pay more attention to the thought which can lead us down that particulate thought stream that will lead to fear and anxiety. So, how do we work or stop those scary thought streams? One new skill to implement comes from the work of Rick Hansen, he wrote the book Buddha's Brain," he teaches that we need to give more energy and attention to the positive thoughts or positive memories we hold in our mind and pay less attention to the negative thoughts. Hansen asks us to imagine the brain this way, the brain is like Velcro with negative thoughts and like teflon when it comes to positive thoughts. There are reasons that our brain works this way, but I don't have time to go into all of that in this response. So, it's just important to remember we have to work at positive thinking, actually pausing throughout the day to focus on positive feelings and memories,  this will help the mind reinforce positive thought streams and help reduce negative thought streams over time. If a scary thought arises try to replace it with a happy experience for at least a couple of moments, and see if that helps reduce the negative charge connected with that scary thought. 

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide.   If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Martin Hsia, Psy.D.
Martin Hsia, Psy.D.
OCD, Anxiety, and Insomnia Specialist

There are some great thoughts offered by others here. 

I would just add that typically the most natural response to fearful thoughts is to want to stop, avoid, or get rid of them - which doesn't work if you're really caught up in a cycle of OCD or other form of anxiety. 

In the long run, the more effective thing to do is the harder and less intuitive option: to have those uncomfortable thoughts on purpose

This may mean writing out in detail what the worst case fear you are thinking of is, and then reading it over and over again until it becomes boring. It may also mean pausing through the course of the day to merely observe all the thoughts going on, and realizing that thoughts are merely thoughts. They are not the same as reality, and the unpleasant ones can become a lot less scary when we realize we can coexist with them without them coming true.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide.   If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Traci Lowenthal
Traci Lowenthal
LGBTQAffirmative Therapist

Such a great question! I'm so sorry you are struggling! You may be experiencing Intrusive thoughts.  These are thoughts that seem to come from no where and victimize us.  I can strongly recommend a book called "When Panic Attacks" by Dr. David Burns.  It helps you to identify the thoughts, and the help you create ways to counteract them!  There is another technique, called Thought Stopping. Thought Stopping can be as simple as saying "Stop!" loudly (if you are alone) or in your head, if you are in public.  It's a quick way to distract you from the distressing thought, and allow you to refocus.  I recommend using this technique, followed by some deep breathing, while visualizing something that helps you feel relaxed (a favorite place, a pet, etc.).  These three things in conjunction can be of great assistance. 

One key component in addressing anxious thinking is building the skill of relaxation.  I recommend an App called Headspace which teaches relaxation through some simple guided mediation. Super easy to do, and a great way to begin to build relaxation skills.  

Plenty of sleep and reducing caffeine intake can also be things to explore. Hope this helps!  

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Alison Repp
Alison Repp
Anxiety specialist offering short-term therapy for lifelong vitality

Hi there,

I first want to let you know that having these thoughts is completely normal. Studies have been done that show that 80% of human thoughts are "negative" so you are not alone. 

I like to think of thoughts as a tornado... if you are in a tornado, you are completely consumed by it and it is nearly impossible to do anything beneficial. However, when you are, let's say, a mile away from a tornado, it is still scary but you have the option to do something that is important to you such as get shelter or make sure your family and friends are safe. 

When unhelpful or scary thoughts arise, we tend to start a "war" with them, which is the equivalent of jumping into the tornado. This makes the thoughts and emotions bigger and intensifies the feelings that go with them. 

So the question I imagine you have is "how do I get out of the tornado?" There are 3 steps to doing this:

  1. Get distance from your thoughts by adding "I am noticing I'm having the thought that...." to the front of them. For example, "I am noticing I am having the thought that something bad is going to happen to me."   The purpose of this is not to decrease your fear or get rid of the thought. These thoughts might always be there and that is okay because that is how the mind naturally works so struggling with that is a waste of time and energy. The purpose is to gain some distance from the thoughts so you don't get swept away by them. You can imagine them floating along like leaves in a stream or clouds in the sky (and often the same thought will come back again and again but that's okay... just continue to notice it with curiosity). I imagine the thoughts get in your way of doing what really matters to you so if you can get a little bit of distance, you can do things that are fulfilling and meaningful to you. 
  2. Tune into your body and notice what sensations come up and where you feel them most intensely. Then breathe into them and make room for them. Our 5 main emotions are: joy, sadness, fear/anxiety, shame, and anger. ALL of these emotions are part of being human and there is no escaping them. So again, struggling with them ends up intensifying them. Instead, let them be and make a little bit of room for them. Often a side effect of this is the intensity will decrease but it might not. The purpose is to keep them from becoming more intense. 
  3. Contact the present moment. Notice what is happening here and now. One way of doing this is tuning into the five senses. What are some things you hear, see, taste, smell, and feel? Another way is to notice what is happening in your body (without trying to change it). How deep are your breaths, what is happening with your heart rate, are you cold/warm, etc?
Implementing these three steps can help you to refrain from getting caught up in your unhelpful thoughts. Unfortunately there is no way to get rid of thoughts or feelings completely. So the only option that works in the long run is to accept them while continuing to do what matters to you and what is fulfilling to you.

I hope this helps!
The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide.   If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Sherry Katz, LCSW
Sherry Katz, LCSW
Couples and Family Therapist, LCSW

I'm sorry you're going through this problem of scary thoughts in your mind.

None of us are able to directly stop thoughts from coming.

What is possible is to question their value, accuracy, and believability.

Maybe if you examine the thoughts which upset you, you'll be able to feel better by understanding that the thoughts are not very relevant to your actual life.

Also, another choice of what to do with the upsetting thoughts, is to redirect them.  When a stressful or frightening thought shows up in your mind, give it a happy resolution.   Basically, turn the fright into something pleasant or at least bearable.

I hope this helps you at least a little bit!

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

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