Coping Skills: Obsessive Thoughts

Table of Contents

What are obsessive thoughts?

Obsessive thinking is an inability to control and cope with recurring, distressing thoughts, and images. The process may be mildly distracting or absorbing. Obsessive thoughts and images are part of a complex network of cognitive distortions, feelings, sensations, dysregulation, behavioural routines, and traumatic experiences. 

Rumination is caused by past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, and regrets. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and self-criticism.

Thought spirals refer to those moments when we start down an obsessive thought pattern and get stuck unable to act and often freeze up. 

Skills in The Moment

Break The Spiral:

When you notice the thought spirals begin, do something physical. Stomp your foot, clap your hands and even say “no” out loud. This action can break it better than trying to logic yourself out of the spiral. The physical action brings in all parts of our body and connections through our nervous system. This helps engage the brain-body connection, gives sensory input, proprioceptive input (awareness of self and movement) and allows our body to release some tension.

Move your brain to something else after you try to notice your might be spiralling. I suggest games like Sudko or other things that require our brain to shift to other thought patterns is good for rumination and intrusive thoughts.

Use media, books or music that can distract you more as a preventive. Avoid triggering content. Something that requires focus is the best, but if you are feeling fatigued, choose something with emotional effects. Choose media with separate emotions from the ones invoked by the obsessive thoughts.

Trauma Skills: 

Thoughts tied to trauma linked with the same memory processing errors that come with traumatic effects on our brain skills to deal with flashbacks can help with this

Katniss Skill”

Something we came up with based on a scene in the book Hunger Games: Mockingjay. This comprises reminding yourself of the facts you know and that we experiencing the abuse. This can redirect our thoughts, combat the flashbacks and pull us back. This skill helps with depersonalization and identity issues. Combine this with breathing exercises for the best result.


“My name is Jen, I am in Kentucky, I’m 17, I’m in my school dinner hall, I am with my friend Tylor, I’m from Tennessee, I have a brother named Milo. ”


When looking at them in a grounding context these are used to try and bring a sense of control and invoke some of our power. We can use them here to change our patterns and current perspective. I suggest combining it with a break the cycle skill like using physical action.

Notice the obsessive nature of the thoughts: My thoughts are not fighting me, i’m not crazy i’m experiecing a real symptom.

Remind Yourself you are not in control of these thoughts: These thoughts are not in my control i do not have to control them.

Remind yourself you are in control of how you respond: I am in control of only what i do. I do not have to do anything with these thoughts or recognize what you can do to handle them (eg use my coping skills)

Remind yourself when and where you are: I am not a little kid, i’m an adult, it’s the morning, abuse is not happening now.

Invoke your power: My emotions, fears, thoughts and feelings are real and valid. But i still have power in my life. 

Somatic Skills:

Somatic, meaning body sensations, related to our thoughts and emotions. Trying to look at how we can use our bodies to calm our minds is key to being able to handle distress caused by obsessive thoughts.

Dysregulation of our nervous system and emotions tied to cognitive distortions like obsessive thoughts inextricably. Because of this, we have to help our bodies regulate. Caring for our bodies and cognition at once is the best way to fall into thought spirals less while experiencing less distress. 

2-to-1 Breathing

  • This practice helps give us a path to regularity and engaging the parasympathetic system. It also requires a powerful redirect of focus to our breathing and how it feels. Knowing how proper breathing works is useful to know when we are becoming dysregulated. This is hard to do during flashbacks or mid panic attacks, most effective before or after the most extreme point until it becomes second nature. 
  • Remember diaphragmatic breaths, and try to either sit or stand as straight as possible!


  • Count the duration of both exhalation and inhalation as you breathe normally and adjust it gently so you are exhaling and inhaling for the same amount of time. Most people are comfortable with a count of 3 or 4 counts for each exhalation and inhalation. So one full breath lasts for a count of either 6 or 8. So you are breathing in 4 and exhaling 4 counts.
  • Now, without altering the duration of the total breath cycle, adjust your breathing by slowing the exhalation and gently quickening the inhalation to achieve a 2-to-1 ratio. For a breath lasting 6 counts, this means exhaling for 4 and inhaling for 2. For 8, you can adjust slightly, exhaling for 6 and inhaling for 3.

Sensory Integration Tools

Sensory integration tools otherwise called sensory aids or toys are objects that calm people down via acting on the senses to affect the nervous systems in stress states. In this context, when we are dysregulated when our thoughts become stuck in spirals of obsessive thoughts point to a point of dysregulation. These tools can bring our bodies back into a state of regulation. It can also prevent ending up hyperaroused and hopefully prevent falling into flashbacks or panic after we have obsessive thoughts.

Examples can be found in this article Coping Skills: Sensory Aids

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This exercise can take a while and will need to be done a few times for it to be as effective. This might be uncomfortable to start with if you have strong traumas associated with certain body parts. But is useful to release stress before, during, or after episodes of stress. It can also be helpful to see where the most tension is held and understand the types of stress. The full version is difficult if you are in a crisis, but modified versions of tightening muscles can have similar effects.

  1. Start by finding a safe place. Laying down or sitting in a comfortable chair. Take five deep, slow breaths.
  2. The first step is applying muscle tension to a specific part of the body. This step is essentially the same regardless of which muscle group you are targeting.
  3.  First, focus on the target muscle group, for example, your left hand. Next, take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5 seconds.
  4. As you tense, the muscle group breath in and as you let the tension our breath out with it.

Radical Acceptance

Let yourself have these thoughts, take a deep breath, let yourself have these thoughts. Tell yourself that this is all right, this is where you are, you recognize that. Tell yourself that right now you do not have to take up this thought. But then take another breath and imagine them leaving your brain, right. You are not your thoughts.

This is something that takes practice, accepting the situation sucks but is important to healing. You can’t change anything by refusing to recognize it’s happening or being angry at yourself for “acting this way”. 

If your thoughts are often part of catastrophizing logic talk you can use that to help. Obsessive thoughts about natural disasters. Remind yourself how unlikely something is to happen, so not number one priority might help, remind yourself “it is valid to worry, but maybe not so much right this second.”

Long Term Skills:

Remember many people experience obsessive thoughts for a variety of reasons and you are not broken or wrong for struggling.

Ditching value on how you are handling obsessive thoughts allows other coping skills to work. This is also key to healing the wider negative perceptions abuse left us with. Negative self-perception and wider cognitive distortions can also be brought to a healthier place through ditching value judgments. You can read our article on this topic Coping Skills: Ditch Value Judgments

Know some of your obsessive thoughts come from trauma. They do not define you; they are part of your experience, not all of it. It is tied to the neurological changes, altered world views, information processing and self-perception. We can learn to view our abuse and the world with a clear head from a place of healing.

The emotional aspects of this are just as important as the cognitive distortions that are part of this. Your thoughts, emotions and physical sensation are all needed to be healthy and to heal.

Learn about what you’re dealing with. Understanding what is going on within us offers us power.

  1. Diagnosis Primer: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  2. Informational Article: Being Our Whole Selves Brain & Body
  3. Symptom Explainers: Flashbacks

Ask for help. From family members, support groups or professionals. You do not have to do this alone ever.

And lastly, know that you are blessed, important and loved.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s