The word ‘obsession’ comes from the Latin ‘obsidere’ which means ‘to besiege’.

In clinical terms Obsession involves a person being “besieged” by persistent and uncontrollable thoughts, images, impulses, worries, fears and doubts.

The idea of “obsession” is that you cannot focus on anything other than a specific issue or person (or a few issues), and no matter how hard you try you cannot distract yourself. These Obsessions usually come into a person’s mind when they don’t want them and they are intrusive, unwanted, disturbing and significantly interfere with normal life, making them incredibly difficult to ignore and cause distress. Often these repetitive thoughts and images are unpleasant or disturbing in nature. Some of these obsessional thoughts may be around:

  • Worrying that you or something/someone/somewhere is contaminated.
  • Worrying about contracting diseases or other medical conditions
  • Suicide or physical harm to yourself or others
  • Unwanted or unpleasant sexual thoughts involving yourself or others
  • Obsessing about the possibility of a disaster or crisis occurring such as a car accident or air crash
  • Constant worry about people thinking / talking negatively about you as a person. 

Obsession differs from just preoccupation with something or a person by the prolonged duration is it felt, by the fact the person has no control over how often these thoughts occur or the type of thoughts they have and by the fact they are based upon anxiety and fear. So our natural preoccupation with a person we might be said to be falling in love with which will involve pleasant thoughts, will be generated by our deliberate thinking of some aspect of them and which we can distract ourselves from in order to get on with our daily lives is not an obsession in the clinical sense.

What is common about all obsessions is that these thoughts are based on anxiety and fear. Most sufferers are actually aware that their fears are irrational but feel unable to control the thoughts, and the more they fight them, the more prominent they become in the person’s mind. It can be extremely exhausting and debilitating both mentally and physically to think in this way day in and out and the sufferer may experience anguish and despair about their inability to control these thoughts on top of their already anxious state.

Sometimes this obsession and underlying anxiety may be part and parcel of other anxiety disorders (see our anxiety page): 

Panic Disorder – Those with panic disorder and panic attacks may develop hypochondria or health phobias, worried that something is wrong with their health. They may also fear the panic attacks to such a degree that it is all they think about.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Those with PTSD often find themselves obsessing over the trauma they experienced, or the belief that the trauma will occur again. (See out PTSD page)

Phobias – Those with very severe phobias may start to think about the object of that fear more and more with everything they do. For example, checking your clothes for spiders and having someone look through your house regularly may be a phobia obsession.

Social Phobia – Those with social phobia may think about embarrassing themselves in social situations. In some cases it may be a thought of something that happened, while in others it may be worse-case-scenario thinking.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is a disorder that causes numerous worries. It’s possible that some of these worries persist. For example, worrying that your son/daughter is in danger after they go off to college may be a sign of GAD, and also an obsessive thought.

Some people desperately try to manage their obsession and anxiety themselves by doing everything they can to distract themselves from the obsessional thoughts e.g. tell themselves not to think about it, use substances to self medicate or numb themselves such as alcohol or narcotics or even indiscriminate sexual activity or shopping and spending.  Research has shown that these methods do not work and in fact often increase the anxiety by creating additional problems for the individual.

Some individuals develop compulsive behaviours to provide reassurance and manage their anxiety such as a person who worries about becoming contaminated with disease frequently washing their hands a set number of times on an abnormally high frequency throughout the day . This is called obsessive compulsive disorder (please see our page on OCD).

However, all these methods will not work as they treat only the symptoms of anxiety which is your obsessive thoughts and not the underlying causes of the anxiety which may be caused by any number of life events.

In order to move towards recovery the first step is to accept that you have obsessive thoughts and that they are not in your control. This can be difficult as we all like to think we can control what goes on in our minds. Doing this also stops the sense of shame which people can feel and enables you to give yourself permission to seek help and support which can be a combination of assistance from your gp and through a counsellor, therapist or other talk therapist. They can then use techniques such as desensitisation whereby a person increases their ability to deal with increasing levels of anxiety which is a regular feeling and an important one and anxiety management techniques to enable you to cope more effectively with anxiety and in doing so your obsessive thoughts can become less frequent and then they have much less of a negative impact on your quality of life leaving you with the ability to recover from your condition.