Obsession | Definition and Patient Education


What Is an Obsession?

Obsessions are persistent, uncontrollable thoughts or ideas. When a fixation on a thought, an idea, or an emotion interferes with a person’s ability to live a happy, productive life, that fixation can be considered an unhealthy obsession. When someone acts on such thoughts, they are considered compulsions (MedlinePlus, 2012).

Having favorite thoughts or ideas that are frequently returned to is normal for many people. Obsessions become a problem when they cause worry, discomfort, and anxiety, and when they interfere with a person’s ability to live a happy and productive life.

What Are the Symptoms of Obsession?

Obsessions become problematic when disturbing thoughts last for more than hour at a time or begin to interfere with daily life. It is normal, and even necessary, to have persistent thoughts about some things, such as work problems or personal finances. However, what's considered “normal” varies among cultures and is defined by things such as family and community.

Obsessive thoughts commonly focus on:

  • dirt and contamination
  • aggressive thoughts
  • organization and orderliness
  • religion

In children, obsessions linked to unrealistic fears can lead to pathology. Parents need to talk to their children about any uncomfortable thoughts they may have (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology, 2013).

How Is Obsession Treated?

People who are having trouble dealing with obsessive thoughts or emotions may consider seeing a mental health professional, who will work with them to change thinking patterns. 

There are things people can do to keep normal obsessions from becoming a psychological problem (Doverspike, W., 2013), including:

  • Get out of your head. Don't analyze an obsession or think about it over and over. Becoming obsessed with an obsession exacerbates it.
  • Do something else. Participate in a physical activity or shift to thinking about something positive. Writing about things you enjoy can help, as can exercise.
  • Talk to a friend or loved one about your concerns.
  • Listen to music or engage in other activities that unlock feelings beneath the surface. This may help you better understand your obsessions.

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