How can I get over obsessive thoughts?

QUESTION: Sometimes I get stuck thinking or doing the same crazy thing over and over again.  How can I break free from this horrible cycle?

First LastTom McElroy says:  Obsessive thoughts = thoughts, memories, and emotional tugs that repeat themselves over and over again.  They draw us in, and make us feel like a little dog chasing its tail, round and round and round and round, never actually getting anywhere or accomplishing much.  It’s a temptation that comes to all of us to some degree; it pushes our buttons in whatever ways we seem to be most vulnerable.

We’ve all got stuff we need to learnways we need to grow and be betterand each of us has a life journey that’s completely individual. But that obsessive, relentless element that can make us feel trapped is actually not personal or unique at all.  And recognizing that fact, I think, is often the first step to breaking free, turning off that broken old record, and feeling capable of doing some genuine growing and problem solving.

It helps me to think of obsessive thoughts a bit like junk mail.  Anyone can get it.  And day after day it can come to our very own personal mailbox.  But is it personal?  No.  There isn’t some employee in a building somewhere thinking specifically about us, the type of person we are, our strengths and weaknesses, and then sending us some particular advertisement that day.  When we look through our junk mailif we look at it at allwe probably don’t think, “I must HAVE to go get this thing that’s on sale.  Otherwise, why would it have come to MY mailbox??”

But if we did think the mailing was personal, we might end up asking ourselves questions like, “What did I do to make this happen?  What about me makes this mail KEEP coming?”  We might even feel guilty and self-condemning, as we do when we’re dealing with obsessive thoughts.  We don’t, however, feel that way if we realize that this stuff comes in some shape or form to just about everyone’s mental mailbox, and it’s totally impersonal.

Being relieved of feelings of guilt and self-condemnation, lifts the biggest part of the burden that makes growing and problem solving seem so hard sometimes.  Unmasking the nature of obsessive thinking (no matter how many times it takes) is also a major first step in stopping mental tail chasing, and that leaves us free to begin constructive and progressive thinking.

Tom is a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer.  He just moved to Boston, MA.

What do YOU think? Add your comment below.


  1. Chana says:

    I have a question about Christian Science thoughts on matter. If matter does not exist, how should we view the things around that we see, use, and consume, such as food, cars, computers,etc.?

    • nina says:

      Chana here’s an answer to your prayers.  Spiritual Reality Goggles, a 3 minute animated film that will tell you everything you need to know about seeing matter rightly.  :)

      Also, I wanted to point  you toward a wonderful chat on the subject of obsession from CS teacher Susan Mack.

      I hope these offerings assure you that nothing you’re going through is personal to you, and that there’s no reason to condemn yourself.  Everyone is challenged to view matter rightly.  Everyone receives the “junk mail” of unwanted thoughts.  We’re all in this together!  <3

    • Tom says:

      Hi Chana,

      The animated video Nina shared is fun and brings up an interesting concept.  Obviously she was joking, though, when she said it tells everything we need to know about the subject. :)

      It relates well, though, to these two quotes by Mary Baker Eddy from her book Science and Health:

      “The fading forms of matter, the mortal body and material earth, are the fleeting concepts of the human mind.” SH 263:32

      “The unlikeness of Spirit is matter, and the opposite of the real is not divine, — it is a human concept.” SH 277:24

      Notice Eddy refers to matter as a concept.  This issue is that we think the word matter refers to a thing or things, something substantial, but actually it’s just a word that refers to the way we see something / our concept of something.  The only real substance in all creation is spiritual – created by God.  It’s good, just like God, just like God made everything to be.  But we don’t see God’s creation clearly.  We see good, but we also see limitations, and vulnerability, and brokenness, finiteness, sin, etc.  But these things are just distortions of reality – of God’s creation.  What we see this way, we call material, carnal, or mortal.  But, again, materiality, is just a concept.  A “fading” and “fleeting” way of looking at things, as the first quote above describes it.  And as the second quote indicates, the word “matter” describes the concepts or ideas that we have of ANYTHING that is unlike Spirit, God – that which is real and divine.

      Distorted points of view don’t come from God.  And God is helping us all the time to see things clearer – to see His presence and love for us, and all creation, expressed in tangible ways all around us, all the time.  That’s where food, cars, computers, etc. come in.  These things can express, more or less, qualities like sustenance, movement, help, communication, etc. etc.  Those kind of good qualities are spiritual – they come from God.  At the same time, we see these qualities dimly, meaning we believe the way they take form in our lives can be stolen, break down, get a virus, be harmful, etc.  The clearer we become, however, that God IS present and that all good comes from God, the more the distorted views of that good (like breakability, diseaseability etc.) will fade away.  That is, as we seek to get a better perspective of things, seek a bigger perspective of God and God’s present goodness expressed in our lives, and let go of material concepts (those distorted views that aren’t like God and don’t come from God), then the more God’s goodness will be obvious to us in our day to day lives, including as seen through things like food, cars and computers, and often in other tangible ways we don’t expect.

      Sorry for the long response!  It’s a great (big) subject, and one worth continuing to think about!

      Here’s one more quote by Eddy: ”Intelligent Spirit, Soul, is substance, far more impregnable and solid than matter; for one is temporal, while the other is eternal, the ultimate and predicate of being.” Mis. 103:3

      I love thinking about the substantiality and solidness of Spirit!

      Another link to a longer online audio podcast, if you’re interested in a further in depth discussion about it:

      All the best!

    • Gordon says:

      Chana, adding to the choir of responses, I also want to point you to an article titled More than meets the eye. I hope you find it helpful!

  2. Mari says:

    How do you know for sure that you’re healed of a chronic habit?  I’m not even healed yet bit I still wonder about this.   I’m afraid of history repeating itself.

    • Kate D. says:

      Mari: usually when you have a healing it is accompanied by a sense of peace, and the full knowledge that whatever it was that needed healing NEVER was real, so it’s never coming back. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you have a close friend that you trust or  — when you meet someone you instantly feel a close kinship with, even if you’ve never met before.  You just KNOW.

    • Tom says:

      It helps me to know that the habit is not “out there.”  It’s not some living entity that exists anywhere outside of the moment it is trying to mess with us, or make us afraid that it WILL mess with us.  It truly has no history, it’s just a moment, and should be dealt with just as a moment, in the moment.  When we’re feeling good, clear, strong, and free, we ARE free.  As for the moments we feel tempted, I think it’s much easier to handle them progressively when we realize that they don’t redefine us; they don’t redefine our good moments; they don’t change anything real about us; they never have, and they never will.  Bad habits are a bit like slipping into a day dream for a moment.  Reality doesn’t change in the mean time, no matter how many times we have a reoccurring dream.  It’s just a thought.  It’s not a thing, or power.  So, we conquer it most effectively when we see it for what it is, just a thought – a wrong thought, a distortion of the truth about who we really are, and ONLY in the moment that it’s got us daydreaming.

      Fearing that a problem has life and power and is somewhere waiting to come back and bite us, doesn’t actually have anything to do with the problem.  It is its own problem.  Fear is the problem in that moment.  Not the habit.  So, we overcome fear in that moment, and find our sense of freedom again, and then we’ve done all that we need to do.  We’ve handled the only problem there was in that moment.  We simply don’t have to fear fear.  And we don’t have to fear a problem.

      As we forgive ourselves, recognize our genuine innocence, and focus on who we really are and what’s real and good, our moments of clarity and freedom increase, and there’s less room for nasty day dreams.  If we get sucked in for a moment, the last thing we want to do is condemn ourselves because it only reinforces that old fantasy, and restarts the cycle that must be broken for progress.  Forgiveness and a clear vision of who we really are breaks the cycle.  Again, the freedom we feel when we’re feeling good is real and true.  As we embrace that, and conquer moments of doubt and fear one by one, we ultimately find lasting and permanent peace.

  3. Tom says:

    So, here’s a couple questions that I think a lot of us face at some point.  How do we help someone else who seems trapped in a cycle of obsessive thinking?  It can be tough sometimes trying to support a friend or family member in that situation.  What helps you help others?

    • Gordon says:

      I think people are often already aware of the problems they themselves are dealing with. Sometimes they’re not, and some “exposure” is necessary to help them see that. But more often than not, they are already aware. And in those cases, just treating a person normally — and continually insisting on their normalcy — can do wonders. I think that does take the strength and conviction to be able to watch and recognize what words/actions are stemming from an obsession versus what words and actions are genuinely coming from the person, and being able to separate the two.

    • Amy says:

      I think it’s real love that helps you help someone effectively.  It seems so easy sometimes for me to see only good in others.  That’s got to be motivated by something bigger than myself.  I think it’s got to come from Love, God.

  4. Kate says:

    Tom and all…these are such wonderful ideas.  I can’t wait to explore them further.

    I don’t know if this will be helpful, but this is what always helps me.

    I try to reclaim whatever is asserting itself as destructive, or negative, for God.  John says, in Revelation:  ”The kingdoms of this world, are become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever.”

    Whether it is the feeling of fear (a feeling of being so transfixed on something that I can’t think of anything else) or the feeling of obsessive thinking (pretty similar eh?) I try to remember that there is no other cause or creator than God.   So at their root, these feelings must be “of God,” and I have only a false “sense” of them to let go of.  Obsessive thoughts are thoughts that repeat themselves over and over and over again.

    But Mary Baker Eddy gives us a way of thinking of this mental activity that is wholly positive and healing.  She says (S&H xi: 15) that it is “God with us,” — a divine influence every present in human consciousness (that is) repeating itself, coming now as was promised aforetime, ‘to preach deliverance to the captives [of sense], and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”

    I find that when I reclaim every action for God, claiming that He IS the only Cause and Creator of all that I am and all that I am experiencing, and that it is only a false sense of things that must be exchanged for a true, or spiritual sense of things, that must be done.  The false sense gives up the ghost and dissolves.

    So what do I “do?”  I start obsessing about good, about God’s presence and power in my life, in the world, and yes, even in what might claim to be “the past.”  Since there is only now, and now includes past, present, and future as we think “in the present,” I can redeem “the past,” by focusing on even the most faint morning beam of good that I can resurrect.  Focusing on it, becoming transfixed on that being the WHOLE story…it radiates and expands in my consciousness until it is the ONLY story.

    No matter what the perseverant behavior or thinking we are facing, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Mind is persevering as consciousness, Love is persevering as unflagging compassion, Life is enduring as eternal existence, Truth is…true, always.

    This has helped to release me from the shackles of feeling bruised by a past that I thought had it’s cyclical hauntings wrapped tightly around my heart and my mind.  Instead, I could see that God had Her arms wrapped tightly around me…always.  There was never a moment in my life when She was not there…sometimes it was just so close, so infinitely near that forgot to look within my own heart for the evidence.  When another’s actions seemed hateful, I was still hopeful…that was the presence of God.  When the world seemed void of kindness, I was still aware that Love was better than hate…that was evidence enough that God was “on the scene.”

    Just another way of approaching this claim..offered with Love, k

  5. Isa says:

    Great Question and answer. How can I get over obsessive thoughts about  my health? I feel I’ve been going in circles about an apparent condition and feel its a lot on my mind and distracting me from growing. I would like to free myself from this pattern, but it seems hard at times.


    Thanks so much,





    • Tom says:

      Great question.  Typically when I find myself obsessing over a health issue it’s because I’m afraid.  And often, deep down there’s this little niggling idea that if I just let it go, then I won’t be doing anything about it, and it will never go away.  While it’s never good to just stick our head in the sand and try not to think about something, it IS good to replace an obsessive, totally entrapping, kind of focus on a health problem, with constructive spiritual perspectives that are focused on the solution.  That’s not naivite, that’s freedom.  That’s not allowing a problem to continue on indefinitely, that’s really doing something about it.  So, doing what’s necessary to understand this point – so much so that we feel genuinely convinced and totally comfortable not mulling over the problem anymore (not just using will power to ignore it) – I think is the main first step to breaking that cycle.  The next steps are individual, as we go forward free to focus on making spiritual discoveries that heal us.

  6. Gordon says:

    I love some of these responses — particularly Tom’s focus on overcoming self-condemnation with a spirit of compassion throughout. However, it seems like there’s one facet of this that hasn’t yet been covered.

    Tom’s response addresses a situation where a person is already clear in their own mind that they want to let go of the “obsessive thinking.” They already recognize those thoughts as bad and just want them to go away. But what if that isn’t so clear? What if there is reluctance — or even resistance — to letting go of that thinking?

    In S&H we read: “Jesus declared that to look with desire on forbidden objects was to break a moral precept.” So what if the obsessive thoughts are about a “forbidden object” of desire? “Object” isn’t really the right word in this case, but here’s a specific example: what if a person is obsessing over someone they find attractive, but that other person is either already committed, or just not interested? In those situations, is some kind of condemnation actually needed, self or otherwise?

    • Tom says:

      I don’t think self-condemnation is ever helpful.  Although recognizing when some thought or action is wrong is definitely a good thing.  In my experience, obsessing over a person I can’t be with, has usually meant that I’m missing out on some other good thing in myself and/or around me, and discovering more about that real good at hand is what has set me free, not beating myself up about the wrong thing.

  7. Mari says:

    What if you haven’t said no and now you’ve wasted your whole life in disordered thinking and acting.

    • Annette-D says:

      It’s never too late to think something different than you have been.  No matter how stuck, how far down in the rut we may seem to be, the freedom and fresh air is just a different thought away.

      Acknowledging the true source of all thought as the divine Mind, God, will help.  Mind is always moving thought forward.


      • Tom says:

        The temptation to lament over time lost is just the final trap to throw us back into the same old thought cycle, even after we’ve realized what’s going on and are ready to break free.  Don’t go there!  ”Now is the day of salvation!”  It’s worth being free today – there is so much good to experience!  Let’s recognize that old “time lost” trap for what it is – just trying to hide the good at hand today, and keep us missing out on the good tomorrow has to bring too – and see that it is TOTALLY useless and unjustified.

  8. Margaret says:

    One of my favorite hymns is “Shepherd Show Me How To Go.”

    One of the verses in the hymn says,

    “Thou wilt bind the stubborn will

    Wound the callous breast,

    Make self-righteousness be still,

    Break earth’s stupid rest.

    Strangers on a barren shore,

    Lab’ring long and lone,

    We would enter by the door

    And Thou know’st thine own.”

    The hymn ends in “Shepherd, wash them clean.”

    SH 237:10-237:12

    “The more stubborn beliefs and theories of parents often choke the good seed in the minds ofthemselves and their offspring.”

    But God does not allow stubborn beliefs to last for long.  God is all power, and God makes us free and whole and able to live with His divinely spontaneous order.  God is guiding us and speaking to us.  We can hear him and yield to the voice of Christ.

    A few mornings ago, I woke up a bit late, so I could not go on my routine run.  I decided not to react, affirm “This is God’s day and I will yield to God’s plan for today,” got up, and went to class without my usual run that I sometimes may do as an obsession to start the day off.  I decided though, not to give anything power but to God, the only divine Power.  I also thought about God’s being Creative Mind.  God is principled and includes harmonious, but his plan is creative.  His unfoldment will happen in ways that we cannot see, but it will be beautifully ordered and spontaneous when it does.  I held to this concept of God’s being a Creative Mind, not just Divine Mind.  I ended up having time to enjoy a run in the afternoon, and it provided newness and freshness to that day.

    SH 475:14-475:22

    “He is the compound idea of God, including all right ideas; the generic term forall that reflects God’s image and likeness; the consciousidentity of being as found in Science, in which man isthe reflection of God, or Mind, and therefore is eternal;that which has no separate mind from God; that whichhas not a single quality underived from Deity; that which possesses no life, intelligence, nor creative power of his own, but reflects spiritually all that belongs to his Maker.”

    Let Life, Truth, and Love reign today!  Do not bow down to false beliefs or temptations to go over around the false cycle again – the false cycle is nothing – it cannot reign in Truth.

    And a quote from a non-Christian Science source:

    “The next time you notice yourself feeling stressed and effort-filled as you pursue your dreams, just ask yourself, does a flower stress over and try really hard when she is blooming? Trying hard goes against your inherent and natural impulse to grow and blossom.  If you could just rest into that, just as a flower does in her bed of soil, nutrients, sun, rain and pollinating insects, you may remember that you are not creating alone, well that is unless you think you are.”

  9. XXX says:

    I have had a chronic probl with an ICD, impulse control disorder.  I get “false brain mesas ages” that result in doing actiogoth that other people would never do.  It’s humiliating and it seems like there id no cure.  I’ve prayed about this with a coupl of different practiotners too but I’m still stuck in this problem.  Please help.

    • jenny says:

      Hi XXX,

      I’m so glad you posted your question here, because this is a great place to find answers!

      For about five years, I struggled with really aggressive, compulsive thoughts about food. It seemed like I was totally captive to them, and that there was nothing I could do to stop myself from thinking about or acting on them. But a turning point came when I realized these thoughts were not from God, so they couldn’t have any power over me. Sometimes it was a moment-by-moment thing of just saying “no” to destructive suggestions and obsessive thinking. Sometimes all I could do was say “no.” But soon I found that saying “no” opened the door for the good, health-giving, life-affirming thoughts that God was actually giving to me, and is giving to you, too. I found I could say no to what wasn’t from God, and then affirm that the Mind that is God is my Mind, was giving me peace, and strength, and the power to act as His child. I did find complete healing–complete release from these thoughts–and I know you can, too.

      Sometimes, when a problem seems very big and overwhelming, it can feel like there’s no solution. That’s how those disordered thoughts about eating felt to me. But in fact, anything that would try to cause us harm is simply darkness. I find it helpful to identify it that way because it reminds me that the solution is actually very simple. How do you “fix” a dark room? You simply turn on a light. I’ve found it’s the same thing for problems I’m facing, no matter what name might be given to them. When I replace the darkness of disease, disorder, fear, whatever, with the light of Truth–even the most simple “light,” like the fact that God loves me, that God is my only Mind, my only Life–the darkness MUST dissipate. I love this promise from the Bible: “Now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).

      I hope others will share their inspiration, too.

      • Tom says:

        Here’s a thought or two that will hopefully be a help.

        To some degree, I think basically everyone deals with “false brain messages” and the challenges those impulses bring.  Even Paul in the Bible said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” “… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”  Finally he asks though, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then answers, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7)  And he proves that this kind of salvation is real through the inspiration he receives and all the good he’s able to accomplish!

        So what’s God got to do with it?  The idea to me is that even though we all struggle – including with some form of struggle that has been given an institutionalized title – we all have access to something bigger than the muscles and synapses in a brain to save us.  It’s God: the higher source of our intelligence, goodness and strength; the source of our greatest inspiration, capacity, awareness, and right thinking, not trapped in a brain or any material part.

        And Christ is the true concept of ourselves as the children of God, which saves us through a greater awareness of our true nature as innocent, spiritual, and full of goodness.  When we think we’re a slave to our bodies and nothing more than the sum mixed brain messages, that depressed thought keeps us trapped in unprogressive cycles.  On the other hand, “The admission to one’s self that man is God’s own likeness sets man free to master the infinite idea.” (Science and Health pg 90, by Mary Baker Eddy).

        So, instead of waiting for the brain to get better, identifying ourselves as nothing more than a brain, or just trying to control or manage brain activity in order to become the people we want to be, we can FIRST admit the nature of our true being as children of God, and as being intricately connected to a deeper source of inspiration, power, and self-value, and THEN, we can begin to master the issues that would otherwise try to define us.  We don’t earn our goodness, it’s built in to us – not materially, spiritually.

        (On a side note, I love studies that show how people can think and be totally aware even when they are clinically considered brain dead.  For example, see the recent Newsweek cover article from neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, or, renowned Dutch cardiologist Dr. Pim Van Lommel’s book Consciousness after Life. To me this kind of stuff helps to show that we are truly more than just a lump of flesh, muscles and electricity, because brain activity is shown to have nothing to do with our true capacity to think, be inspired, and be ourselves.)

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