How to Spot the Difference between Obsessions and Ruminating

How does ruminating about an obsession in OCD differ from worrying, generally?

Usually, worrying makes you feel anxious about something provable that has already happened or could happen in the future. Ruminating, on the other hand, is dwelling on intrusive thoughts about specific themes (e.g., harm coming to oneself or others). This type of mental review increases anxiety and doubts about what has or will happen relating to the obsession.

Resolve worry

When addressing worry, we tend to use a combination of intuition while also reasoning with facts. This way, we usually find a satisfactory solution. Once the problem is solved, we move on. Even with pervasive concerns, such as those linked with a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), problems can be worked on by generating helpful strategies.

Searching for answers

However, when people ruminate about an obsession, they tend to search for answers in their heads where there are none. A person will deliberate about lost opportunities, disappointments, if-only statements and regrets. Also “shoulds” and “musts” come into ruminations, such as ‘I should have prayed harder’, ‘I must double-check my work is hundred percent’ or ‘If only I didn’t have OCD, I would be a better person’. Sorrow, grief, what to do about this or that, how to protect oneself or others, and fear about the future and what it holds, all add to the person’s problem.

So what’s the solution?

First, and before anyone can start to put helpful strategies into place, it’s important to recognise when ruminating is happening. It helps to identify that while obsessions and ruminating both take place in the mind not to confuse the latter as the obsession. As noted already, ruminating is a thinking behaviour and, therefore, a corresponding mental compulsion related to the obsession.

As we’ve seen, if the obsessive thoughts are that harm might come to oneself or someone else, then the thinking behaviour will usually be going over the “what-if” scenarios and fearing the worst. By identifying that you are ruminating, you are, in effect, doing what you would do when you notice yourself doing any other compulsion. You would then resist the thinking behaviour as you would with all other rituals, which helps reduce obsessive thoughts.

How can you resist ruminating?

By exercising control and becoming more aware of mental rituals, you can learn to resist ruminating by “shifting state”. It means being in the present, and using your five senses as you move your mind and body to something else, or being mindful of what you’re already doing. For instance, if you like the outdoors, you might choose to spend time in the garden, or the park. You would then practice being mindful of the scents, what you can touch, the sounds, and what you can see. Having a packet of strongly flavoured sweets in your pocket can be useful since you can pop one in your mouth and mindfully direct your attention to the taste.

But isn’t this like blocking obsessional thoughts, won’t ruminating start up again?

No, because obsessive thoughts are involuntary and cannot be controlled, but behaviours can be controlled, whether mental or physical. And so in this instance, you would be stopping a compulsive response when you shift state, not trying to stop an obsession. In other words, you would Acknowledge the intrusive thoughts are there, Accept they are there and Allow them to come and go while staying in the present.

But what about anxiety?

Leaning into raised anxiety while practising mindfulness is essential. It’s because it teaches you that you have the stamina to work through a mindful exposure until your anxiety reduces in its own time. By bearing with associated distress, you build a tolerance to it, and this is what leads to becoming less sensitised to the obsessional fear.

How can I make sure I don’t go back to ruminating?

One useful tip is to persuade yourself that any further ruminating will be given attention to in one hour. For example, if you were to allow yourself a time limit for ruminating, let’s say 15 minutes, you would shift state once this time has passed. After an hour, it might be that you’ll have forgotten to come back and ruminate again. However, when the hour passes and you’re hard-pressed to fall back into mental review, ask yourself ‘where will it lead’? You can then persuade yourself to come back in another hour, which will be beneficial, or you can continue to ruminate and stay in the obsessive-compulsive cycle.

How else can Mindfulness and shifting state help?

As we’ve seen, ruminating happens when you deliberate at length about a problem. This circular thinking usually involves self-questioning. For example, ‘How do I know if I won’t hurt myself or someone else?’, ‘How can I prove or disprove I’m not gay?’, ‘I experienced a groinal sensation while holding my child, what if this shows I’m a paedophile?’ When you’ve gone through all the questions, you tend to start over again. Mindfulness and the “shifting state” method can enhance exposure-response prevention. It helps you to more readily challenge your fears step by step (exposure) and resist all compulsions (response prevention) towards recovery.


Intuition and rational thinking can help provide solutions for general worries or for people who have a generalised anxiety disorder. Obsessions are involuntary as opposed to ruminating, which is a purposeful behaviour to search for answers that cannot be found in the mind. Since ruminating is a choice, it can be resisted. Shifting state is a helpful solution for ruminations because it’s a strategy that helps you mindfully distract. By acknowledging, accepting and allowing intrusive thoughts to come and go during Mindful exposures (while simultaneously resisting all compulsions) is essential for a favourable outcome. Also, leaning into raised anxiety and allowing the symptoms to reduce naturally is important when using this method.

© Carol Edwards 2018 Updated 2019.

Get a FREE online counselling consultation with Sunil Punjabi

Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach in delivering exposure-response prevention for ruminations among other obsessional problems.

Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach in delivering exposure-response prevention for ruminations among other obsessional problems.

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