Obsessive compulsive traits and ways to cope

Obsessive compulsive traits are part of anxiety issues recognisable by recurring negative, upsetting thoughts or fears (obsessions), managed by compulsions to cope with the anxiety generated by the obsessive thoughts.


Examples of obsessions may be contamination thoughts, the need to order items, intrusive negative thoughts, excessive exercise or impending doom. The obsessions are managed by compulsions such as hand washing, checking, ordering, or constant repetitive thoughts and actions.

Such persistent thoughts lead to compulsive checking or other action, so that it becomes a constant loop of compulsions that need to be carried out. The compulsions can hinder and make everyday life very difficult to manage.

Why does it happen?

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in the frontal lobes region of the brain is involved in the cognitive processing of decision making and reward. The limbic system is the area that helps in forming social attachments and regulating emotions. Information from the striatum (involved with reward and habit formation) is fed into the OFC. The striatum acts like an entrance or gate to activate or reduce the force of our automatic responses.

In OCD, scientists believe that the striatum is not doing its gatekeeping job properly (the gate is left open and unmanaged), so that obsessive thoughts and compulsions can repeatedly flood into the OFC uninhibited. 

This makes the sufferer feel that they need to repeat the compulsion to stop the obsession. Acting on the compulsions brings temporary relief. This OCD loop can lead to even more obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviours to avoid dealing with the original anxiety-provoking thought.

Positive coping strategies

There is always a core issue or emotion/thought at the root of obsessive compulsive behaviour. We mask this core issue because perhaps we do not know what the issue is, or it is too painful to deal with. To be able to manage our obsessional thoughts, a good place to start is to become aware of your negative thought processes. 

Listen to the thoughts for what they are and do not attach any emotion or action to them. Learn to ‘sit’ with the thoughts and let them flow in and out of your mind. Keep a journal and write down your thought processes during the day. Analyse these thoughts and ask yourself:

  • Where do they come from?
  • Are they from a past hurt that you are triggering by responding with the same automatic pattern of behaviour?
  • Are they rational or irrational?
  • Are they a response to a current feeling that needs further attention?

Try to acknowledge what emotion or event they are linking back to. We can choose to not indulge in the thought process and allow ourselves to be masters of the thoughts, not the other way round. We can learn to ignore the compulsive urges and replace them with positive, goal orientated, focussed rational behaviour.

This will help your general wellbeing and aid new neural pathways to be developed, so that the anxiety driving obsessions can be managed positively. Once you understand why you are thinking these thoughts, you can work on how to adapt or change your automatic responses. 

Skills such as Acknowledge, Validate and Cope and mindfulness - allowing your mind space to be calm and enjoy the present - can be highly beneficial if you're struggling with OCD.

Talking therapy and OCD

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is a useful talking therapy tool, that is often recommended as a successful form of therapy for OCD sufferers. It can help you cope with overwhelming issues by breaking them down into smaller parts.

One way of doing this is by using CBT Thought Logs, analysing your thoughts in detail and looking at the evidence for and against your assumptions. This will help you to understand why you think and feel like you do and look at positive ways to move forward.  You'll then be able to work on reframing thoughts, tolerance and acceptance and can distract the OFC from its repetitive OCD loop response and help you to reduce your compulsions.


  • The Psychotherapist’s Essential Guide to the Brain.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals

Related Articles

More articles

Real Stories

More stories