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What are Repetitive Thoughts and Behaviors?

Repetitive thoughts and behaviors are recurring (and often anxious) compulsions. Repetitive thoughts may also be called rumination, which is defined as a single thought repeating on a loop inside of one’s head. Repeated thoughts and behaviors may be detrimental to one’s mental health and exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other related conditions. Generally characterized as negative, recurring thoughts and behaviors can lead to diminished mental health.

Repetitive thoughts and behaviors are often a key component of disorders including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and autism. The nature of repetitive thoughts and behaviors in different conditions, for example, OCD versus autism, may differ.

Signs of Repetitive Thoughts and Behaviors

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Impaired judgement
  • Avoidance of certain tasks and activities
  • Unusual fixations on certain tasks and activities (for example, a fixation on food due to repetitive thoughts and behaviors may occur in someone with an eating disorder)

How are Repetitive Thoughts and Behaviors Treated?

There are multiple known treatment methods for people struggling with repetitive thoughts and behaviors. The main treatments for this condition include:


Cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective treatment method for repetitive thoughts and behaviors stemming from various causes. This type of therapy (also called CBT) can help the suffering individual identify, shift, and replace the repeating negative and/or anxiety-inducing thought. Over time, this therapy may help develop healthier thought patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be especially helpful for the treatment of repetitive thoughts and behaviors in people with depression or anxiety.

Repetitive thoughts and behaviors caused by past trauma may be eased when the individual processes trauma-related emotions. Therapy can be an effective coping strategy for both emotional and physical trauma.

Medications for underlying conditions

Repetitive thoughts and behaviors may stem from underlying conditions like OCD, depression, and anxiety, among others. Medications to treat these conditions may be prescribed in the treatment of repetitive thoughts and behaviors.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle shifts may help in the treatment of repetitive thoughts and behaviors by improving stress management. Effective lifestyle shifts may include meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling, and getting enough sleep at night.

Meditation and practicing mindfulness can be especially helpful in the treatment of this condition. Mindfulness forces the patient to focus on the present moment and practice gratitude, which can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety.


Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.

If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.

And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.

Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:

  • Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
  • Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
  • Encourage resilience and self-management
  • Identify and change negative behaviors
  • Identify and encourage positive behaviors
  • Heal pain from past trauma
  • Figure out goals and waypoints
  • Build self-confidence

Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?

Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.

So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.

Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.


Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:

  • Call your mental health specialist.
  • Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
  • Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:

  • Make sure someone stays with that person.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.

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