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By Kimberly Quinlan

As a trained OCD therapist, one of the most common questions patients ask me is, “How do I let go of my OCD thoughts?” This question often comes from a place of frustration and exhaustion.

People with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) experience painful, repetitive, intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can significantly impact daily life. But with the right strategies, it is possible to overcome this disorder.

In this article, we will explore how to “let go” of OCD using effective techniques and practical steps to help you break free from the grip of OCD.

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health condition that features recurring, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). The key characteristics of OCD include:

Intrusive thoughts

  • OCD involves persistent and intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges. These thoughts can be irrational, disturbing, and not in your control. Most of the time, these thoughts go against our values and beliefs. This makes them even more painful and confusing.

Compulsive behaviors

  • In response to their obsessions, individuals with OCD engage in repetitive behaviors or mental acts known as compulsions. These compulsions are aimed at reducing anxiety or preventing a feared outcome. Common compulsions involve physical actions, avoidance, reassurance seeking, and self-punishment. Common mental compulsions include rumination, checking, and review.

Overwhelming uncertainty

  • A strong need for certainty often drives OCD. Individuals with OCD may engage in thoughts suppression and time-consuming compulsions to alleviate uncertainty.

Interference with daily life

  • OCD can significantly interfere with an individual's daily functioning, relationships, and overall well-being. The time-consuming obsessions and compulsions can disrupt daily routines and lead to difficulties in work, school, and social activities.

Doubt that one actually has OCD

  • It is very common for people with OCD to doubt that they have OCD. This is not because they do not meet the criteria for the diagnosis. Instead, the doubt is related to fear that their intrusive thoughts actually mean something about themselves.

How does one let go of OCD thoughts?

When people with OCD ask me, “How do I let go of my OCD thoughts?”, my first response is to inquire exactly what they mean by “let go.”

  • Are they asking me how to stop having intrusive thoughts?
  • Are they asking how to no longer be bothered by the thoughts?
  • Do they want to learn how to better respond to intrusive thoughts?

This intention check can help us to determine how to move forward.

Does preventing intrusive thoughts work? 

Based on what we know about OCD, the goal of eliminating intrusive thoughts is likely to cause more problems. Trying NOT to have intrusive thoughts, an action called thoughts suppression, will make the thoughts stronger.

Thoughts suppression is the conscious effort to push away or suppress unwanted thoughts or mental images. People with OCD often try to suppress obsessive thoughts or intrusive images because they find them distressing and inconsistent with their beliefs or values. However, research shows that thought suppression is not an effective strategy.

Black woman meditating, how to let go of OCD thoughts.

The thoughts suppression paradox

When people with OCD try to suppress their intrusive thoughts, it tends to have a paradoxical effect. The more they try to push the thoughts away, the more persistent and intrusive they become. This phenomenon is known as the "rebound effect" of thought suppression. The brain interprets suppressing a thought as a signal that the thought is important or threatening. This leads to an increased preoccupation with that thought.

Furthermore, thought suppression requires constant mental effort and monitoring, which can be mentally exhausting. This, in turn, can further increase anxiety and distress as individuals become hyper-focused on the very thoughts they are trying to suppress. It becomes a vicious cycle where the more one tries to stop thoughts, the more they persist and intensify.

How can I make these thoughts not bother me anymore? 

If you ask how to let go of OCD thoughts with the intention of no longer being bothered by them, you may also find yourself in a bit of a bind. I know personally that trying to “not be bothered” by my intrusive thoughts or feelings almost always make them harder to manage.

We cannot control our thoughts. It is common for our thoughts to go against our values and beliefs. Given that obsessions come so repetitively and with such force, we can understand why these thoughts bother you so much. Asking yourself to “just let go” of these thoughts might increase your frustration and self-judgment. If it were that easy, it would have worked already.

What's the answer? Let’s talk about how to let go of OCD thoughts in a way that moves you closer to recovery.

How to manage intrusive thoughts

When managing OCD, the real goal is to change your reaction to the thoughts. Instead of trying to get them to go away, you can use science-based skills to help get your life back from OCD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically a form called exposure and response prevention (ERP), is considered the most effective evidence-based treatment for OCD. ERP gradually exposes individuals to situations, thoughts, or objects that trigger their obsessions while preventing the accompanying compulsive behaviors or rituals.People having a fun time on a roller coaster.

The primary goal of ERP is to help individuals to allow their intrusive thoughts to come and go without resorting to the usual compulsions. By doing this and facing the things that trigger these thoughts, feelings, images, and urges, individuals with OCD learn that their intrusive thoughts are not important. They learn that the thoughts do not require us to do anything but accept their presence and go on with our days.

The success of ERP lies in its evidence-based approach. Research shows that ERP significantly reduces OCD symptoms, decreases distress, and improves overall functioning. ERP therapy typically happens in a structured, therapist-guided format over a period of several weeks or months.

Other therapies for OCD

In addition to ERP, other therapeutic approaches such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may also be incorporated into treatment plans for OCD. These therapies aim to address cognitive biases, enhance self-compassion, and get you back to engaging in what you value instead of trying to suppress or “get rid of thoughts.”

Medication can also help manage OCD symptoms, particularly in conjunction with CBT. A psychiatrist may prescribe medication to complement therapy, especially in cases where symptoms are severe or when treatment alone is insufficient.

How manage OCD thoughts

If you struggle to stay engaged in your daily life because of intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, or urges, try these skills and see if they help you.

Remember, as you practice these, you will notice that the thoughts keep returning. This is completely normal and to be expected. The goal is NOT to get the thoughts to go away or to figure out why you are having them. Instead, we can put our attention on changing how we react so that we do not reinforce these thoughts.

Skills to manage OCD thoughtsBeautiful mountain landscape.

  • Acknowledge that you are having thoughts. Acknowledge that the presence of a thought does not mean the thought is important.
  • Take a non-judgmental approach to the thoughts by not giving them meaning. Instead, just note them as “thoughts” and try not to assign value to them.
  • Recognize that thoughts are not facts. Everyone has intrusive thoughts, even people without OCD, and they are not evidence of danger.
  • Once you note the thought, practice just allowing it to be there. You might even say, “Oh, hi, thought! I see you are here. Welcome!”
  • Practice setting limits with your OCD. You can do this by telling your OCD that you are not going to solve the thoughts you are having. For example, you might say to yourself, “Kimberley, we are not going to solve this one today. Every time I try and solve it, I grow my OCD. Instead, I am going to move on with my day!” Research shows that using your name is a powerful way to stay committed and motivated for change.
  • Stay present. Try to put your attention on your surroundings instead of your thoughts. What do you see? What do you hear? How many triangles do you see, for example?
  • And lastly, go and live your life! Do not let OCD stop you from doing the things you love. If you used to love art, go and take an art class. If you used to enjoy taking walks before OCD hit, get back to taking a short stroll around the block.

Remember, small changes lead to BIG changes. The next time you are wondering how to let go of OCD thoughts, put your energy into engaging in skills and practices that stop the cycle of OCD and get you back to the life you want to live.


  • Betsy Ritchie

    Love this article. It is very detailed and thorough. Thank you, Kimberly!

  • Janet Bailey

    My son has been suffering from OCD and Depression for 14 years. He is now 32 years old, and wants to leave this earth because of the intrusive thoughts. There seems to be absolutely NO residential treatment facilities in Dallas, Texas. Now searching out of state to find treatment before it’s too late.

    Kimberly, please keep on writing for parents like me who is feeling the PAIN with their loved ones. Absolutely love this article.

  • Veronica Murtha

    Wonderful article. It gave me some great techniques to work with.


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