What are obsessions, intrusive thoughts and ruminations?

Thoughts of harm and catastrophe have always plagued my mind. I remember one intrusive thought as a child that stuck with me. 

I still have reminders every time I go by the thing that triggered it, showing just how powerful and traumatic these thoughts can be.

Through therapy and researching I now have a better understanding of obsessions, intrusive thoughts and when I am ruminating.

a child looks at two wind turbines from a car window. The words 'spiralling nightmares' in the bottom left hand corner.

I used to go on beach trips with my family a lot. We lived 40 minutes or so from the coast.

On the way, we would pass a wind farm. They weren’t a rare sight for me, but one day I imagined being tied to a propeller of a wind turbine

It just popped into my head. The thought of being tied to it as it was spinning with me dizzy, powerless and with no end in sight.

When we finally got to the beach, I was playing but couldn’t shake the thought. 

I was trying to have fun but seriously. What would happen if I was tied to that thing forever?

This started with an intrusive thought

Intrusive thoughts are the specific thoughts on a topic or theme.

Common intrusive thoughts involve missing the morning alarm and finding an intruder in the home.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli. Typically, these thoughts are distressing (hence "intrusive") and tend to reoccur.

The OCD and Anxiety Center describes these thoughts as unwanted and distressing.

In my account, being tied down and unable to break free is the unwanted thought, bringing on distress and anxiety that still resonates today.

Intrusive thoughts can be seen as individual sparks creating (or emerging from) the metaphorical fire. The fire being the obsession.

the same young boy looks out to a wind turbine in the sea. The word 'obsessions' is in a column in the first third of the image

The thought didn’t leave as the turbines disappeared on the horizon. They remained just as vivid as I dipped my feet in the sea an hour or so later. 

And even today when I see a turbine, as crazy as it sounds, I have the memory of the thought hitting me for the first time.

The obsessions

Intrusive thoughts can repeat. And repeat… 

Frequent intrusive thoughts on a certain theme are the obsessions.

An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.

nhs.uk describes obsessions as repeated unwanted thoughts. The frequency of these thoughts becomes obsessional and problematic.

Intrusive thoughts vs obsessions

Intrusive thoughts are the individual thoughts that contribute to an obsession.

An obsession can be thought of as a storm cloud. A storm consists of individual raindrops, similar to how an obsession consists of many individual intrusive-thoughts.

a drawing of a cloud with the word 'obsession' in it. Below it, rain falls to the ground. On the left of the image, the words 'intrusive thoughts to an obsession are like individual raindrops to a storm cloud'.

Ruminations vs intrusive thoughts

The process of continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark, is called rumination.

Healthline defines rumination as continuous thinking. 

Rumination is carried out as an attempt to reverse, solve or end the problems arising in the intrusive thoughts, often with negative implications.

  1. Intrusive thoughts are the sudden, dark and unpleasant thoughts we experience.
  2. Rumination is processing these thoughts after having one, in an attempt to end the arising anxiety.

Ruminating is our attempt to escape the mental suffering.

Is ruminating a compulsion?

According to this Dr. Michael J. Greenberg article, ruminating is a compulsion.

"when people say they are having intrusive thoughts, upon closer inspection it turns out they are ruminating. The distressing thought that occurs to the person is the obsession, but this event takes almost no time at all. Everything that follows, all mental engagement with that thought, is compulsive rumination."

It seems difficult to differentiate between the terms, making it difficult to heal without professional help.

Ruminations vs obsessions

Obsessing can be considered the whole cycle of intrusive thinking and ruminating.  

An obsession with being tied to a wind turbine against my will consists of individual intrusive thoughts, resulting in rumination.

Rumination is an attempt to figure out a way to prevent this thought or scenario occurring. This may change our behaviours, such as actively avoiding routes that pass wind turbines.

These behaviours are known as compulsions, and will be looked at in a dedicated article.

three wind turbines can be seen in the side mirror of a car in cloudy weather.