Not all thoughts are welcome. Intrusive thoughts often emerge as unwanted visitors, disrupting the tranquility of our minds.
These thoughts can range from mildly unsettling to deeply distressing, leaving us grappling with their origin and struggling to find effective coping mechanisms.
Here’s the lowdown on unwanted thoughts – and how to deal with them.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Know the enemy! Before we dive into strategies to cope with unwelcome thoughts, it’s important to define them.
Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, unwanted, and distressing mental images, ideas or urges that pop into our minds without invitation. These thoughts can be anything that a person finds alien, repugnant, or incongruous with their beliefs and values.
Most people experience fleeting intrusive thoughts from time to time. For example, if someone is holding a baby they might experience the urge to drop it or if they are driving they might have an urge to turn the steering wheel and drive off a bridge. Most people know they would never do these things and don’t pay much attention to them.
However, some people become tormented by their intrusive thoughts and worry that they will come true or cause them to do something terrible. This can lead to them performing compulsions to try and reduce their anxiety and get rid of the thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts & OCD
People with OCD particularly struggle with intrusive thoughts. They find them much harder to dismiss and fear that their thoughts will come true. Say you had the urge to push someone in front of a train, you might think ‘That’s a terrible thought but I know I would never do that’. However, someone with OCD might assume it means that they’re dangerous and should steer clear of train stations.
Other examples of intrusive thoughts commonly experienced by people with OCD include:
Thoughts of violence towards others e.g. images of hurting a family member
‘Blasphemous’ thoughts e.g. thoughts of swearing in a place of worship
Disturbing sexual thoughts e.g. fears about being a pedophile or sexually attracted to a family member
Where are they coming from?
You might be wondering what causes intrusive thoughts. Here are some of the most common mental health conditions that can cause intrusive thoughts:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can happen after someone experiences a traumatic event. It can have long-term effects including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety.
People who have experienced trauma may be more prone to intrusive thoughts related to their traumatic experiences. These thoughts can be intense and vivid, and cause a huge amount of distress as they replay the traumatic event or aspects of it.
OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)
Intrusive thoughts are unfortunately a hallmark of OCD. People with OCD may experience persistent, distressing thoughts that trigger compulsive behaviors as a way to cope with the anxiety generated by these thoughts.
Read Donald’s experience with OCD and how he coped here.
Intrusive thoughts can additionally be found in other anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and depression. There also are many people who experience intrusive thoughts who don’t have a diagnosable mental health condition.
Stress and anxiety can trigger intrusive thoughts as can changes in hormones. For example, women can experience an increase in intrusive thoughts following the birth of a child.
5 tips to cope with intrusive thoughts
Good news: there are strategies to navigate intrusive thoughts and learn to overcome them. Here are some tips to combat unwanted thoughts:
1) Accept them
Accept and allow the thoughts into your mind. Don’t try to push them away. Try to just observe them and allow time to pass.
Remember that intrusive thoughts are normal, everyone has them, and just having a thought doesn’t make it come true.
2) Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of talking therapy that can help you better understand your intrusive thoughts and find strategies to help manage them.
You can find some advice and guidance in the platform’s Wellness Center. Consider seeking support from a CBT therapist to help deal with your unwanted thoughts.
3) Stay present
The more present you are in the “here and now”, the less power you’re giving to these nagging fears and negative thoughts. So, how can you make sure you stay present in the moment?
Grounding exercises, such as focusing on your breath, engaging your senses, or naming objects in your environment, can help bring your attention back and disrupt the cycle of intrusive thoughts.
4) Love. Your. Self.
We know, we know, it’s difficult sometimes! Developing a compassionate mindset toward yourself can do so much against unwanted thoughts, though.
Understand that intrusive thoughts do not define you, and experiencing them doesn't make you a bad person. Treat yourself with the same kindness you would offer to a friend going through a similar struggle.
5) Seek support
You probably guessed this one already! If intrusive thoughts significantly impact your daily life, seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor is crucial.
They can provide tailored strategies and support to address the root causes of these unwelcome thoughts.
You can find more tips on what to do if you’re feeling triggered here.
You’re not alone! With the right tools and support, it is possible to navigate the maze of intrusive thoughts toward a path of healing and resilience.