How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts And Live Your Life
Updated November 18, 2019
Reviewer Alicia Fiske, LMSW
Have you ever experienced thoughts that seem to appear out of nowhere and cause anxiety, even though they seem to have no real meaning? Thoughts like this are generally called "intrusive thoughts." Although there's usually no specific reason behind their appearance, they can become annoying and may affect your life.
It's estimated that more than 6 million people in the United States experience intrusive thoughts. Because this is a common experience, experts have learned a lot about it, and they've developed tried-and-true methods for dealing with intrusive thoughts in healthy ways. Read on to learn how you can manage intrusive thoughts in your own life.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted images or messages sent to the brain, and they may involve a variety of issues. Although some intrusive thoughts may be fear-driven, they often feed off of other thoughts and magnify unrealistic ones. For example, if an individual has a fear of accidentally contaminating food while cooking, he or she might have intrusive thoughts about the risk of contamination.
Intrusive thoughts aren't always the result of an underlying condition, nor are they likely to indicate that you have a problem requiring medical attention. However, for some people, intrusive thoughts may be a symptom of a mental health condition.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when intrusive thoughts become uncontrollable. These intrusive thoughts or obsessions may cause a person to repeat behaviors (compulsions) because they hope these behaviors will help them end the thoughts for good.
Individuals who experience obsessive-compulsive thoughts may worry constantly about whether doors are locked or stoves are turned off. For example, these thoughts may cause them to repeatedly lock and unlock doors to make sure the locks are working. While these types of thoughts may not be dangerous, they can affect one's quality of life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience intrusive thoughts that may be connected to a traumatic event. These thoughts may trigger symptoms of their PTSD, such as increased heart rate and sweating. In some cases, the thoughts can be so severe that they lead to flashbacks and intense psychological distress.
People who have developed an eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts that are harmful to their mental health. These thoughts may result in frequent worry about the impact that food has on their physical body, which can lead to stress about eating. In some cases, these intrusive thoughts can lead to problematic behaviors, such as binging and purging.
Learning to Identify and Live with Intrusive Thoughts
Experiencing intrusive thoughts can be frustrating, especially if you aren't sure what's causing them. Luckily, there are ways you can learn to manage these thoughts.
- Identify Your Triggers: Often, individuals who experience intrusive thoughts feel so consumed with them that they don't realize what's triggering the thoughts. Issues like a major life change, a deadline at work, or even a loud or crowded environment can create stress. Identifying and addressing your stressors may help you tame intrusive thoughts.
- Take Action: Identifying triggers is the first step in overcoming intrusive thoughts. When you've identified these triggers, it's time to address them. You may need to remove yourself from a stressful situation or plan your time, so you do not feel pressured to meet strict deadlines. Anything you can do to reduce stressors will help alleviate the occurrence of intrusive thoughts.
- Practice Gratitude Through Daily Affirmations: One key component to overcoming intrusive thoughts is developing an attitude of gratitude. This is important because intrusive thoughts have a way of encouraging individuals to develop a negative self-perception. If you highlight the positive aspects of your life every day, it will help you keep things in perspective.
- Face Your Fears: This is an important step in conquering intrusive thoughts, and it will likely require the assistance of a therapist.
- Talk About Your Feelings: Intrusive thoughts often leave individuals feeling ashamed because they fear that others won't understand. However, taking steps to talk about your feelings is one way to take control of the situation. Again, this is where a therapist can help.
When You Need Help Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts
Learning to overcome intrusive thoughts is a process. Each day is a journey. While you may feel in control of your thoughts some days, there may be times when you need help processing and overcoming them. If intrusive thoughts have become a problem for you, talking to a counselor or a therapist may be helpful. You may want to reach out to someone in your area and schedule an appointment.
However, if you're not sure about in-person counseling, online counseling is another great option. BetterHelp offers a team of licensed, professional counselors dedicated to offering compassionate help to anyone in need. Their platform is completely anonymous, and you may access it from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection).
Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Rachel was my 1st and last counsellor at BetterHelp. She was an amazing support to me and helped me traverse through tough times in a foreign country while being Borderline. She is extremely kind, genuine and unbiased. Her approach in developing positivity through affirmations and elimination of negative thoughts has tremendously helped me cope with mood swings and depression."
"I was in a very bad place when I started counseling with Vanessa. I was drowning in my negative thoughts, especially about moving into a new place. Vanessa helped me face these thoughts, counter them. It isn't easy, but I am training myself and getting better at it. She helps boost my confidence in all aspects. In Vanessa, I found guidance, empathy, open-mindedness and a good listener. Vanessa will never fail you!"
Intrusive thoughts affect many people. If you can identify the source of these thoughts, it's possible to address the root cause and overcome them. All you need are the right tools-take the first step today.