How To Manage Intrusive Thoughts
Have you ever experienced unwanted thoughts that appear out of nowhere and cause discomfort or unpleasantness? These are generally called "intrusive thoughts." While there's often no specific reason behind their appearance, they can become annoying and may affect your life.
If you're experiencing this, you are not alone: intrusive thoughts can be prevalent. According to one study that included participants in 13 countries, more than 93% of the individuals reported experiencing at least one intrusive thought during the previous three months. Read on to learn more about intrusive thoughts, strategies, and resources for additional help.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or images that arise in your head and may involve various topics. Some examples of intrusive thoughts could be thoughts of contaminating food, saying something inappropriate in front of others, acts of violence or doubt about doing something wrong.
Intrusive thoughts often are not the result of an underlying condition. However, for some people, intrusive thoughts may be a symptom of a mental health condition, as detailed below.
For individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts may feel more overwhelming and cause more severe disruptions. These intrusive thoughts or obsessions may cause a person to repeat behaviors (compulsions) because they hope these behaviors will help them end the views or lead to a better outcome.
For example, individuals who experience obsessive-compulsive thoughts may constantly worry about whether doors are locked or stoves are turned off. These thoughts may cause them to repeatedly lock and unlock doors to ensure the locks are working. While these 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 PTSD, such as increased heart rate and sweating. Sometimes, the ideas 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 harm their mental health. These thoughts may result in frequent worry about food's impact on their physical body, which can lead to stress about eating. Sometimes, 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 and they're getting into your daily life. 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 them. 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 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 essential step in conquering intrusive thoughts, and it will likely require the assistance of a therapist. Many people experience fear, but not all of us may fully understand why that fear is there or the trustworthy source of it. During your treatment, a therapist can help you to uncover and address these fears safely.
- Talk About Your Feelings: Intrusive thoughts often shame individuals because they fear 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, as they will allow you to discuss your thoughts and feelings in a safe non-biased environment while providing valuable tools and insights to help you better understand and cope with these feelings.
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, talking to a counselor or a therapist and getting treatment may be helpful. You may want to reach out to someone in your area and schedule an appointment.
However, online counseling is another great option if you're unsure about in-person counseling. BetterHelp offers a team of licensed, professional counselors dedicated to offering compassionate help to anyone in need. Their platform is completely discreet, and you may use it from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have an internet connection).
CBT For Intrusive Thoughts
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great way to address and overcome intrusive and compulsive thoughts. Nearly 400 universities and researchers have studied Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT). A review of all of these studies found that ICBT is not only overall just as effective as in-person therapy for treating a variety of issues (including OCD), but it's more beneficial in terms of cost-effectiveness, greater client satisfaction, and cognitive improvement, and reduced negative stigma as clients can attend therapy sessions comfortably from their home. Internet-based therapy, the studies found, also results in a significantly lower dropout rate than in-person therapy and is less time-consuming.
BetterHelp allows you to have sessions anytime, anywhere, though you will need an internet connection depending on how you decide to hold sessions. Sessions are fully customizable and can be conducted via video chat, phone calls, instant messaging/texting, or live voice recordings sent back and forth. It's also beneficial to those living in areas where in-person therapy is not an option and those with busy or non-traditional schedules, as our therapists are worldwide and operate at all times. A quick quiz will help match you with a suitable therapist. From there, you can chat with them initially and then schedule sessions if you feel they're a good fit or choose another therapist if you don't think they're a good match.
Please continue reading below for some reviews of our experience, board-certified counselors from people working through intrusive and difficult thought patterns.
"Dr. Walker has been a gift to my life. He is a great counselor and filled with insight into thoughts that trouble your mind. He is comprehensive, compassionate, and caring. He creates a safe environment for you to be yourself and pushes to connect with you gracefully, yet he does it all so professionally. He is good at listening and giving you things to do throughout your week so you can practice them. He provides insightful articles, and he is entertaining. I highly recommend Dr. Bill."
"Donna is the best listener and made me feel super comfortable and heard right off the bat! She's been great at helping me re-direct my thoughts and focus. I like that I can chat; she asks questions that keep me on track or helps me see what I'm saying differently. I also appreciate the variety of worksheets she has sent me. They've been beneficial to me, especially in organizing my thoughts. I just recently felt ready to go back to therapy, and Donna has made me feel like I'm healing and moving forward."
Intrusive thoughts affect many people. Identifying the source of these thoughts makes it possible to address the root cause and overcome them. All you need are the right tools-take the first step today.
Some commonly asked questions on this topic include:
Can intrusive thoughts be cured?
You can make intrusive thoughts feel significantly less bothersome by changing how you respond to them. Instead of reacting to an intrusive thought that pops in your head in a way you usually would, like repetitive behaviors you might do to neutralize it, try to ignore it instead.
This is easier said than done, though, for most people, and not responding to an intrusive thought can cause more anxiety in the short term. However, they are just thoughts that will pass with time, and so will the feelings and emotions attached to them.
Why are my thoughts so intrusive?
Unwanted thoughts are intrusive simply because we don't want them there. If you have a bad idea appears, it's common to try to question it, but this can cause people to become overly fixated on it and try to place meaning in the thought.
Intrusive thoughts happen because we place importance on them, which can cause significant distress. Accept the thoughts as junk without labeling them as bad or good, as when practicing mindfulness meditation. It can become less bothersome, and anxiety will become less frequent whenever you have unwanted intrusive thoughts.
How do you break the cycle of intrusive thoughts?
To break the cycle of having unwanted intrusive thoughts, all you have to do is change the way you behave in response to them. When you carry out specific compulsions or rituals to relieve anxiety, you only reinforce the thoughts in the long run.
Accepting intrusive thoughts and not giving them attention will be the key to breaking the cycle and feeling freer. As mentioned before, this is challenging, and you are encouraged to talk to someone who can give you the coping skills you need to deal with intrusive and disturbing thoughts.
Mental health professionals, like counselors or therapists, are trained to assist people in overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts by using techniques like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy, to name a couple.
Is intrusive thoughts a mental illness?
Intrusive thoughts are not a mental illness on their own, and everyone will have an unwelcome thought once and a while, but having them regularly and causing you distress can indicate a mental disorder, like depression, OCD, and other anxiety disorders.
Therefore, if you're struggling with unwanted intrusive thoughts regularly, it's time to find the underlying problem by reaching out to a professional to get advice, diagnosis, or treatment for what you're going through.
Therapy will give you effective long-term solutions for dealing with your conditions. Still, a doctor or psychiatrist can also provide medical advice, diagnosis, and, importantly, prescribe medication that can help calm your symptoms of the mental health disorder you've been diagnosed with and relieve anxiety.
How do you calm a racing mind?
If you're having a bout of anxiety, such as one triggered by a disturbing thought, there are many techniques you can use right away to calm your mind and body. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and practicing mindfulness are a few of the most popular ways of doing so.
Are intrusive thoughts ADHD?
Intrusive thoughts are not symptoms of ADHD, but people with ADHD can have them. Unwanted intrusive thoughts are most commonly associated with OCD and mental health disorder like PTSD, depression, and various anxiety disorders.
Does anxiety cause obsessive thoughts?
In OCD and other mental health conditions, the relationship between obsessions and anxiety is a cycle. Usually, an intrusive thought will appear that causes a person to feel stressed and anxious, and to deal with the disturbing ideas, images, or sensations; they will use a compulsion of some sort to try to quell the anxiety. They will feel some relief, but the intrusive thought almost always returns because the individual is fixated on how disturbing the idea was.
Here's a typical example: many women, especially new mothers, fear that they will accidentally harm their baby in some way or get a violent image in their head that causes them great distress. Having intrusive thoughts related to this and carrying out compulsions in response to them is known as perinatal OCD.
In response to their thought, they will check on their baby to ensure they did nothing wrong and they're safe. While they get temporary reassurance, they will wonder why they received a violent and disturbing thought and that it makes them a bad parent.
In reality, these disturbing thoughts don't necessarily reflect on the individual at all, and in fact, having this sort of response means that they care and do not want anything to happen to their kids. That's why it's disturbing and causes so much fear. They're not violent at all, and it's more indicative of their nature.
This doesn't mean they shouldn't check up on their children by repeatedly checking and letting the intrusive thought get to them; it will keep happening as long as they engage with it.
Treatment for perinatal OCD, like other types, will involve cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help parents learn how to accept these unwanted thoughts that will pop up during this stressful time while also maintaining a healthy sense of responsibility for their children. You might not be able to stop intrusive thoughts from happening altogether, but you can make them more manageable.
How do I stop living in my head?
People who struggle with intrusive thoughts often feel trapped in their heads. To change this, individuals must learn how to focus on what's happening around them in the present moment. This can be anything from breathing, paying attention to the sounds and smells around you, writing in a journal or blog post, and learning to accept yourself for who you are. Your thoughts do not make you a wrong person.
Why do my thoughts keep repeating?
Your thoughts keep reappearing because you give them more attention than they deserve. If you experience intrusive thoughts over and over, the only way to make them less persistent and eventually disappear is by ignoring them.
Does everyone have intrusive thoughts?
Everyone will have intrusive thoughts - it's completely normal. Even an unwanted violent opinion is considered normal and harmless. You should only be concerned if you enjoy or entertain acting on these studies; in that case, they're no longer intrusive or disturbing.