How To Beat Intrusive Thoughts
Here are some helpful ways to deal with intrusive thoughts:
1. Don’t try to stop the intrusive thought, the harder you try to stop them, the stronger they will be.
2. Label it as an “Anxious Thought." This will help you to see them more objectively rather than subjectively experiencing them.
3. Don’t personalize the intrusive thoughts. The thoughts are not who you really are.
4. Don’t avoid situations that trigger the thoughts. This will only strengthen the thoughts.
5. Learn how to detach yourself from the thought. This is another way of removing them from your subjective experience.
6. Learn how to take back control. This will help improve confidence and reduce the fear of the thoughts.
7. Refocus your on what you were doing or onto something more pleasurable that is outside of your head.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Worried thinking, obsessive thinking, and intrusive thoughts. So what’s the difference and how do you beat and overcome intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can and often do go away. You can stop intrusive thoughts.
You worry about money, your family, the future. You have trouble falling asleep at night because you can’t shut your mind off from the events of the day or what you have to do tomorrow.
You obsessively think about a person, a situation, or a fear over and over. You become consumed and unable to let it go until you have worked it out somehow. Usually engaging in some type of behavior that neutralizes the anxiety.
Or you have thoughts popping into your head. You have horrible, intrusive thoughts that you do not want to worry or obsess about. You feel that you can't overcome these intrusive thoughts.
To make things worse, all of these thoughts can also take the form of mental images or in the form of an impulse.
The more horrible and disturbing the thought is, the more it will affect your thinking.
You can have intrusive thoughts about impulsively doing something you don’t want to do. Like standing up and yelling really loud in a movie theater. How embarrassing would that be?
We can separate thoughts into voluntary and involuntary thoughts.
When you worry you are voluntarily allowing yourself to think about problems or things that make you feel anxious.
Obsessions are involuntary or unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses (urges) that are disturbing and unacceptable.
People can have disturbing sexual thoughts, aggressive thoughts, thoughts of religious sins. People can have intrusive thoughts while having sex or driving a car that could lead to a panic attack.
Intrusive flashbacks Intrusive thoughts and images can be real or actual events that have occurred. These are symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are more like intrusive memories of a traumatic event.
Symptoms of PTSD:
Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.
Reliving the event through intrusive memories or nightmares.
Avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
Psychological distress at exposure to things that remind you of the traumatic event.
Physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic event.
Obsessive Thoughts vs Intrusive Thoughts Obsessive thoughts and images related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are usually more voluntary.
These thoughts focus more on the fear of something that has not happened yet, such as “What if I didn’t lock the door, someone can just walk in my home and take everything.” If I don't wash my hands, something bad will happen, I will get sick."
Intrusive thoughts are more disturbing, “What if I can’t control myself while using a knife and I stab everyone in the room” or "What if I stab myself." "What if I can't control myself and I try to have sex with my mother."
These are not fantasies or actual urges. These are unwanted fearful thoughts that can cause feelings of shame and self-doubt.
What Are Examples of Intrusive Thoughts?
Fear of losing control and harming yourself or others
Intrusive sexually explicit or violent thoughts and images
Thoughts about upsetting things in your past
Fear about committing a crime
Are Intrusive Thoughts Normal?
Yes. Most people will experience unwanted thoughts at some point. It is normal to have thoughts that we do not want to have. People will become upset and disturbed by the thoughts and then this causes more of the same intrusive thoughts.
Will I Act On Intrusive Thoughts?
You are not likely to act on any intrusive thought. Just because you have a thought, it does not mean that you will act on that thought.
In fact most people experience intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts by themselves are not the problem. It’s the reaction you have to the intrusive thought that’s the problem. If you react with the belief that the thoughts are dangerous by trying to stop the thoughts or use avoidance, then you will experience anxiety and fear.
Your reaction to the intrusive thought causes the anxiety, not the intrusive thought.
They are just thoughts. They have no physical weight to them. No one can see them in your head. You can’t touch the thoughts. You can’t cut your finger with a thought. You can’t taste the thoughts or experience them in any other way except to see them written on paper.
Yes you can think them or allow them to take up space in your head but that’s all they are, just thoughts.
Will Intrusive Thoughts Ever Go Away?
Yes. For some people intrusive thoughts can go away. For those with severe OCD, however, can continue to experience intrusive thoughts if not treated appropriately. In these cases with severe OCD, many of my patients will experience fewer intrusive thoughts and will be able to calm them and stop them quicker.
Can Anxiety Cause Intrusive Thoughts?
Yes anxiety can cause intrusive thoughts. Anxiety causes worry and thoughts about fearful things. This can quickly turn into having unwanted thoughts about scary and disturbing things. Reducing anxiety will reduce intrusive thoughts.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
One possible cause involves a feedback loop between certain parts of the brain.
When we have intrusive thoughts, we may continually spin around between our fontal lobe and the amygdala. The frontal lobe is responsible for active thinking, working memory, planning and organizing, and control over behavior and emotions. The amygdala helps turn on the "Fight or Flight" response to help us deal with the danger. This creates the feeling of anxiety and fear.
This becomes a feedback loop because your frontal lobe reacts to the intrusive thought as being dangerous "What if I lose control and hurt myself." Your amygdala then triggers the anxiety alarm to help you with the danger by focusing on it more. This causes you to have more intrusive thoughts, more mental catastrophizing, and causes your amygdala to keep sounding the alarm.
This loop could then lead to having a panic attack.
Research has found that the left frontal lobe and the cingulate cortex are more active during intrusive thoughts. The left frontal lobe is responsible for our inner dialogue and the cingulate cortex is thought to be responsible for conflict resolution.
What Are The Consequences of Having Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can cause nervousness, anxiety, fear, panic attacks, depressed moods, and avoidance of people and places. People will then have trouble with work, school, and relationships.
What is The Treatment For Intrusive Thoughts?
A form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) known as Exposure and Response Prevention has been the most effective method for treating intrusive thinking and the symptoms of OCD.
With Exposure and Response Prevention, a mental health professional trained in CBT conducts a series of sessions to gradually expose the person to situations that trigger his or her intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
Over time, the person learns to respond differently to these triggers, leading to a decrease in the frequency of compulsions and the intensity of obsessions.
How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts In 7 Steps
See a mental health professional if you believe you could have any of the conditions presented here to first verify the diagnosis and then receive appropriate treatment.
1. Don’t try to stop the intrusive thought
The harder you try to stop the thought, the more you will have it.
By reacting to the disturbing intrusive thought by trying to stop it or suppress it, you send the message to your brain that it is dangerous.
Your sympathetic nervous system will crank up the fight or flight stress system in response to your reaction, making you feel more anxious. More anxiety means more disturbing intrusive thoughts, and more fear reactions, and more anxiety, and more intrusive thoughts. You get stuck in a vicious cycle or feedback loop.
Your goal is to overcome and beat intrusive thoughts at their game!
2. Label it as an “Anxious Thought”
Instead of focusing on the content of the thought, such as “I’m having intrusive inappropriate sexual thoughts,” focus on it being a thought that produces anxiety. This will move you away from the emotional content of the thought. Say, “It’s just an anxiety provoking thought.”
Focusing on the disturbing content of the thought keeps you spinning round and round on the merry-go-round. Labeling the thought as an “Anxiety provoking thought” allows you to step off the merry-go-round and observe it with some safe distance.
3. Don’t personalize it
Tell yourself, “It’s not me, it’s the anxiety” or “It’s OCD.”
Many people with horrible intrusive thoughts feel ashamed at the having the thoughts and then feel defective, “What is wrong with me? I must be a horrible person?”
The opposite is actually true. The more moral and ethical a person you are, the more these thoughts will be disturbing and horrible. You will have more of the thoughts that you personally find most horrible and don’t want to have. That’s the way anxiety works. It tricks you and lies to you.
4. Don’t avoid situations or engage in any rituals
Avoiding or running away from situations that may trigger intrusive thinking only temporarily reduces the anxiety.
Avoidance actually strengthens anxiety’s hold on you and increases the likelihood of future intrusive thoughts. You confirm that the situation is dangerous by fleeing and avoiding it.
The same is true for rituals used to reduce the anxiety.
Compulsive rituals may only temporarily reduce the anxiety and distract you from the thoughts. Engaging in a ritual will confirm that the thought is dangerous since you have to compulsively do something to make it go away. This also reinforces the compulsive ritual.
5. Detaching yourself from the intrusive thoughts (Passive Exposure)
Allow the thought to flow into your head. Close your eyes and imagine the thought and/or image floating out of your head like a leaf, landing on a stream of water, and floating down the stream.
Chalk Board or Dry Erase Board
Close your eyes and project the thought on a black chalk board or white dry erase board, then erase it with a large eraser. Allow the thought to appear on the board several times and erase it each time.
You can then write more helpful words or thoughts on the board such as “Calm” or “Sleep” if you are trying to get to sleep.
Close your eyes and imagine sitting in a large movie theater alone and project the intrusive images onto a large movie screen and watch them while sitting in the back of the theater. You can imagine yourself eating popcorn while watching.
Then imagine yourself watching from the projector booth where you can fast forward, rewind, and pause the images.
Write your thoughts down on paper and read it to yourself.
Writing your thoughts down helps remove them from your subjective experience so you can objectively analyze them on paper. This is a great way to detach yourself from the thoughts.
6. Take back control (Active Exposure)
Don’t just allow the thought to pop into your head, forcefully have the thought. If trying to stop the thought makes it worse, then forcefully having it should take the power and control away from it.
Forcefully have the thought faster, then slower, then fast again.
If it’s an image, forcefully have the image and place it in different places around the room, far away, or on the ceiling.
See a mental health professional and actually verbalize the thoughts in a confidential setting.
Now that you have confronted the intrusive thoughts and detached yourself from them, it’s time to refocus.
Move on to your next task. Focus on what’s going on around you.
Think about the things that you are grateful for.
Focus on a physical activity or creative activity. This will help you shift gears, activate other parts of your brain, and begin to shut down the parts of your brain responsible for the intrusive thought cycle.
You can stop thoughts! Don't let them push you around! Push back with these strategies. Practice these strategies, don't give up, and you will defeat the intrusive thoughts.