What You Should Know if You Struggle With Intrusive Thoughts

5 min read

Intrusive thoughts are any unwanted or stuck thoughts that come on suddenly and cause anxiety. They are different from most worrisome thoughts in that they do not reflect any real concerns, such as losing a job or being unable to pay bills. Intrusive thoughts often have content that is violent, sexual, or socially unacceptable. Sometimes they come to mind in the form of images that stick in your mind after you try to shake them off.

If you’ve ever held a kitchen knife and imagined stabbing someone with it, or ran a stop sign and then imagined you hit someone, you’ve experienced intrusive thoughts of violence. At another time, you might have been stuck with images of your own funeral or of the sudden death of loved ones. As disturbing and unwanted as these thoughts might be, they have no real meaning or importance.

Who Might Have Intrusive Thoughts?

While they can be similar to the thoughts that occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts can happen for people who have no mental health condition. They can happen to anyone who is under a high level of stress or uncertainty. They are seen by therapists as a symptom of stress, possibly a need for more certainty about life circumstances or for more control over one’s personal environment.

When intrusive thoughts occur in someone who is already dealing with a mental health condition, they can take on more power because the person tends to give them more meaning or importance. Mental health conditions that make people more prone to intrusive thoughts include OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression, and eating disorders.

False Assumptions About Intrusive Thoughts

It’s important to be clear about what intrusive thoughts are not. There have been longstanding myths about intrusive thoughts that have made them more disturbing to those who have them. Once these myths are called out as false, the tips for coping with them become more intuitive. Intrusive and unwanted thoughts are…

  1. Not a sign that you want to do the thing(s) that come into your mind out of nowhere. People fight these thoughts because they do not represent real intentions or even wishes. Unfortunately, fighting the thought actually makes it persist longer. A person with intrusive thoughts of violence is most likely a very gentle person, while someone with intrusive thoughts of death most likely embraces life. In other words, such thoughts don’t indicate anything about a person’s character or morals.
  2. Not a signal, warning, or message intended to help you. Giving this type of meaning to such thoughts reinforces their staying power and has no constructive purpose.
  3. Not the same as an impulse. Having a thought is not the same as engaging in that behavior. The thoughts do not suggest poor impulse control. People with a strong capacity for impulse control are actually more prone to these thoughts than the average person.

Tips for Coping With Intrusive Thoughts

  • Label the thoughts as “intrusive” and unwanted. This discredits them immediately and lightens their impact.
  • Accept that they happen and that they are only thoughts. Allow them to exist.
  • Don’t give any meaning to unwanted intrusive thoughts. They’re a symptom of anxiety. They can be considered nonsense or “junk thoughts.”
  • Expect that they’ll probably happen again. And then they’ll fade away again, with no consequence. Over time, these thoughts will occur less frequently when less importance is given to them. After applying this approach for a few weeks, the anxiety that had been associated with the thoughts also becomes less intense.
  • Address your underlying anxiety, including any triggers that you become mindful about. For example, maybe you’re having these thoughts right before a big exam because you’re worried about your academic standing. Or maybe they occur while you are driving because you witnessed a car accident recently. Whether the stressor is chronic (e.g., school stress, health issues) or acute (e.g., recent trauma, relationship conflict), a combination of self-help and therapy will be helpful in reducing the frequency of intrusive thoughts.

Steps to Address the Underlying Anxiety

  • Take some time outdoors to benefit from the relaxing effects of being surrounded by nature.
  • Get some exercise. Physical exercise activates the release of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has a natural calming effect after as little as 10 minutes of movement.
  • Try deep breathing for stress management.
  • Try deep muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Consider meditation, which has been shown to decrease our tendency to ruminate.
  • If you’re concerned that you may have a more serious problem, seek help from a therapist with experience treating anxiety disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy in various forms is effective for anxiety treatment. You might start by asking your physician for a referral or use an online provider finder.

Intrusive and unwanted thoughts can cause intense concerns about what they might mean. Don’t give them any power by assigning meaning to them. They are a symptom of anxiety, which can come and go without consequence once you know the truth about them and stop fighting them. Sometimes, the help of a therapist is needed to overcome this struggle, particularly if you are also having other symptoms of anxiety or depression.

“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.” —Dan Millman

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