Intrusive thoughts usually are violently negative thoughts that appear out of thin air and bring about distress or anxiety. The content of these thoughts is usually something that is out of character and unacceptable. Some intrusive thoughts range from eerily mundane to morbid, and are usually fear based— fear of harming yourself or fear of harming others.
Unfortunately, the explicit and bizarre nature of these thoughts produce intense visceral reactions that lead to guilt, anxiety, or shame. Hence, you become fixated on them. You are then pulled into a pattern where you ponder where it came from or try to avoid it. However, focusing on the thought just gives it more power over you.
One common reason people focus on an intrusive thought is because they assume that their thoughts reflect their unconscious desires. Usually, it is not the case. You are more than your thoughts. Despite what you may feel, intrusive thoughts are not feelings, red flags, or omens. They do not have any meaning. Intrusive thoughts are tools your brain uses to play with you (or, more accurately, to find out what thoughts elicit certain responses that create behavioral patterns).
So, where do these thoughts come from?
Although intrusive thoughts can signal certain mental health disorders, such as depression PTSD, anxiety disorders, there is no definitive reason as to why they occur or from where. Hence, view them as pieces of junk that wash up from the depth of your mind onto the shore of your conscious mind.
The best and perhaps the most effective way to cope with an intrusive thought is to ignore it. Completely ignore it. The more you try to reason, decipher, or avoid it, the stronger it becomes.
Ignoring it sounds a lot simpler on paper than when put into practice. So, below are a few tips on how to ignore an intrusive thought.
- Recognize it.
Intrusive thoughts can isolate you because they appear to be your own thoughts and the nature of their content can make you reluctant to open up about how they make you feel. However, having intrusive thoughts is quite normal. According to ADAA, approximately 6 million Americans have intrusive thoughts.
Unfortunately, when confronted with an intrusive thought, your immediate reaction might be to label it. Mainly because labeling might help you understand what you are dealing with. However, this gut reaction can make you more obsessed with the thought.
Instead, simply recognize that it is there. Do not try to unpack it or find any meaning in it. Simply recognize that it is an intrusive thought. That is it. Once you’ve recognized it, walk away from it and let flow downstream.
One way to recognize an intrusive thought is to understand how it is making you feel. First, ignore the content of the thought because it may change. But, if you notice that the thoughts whoosh and land on a a specific type of fear over and over again, that is an intrusive thought. Most of the time, intrusive thoughts are spontaneous but they always make you feel awful.
- Realize that you are not always in control.
As humans, we usually think we have more control than we actually do. In some situations, probably. However, there are many things in our lives that we have very little (if any) control over. Our thoughts are one of them. It’s bizarre to realize that we cannot select our own thoughts. Yet, it is true. The only thing that we have the most control over is how we choose to respond.
- Trick it.
Have you noticed that the more someone tells you not to do something, the more you want to do it? A similar rule applies to intrusive thoughts. The more you try to ignore it, the louder it will resonate in your mind and the more difficult it will be to ignore it. So, instead of ignoring it, acknowledge it. Allow the thought to happen. However, do not allow yourself to be convinced that the thought says anything about who you are as a person.
- Remain unbothered.
In the face of an intrusive thought, you may usually try to cope with it and the anxiety it may induce, but if you decide to continue to carry on as if nothing is bothering you, you are taking away power from that thought. Also, you are teaching your brain that you are in control. Eventually, your brain will learn that intrusive thoughts no longer serve as stimuli for certain thought or behavioral patterns.
One way to remain calm is to have a plan for what to do when intrusive thoughts appear. Other ways to cope with intrusive thoughts involve grounding techniques and meditation.
I understand that intrusive thoughts can be scary and difficult to deal with. Generally, they cause distress and anxiety and, at times, can exacerbate your mental health concerns. If you ever need further assistance or guidance regarding your intrusive thoughts, please reach out to a licensed therapist. Therapy can give you the tools you need to cope with these thoughts.
d’Ath, K. (2013, October 14). 4. OCD Treatment: Understanding “Intrusive” thoughts. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Wss6W11bPM.
Freeman, M. F. (2015, July 2). How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts. everybodyhasabrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laeYq51SYA0.
Kandola, A., & Legg, T. J. (2020, May 18). Intrusive thoughts: Types, myths, causes, and treatment. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/intrusive-thoughts.
Owen, K., & Block, D. B. (2021, February 18). Why Suppressing Obsessive Thoughts Makes Them Worse. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-can-i-stop-ocd-thoughts-2510498.
Winston, S., & Seif, M. (2018, April 26). Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts.