It’s no surprise that intrusive thoughts are usually triggered by stress. Something about the state of heightened arousal and activity in the amygdala, our brain’s threat center, makes it more sensitive to incoming stimuli and prone to slipping into an anxious mental state. So, let’s talk about how we can de-escalate these worries and reclaim calm in the face of stressful thoughts that threaten to hijack our well-being.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and unwelcome thoughts, images, or impulses that repeatedly enter your mind at inappropriate times. They can occur in any situation and at any time of day. Intrusive thoughts are often distressing because they’re inappropriate or taboo — for example, having thoughts of hurting someone you care about.
Some people find intrusive thoughts so upsetting that they avoid situations where these thoughts might occur or try to suppress them with mental rituals or avoidance behaviors. Such thoughts are common in people with anxiety disorders like OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They may also occur in people who experience depression or other mood disorders.
Types of Intrusive Thoughts
When you have an intrusive thought, your mind is being hijacked by a crazy, irrational idea that won’t go away. That said, intrusive thoughts can take many forms:
Sexual obsessions. You might find yourself obsessing over what sexual act would feel most pleasurable or worrying that you are sexually attracted to someone.
Harmful obsessions. You might obsessively worry about harming other people or yourself.
Unwanted thoughts about death and dying. You may be plagued by thoughts of dying in a plane crash, car accident, or other disasters.
When Is It Normal to Have Intrusive Thoughts?
Everyone has intrusive thoughts from time to time, especially when they are stressed or upset by something in their lives. For example, if you’re going through a breakup with your significant other and start questioning whether you made the right decision, it’s normal to have these kinds of negative intrusive thoughts. If these thoughts persist for more than a few days or occur frequently throughout the day, it could signify that you need professional help.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
The causes of intrusive thoughts are not well understood. However, some factors may increase the likelihood of having them. The following can contribute to the development of intrusive thoughts:
Age: Intrusive thoughts are more common in children and young adults than in older adults. They may also be more common in women than men.
Mental health issues: People with depression or anxiety disorders are likelier to have intrusive thoughts than those without these illnesses.
Traumatic life events: People who have experienced traumatic events such as abuse or sexual assault may be more likely to have intrusive thoughts about their experiences. Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Further, signs that there might be an underlying cause include the following:
- Intrusive thoughts that cause significant distress and interfere with your ability to function at work, at home, and in social situations
- Intrusive thoughts that are repetitive and persistent over time
- Intrusive thoughts that interfere with daily activities like eating or sleeping
Intrusive thoughts aren’t always a sign of a mental health problem. But if they cause you distress and make it difficult to function normally, they may meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. If you have intrusive thoughts regularly, you must talk to a doctor or therapist about them to get help and feel better.
How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts?
The thing about intrusive thoughts is that they don’t go away independently; it takes a lot of work to eliminate them. But with the right approach, you can learn how to deal with intrusive thoughts effectively and stop them from controlling your life. Here are some ways to deal with intrusive thoughts:
Identify your triggers
The first step in dealing with any kind of problem is to identify it as such. If you’ve been having many intrusive thoughts lately, consider when they occur and what types of situations bring them on more often than others (e.g., being alone at home). Knowing these things can help you notice patterns that may lead to solutions later down the road.
Practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging them, good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
Mindfulness practice can be as simple as focusing on how your body feels as you breathe. You can do this through meditative breathing, practicing yoga, or simply sitting quietly with no distractions.
Keep a daily journal
A journal is a great way to document your experiences with intrusive thoughts. Writing down your thoughts can help you explore them more thoroughly and discover new insights into their meaning. Also, it’s easier to think objectively about something when you don’t have to talk about it right away with someone else — especially when those thoughts are disturbing or shameful!
Distract yourself when intrusive thoughts come up
If you notice an intrusive thought coming on, immediately distract yourself with something else. For example, if you’re worried about being around children after being abused as a child by an adult, focus on a different topic until the thought passes. If you’re having a negative thought that makes you feel bad about yourself, try focusing on something else, like watching TV or listening to music until it passes.
Remind yourself that these are just thoughts
Some people find it helpful to remind themselves that intrusive thoughts do not mean they will act on them — they just mean they’re having them! Reminding yourself that these are just thoughts can help make them less frightening for many people because it takes away some of their power over the mind.
Recognize and accept them
Intrusive thoughts are part of being human. And the more you try to fight them, the stronger they will become. So don’t fight them — that’s what they want! Instead, recognize that these thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not real. They’re just your brain playing tricks on you. So let them come and go without paying too much attention to them and without feeling guilty or bad about yourself for having them in the first place.
Reframe your thoughts
When you experience an intrusive thought, try reframing it so it takes on a more positive meaning. For example, if you have an intrusive thought about jumping off a bridge during rush hour traffic, try telling yourself, “I would never hurt anyone” instead of “That would be terrible.” This reframing can help you see the thought as less threatening and more manageable over time.
If you have intrusive thoughts about harming yourself or others, you may be tempted to dismiss them as crazy ideas that don’t mean anything. But if the thoughts cause you distress, it’s important to know that they’re common and that there are also professional ways to cope with them, such as:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of counseling that can help you identify and challenge the negative thoughts that trigger your unwanted thoughts.
Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy involves exposing yourself to situations that make you feel anxious without risking danger or harm. This helps you learn that the situations are not dangerous and helps reduce anxiety about those situations in the future.
Medication: Antidepressants can help reduce anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms. However, it is important to discuss all medications with your doctor before taking them — they could have side effects and should not be used by people who do not need them.
The first step in dealing with intrusive thoughts is to be aware of them. This will help you realize they aren’t worth any of your energy and can be forgotten quickly and easily. Second, think rationally about them; don’t allow intrusive thoughts to dominate your perspective. This can be hard at first, but with practice, it will become easier to take a closer look at your thoughts and decide whether they are irrational.
And lastly, you should talk about them with someone you trust or a professional if you feel that the thought is too serious or scary for you to handle on your own. The belief that these thoughts are only private can make it more difficult for anyone to successfully come to terms with their obsessions.
- Freeston, M. H., Ladouceur, R., Gagnon, F., Thibodeau, N., Rhéaume, J., Letarte, H., & Bujold, A. (1997). Cognitive—behavioral treatment of obsessive thoughts: A controlled study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(3), 405–413. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.65.3.405
- Kühn, S., Schmiedek, F., Brose, A., Schott, B. H., Lindenberger, U., & Lövden, M. (2012). The neural representation of intrusive thoughts. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(6), 688–693. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss047
- Seif, M., & Winston, S. (2018, April 26). Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts