Intrusive thoughts are those thoughts that pop into your head seemingly out of nowhere. They happen automatically and can happen at any time. These thoughts are usually unwanted, unpleasant or even painful. Intrusive thoughts are often repetitive in nature and usually come in the form of mental images or statements said to yourself.
These thoughts are normal and most of the time, they come and go without causing us much distress. They become a problem when they are too intense, when they start to negatively impact our behavior or when they cause us to harm ourselves and others.
Why Does This Happen?
Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts from time to time. Sometimes, they are unpleasant or embarrassing memories or replaying scary or traumatic situations. Intrusive thoughts do not always indicate an underlying mental health condition and are not always indicative of a need for medical attention. But if your thoughts are very intense or have been affecting you for a prolonged period of time, it can be a sign of a mental health condition.
People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience flashbacks and other intrusive thoughts connected to the traumatic event. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is known to cause uncontrollable and obsessive intrusive thoughts that may cause you to take certain actions (compulsions) in an effort to stop the obsessive thoughts. People who have developed an eating disorder commonly experience overwhelming thoughts about food, their health and their bodies.
Common intrusive thoughts
People have intrusive thoughts about all sorts of things and these thoughts are usually unique to their personal circumstances. For those who have experienced trauma, it’s normal to have recurring intrusive thoughts related to the event, including flashbacks or ruminating on how you could have avoided the event or done things differently. People with low self-esteem often feel like there’s a bully in their head. These intrusive thoughts tend to be self-deprecating in nature and can lead to decreased feelings of worth.
Many people have intrusive thoughts about death and may fear that they are going to get into an accident or that someone will harm them. Other people may have intrusive thoughts about catching a disease or being poisoned. It’s also quite common to have thoughts of committing illegal or violent acts, whether against yourself or others. Sexual thoughts are also very common. Many people experience unwanted or inappropriate thoughts or images of sex. For example, heterosexual people may have an intrusive homosexual thoughts or vice versa. Or you may have an intrusive sexual thought about an inappropriate person like a family member.
It’s always important to remember that you did not cause your intrusive thoughts. They happen automatically and they are normal. Most of these thoughts are never acted upon. Intrusive thoughts become harmful when they become obsessive or when they begin to negatively influence our behavior.
Three-Step Method for Addressing Intrusive Thoughts
- Don’t try to suppress the thought
It’s normal to want to suppress an unpleasant thought when it pops up. Sometimes we even physically shake or hit our heads, trying to get the thought out. But this is a counterproductive strategy that can lead to even more rumination. Here’s an example:
Don’t think about purple elephants. Are you envisioning a purple elephant right now? Are you able to get yourself to stop? Probably not.
Suppressing an intrusive thought tends to have the boomerang effect of the thought continually returning to you. By suppressing a thought, we are actually thinking about the thought, which can turn into a cycle of rumination.
2. Label the thought
A critical step to addressing and eliminating these thoughts is to acknowledge and label them. When you realize that you are having one of these thoughts, it can be helpful to say to yourself or out loud “I am having an intrusive thought.” This can help to prevent you from attaching yourself to the thought. You are aware of exactly what it is, so you are better able to control it. Some people even give these thoughts a name to separate themselves from the thought.
For example, you can decide to call the intrusive voice in your head after a villain in a childhood cartoon. When the thought pops up, you can say to yourself “That’s just a Plankton thought.” This simple strategy is helpful for both children and adults.
3. Talk to the thought
Now it’s time to actually address the thought. Talk to it as if it were a separate body. Let it know that it’s not wanted or helpful right now. Let it know that you’re aware that it’s just an intrusive thought and that you don’t have to attach yourself to it. If you’ve named the thought, you can address it by name.
By practicing this three-step method when unwanted thoughts arise, you may notice over time that you’re less affected by your thoughts. By simply acknowledging and addressing them, you can take back your power.
If you have been struggling with uncontrollable, intense or unbearable intrusive thoughts, or if you are worried that these thoughts may cause you ongoing distress, it’s important to seek help. By working with a therapist, you can uncover the root of your unpleasant thoughts and develop actionable skills and strategies for addressing, minimizing or eliminating intrusive thoughts.
Contact us today to schedule your first session.