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Last Updated on December 8, 2020

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Eating You Alive

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How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Eating You Alive

The human brain is an amazing organ. What we most associate the brain with doing is thinking. It assimilates a tremendous amount of information, and processes it in a multitude of ways, such as cognitive thinking, memory recall, and decision-making.

The brain processes so much information that it is not uncommon for us to experience random thoughts, or intrusive thoughts, unrelated to any of our values. Most people experience intrusive thoughts without any significant consequences. But for a few people, intrusive thoughts are more severe and can make it difficult to function normally day to day.

Here we’re going to examine the nature of intrusive thoughts, and then discuss how to stop intrusive thoughts when they are causing problems.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Generally speaking, intrusive thoughts are thoughts that pop into your mind seemingly out of nowhere. They are usually strange thoughts that you normally wouldn’t think of. For example, you might think, “What if I have a stroke or a heart attack?”

You might think harm may come to someone you know, maybe even a loved one. You certainly don’t want someone you love to get hurt, but nonetheless the random thought crosses your mind.

The absurd nature of intrusive thoughts can cause people some distress. However, in general, they are a normal part of having an active brain. We are so used to thinking about something all the time that during quiet periods the random, intrusive thoughts will arise from the vast database we call our brain.

These may appear as you’re falling asleep or when you are waking up. They may distract you during an important meeting or presentation. Or they may even find their way into moments of meditation.

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There is another class of intrusive thoughts called “unwanted intrusive thoughts.” These are more intense and can trigger anxiety, panic, guilt, or disgust. Their content is usually about violence, sex, or socially unacceptable behaviors[1]. They can be quite disturbing. Some examples are:

  • Pushing someone in front of a moving vehicle
  • Stabbing someone
  • Torturing a person or animal
  • Randomly touching a stranger

What makes unwanted intrusive thoughts disturbing is that people are afraid that they might commit the acts pictured in their mind, or that they indicate that something is wrong with them.

For the most part, intrusive thoughts are nothing to worry about. However, if you are having difficulty getting them out of your mind, and they interfere with normal functioning in your life, then you may want to seek professional help. This still doesn’t mean you want to commit the acts, but rather you may just need some help in learning how to manage the intrusive thoughts.

A Common Myth About Intrusive Thoughts

One common myth about intrusive thoughts is that we subconsciously want to commit the acts pictured in our mind. This is rarely the case. It is not uncommon for kind, loving people to have intrusive thoughts about harming others. They realize they are just random thoughts that are inconsistent with their intentions, and they just ignore them.

Another common myth is that all intrusive thoughts should be examined. Remember, they are just random thoughts, not actions. The only power they have to harm us is the power that we give them.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

As mentioned above, in most cases, intrusive thoughts are just harmless random thoughts that pop into our mind unexpectedly. In other cases, they may be indicative of other mental or emotional disorders[2]. They can cause people great distress and hinder their ability to function if left unchecked.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when the intrusive thoughts become repetitive, and the person doesn’t have the ability to control them. The thoughts lead to certain actions in the hopes that they will make the thoughts go away.

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For example, a person with OCD may develop a routine of checking and rechecking to make sure all the doors and windows are secure in order to ease the fear of being assaulted by an intruder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur as a result of a traumatic event, such as a violent attack. The person with PTSD experiences severe distress and has difficulty coming to terms with the event. In such cases, intrusive thoughts are part of the experience. The person keeps re-living the experience and the emotions associated with it.

Eating Disorders

Sometimes people develop eating disorders as a result of not being able to deal with their emotions. The disorder can have different manifestations, such as overeating, binging, starvation, or purging. Whatever the case, the person is trying to either hide or overcome a recurring train of thought, belief, or emotion, and intrusive thoughts are a part of this dynamic.

Addiction

Addiction is usually the result of growing up not learning how to deal in a healthy manner with conflict, one’s emotions, or life in general. When a person doesn’t know how to cope, then the only alternative is to try and cover up the emotions with a substance that changes one’s mood, such as alcohol, drugs, or a behavior, such as sex. Intrusive thoughts are a part of addiction because addicts develop obsessive and compulsive thinking and behavior.

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

The majority of people have intrusive thoughts that are harmless. Though the content of the thoughts might be violence and socially unacceptable behaviors, the person is aware that they are just random thoughts and are not their true intentions or motives.

Though it is difficult to completely stop intrusive thoughts, we can diminish them significantly. Here are some effective strategies:

1. Don’t Indulge in Them

If we indulge in our intrusive thoughts, then we give them more power and increase the likelihood of them reoccurring. The best thing to do is just ignore them and to not attach any significance to them.

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2. Avoid Entertainment Involving Violence

Studies have shown that watching violence on television, or other media, can lead to aggressive behavior.[3] And of course, aggressive behavior is preceded by aggressive thinking.

3. Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a way to calm the mind and help you focus on more positive thinking. Therefore, it reduces the quantity of random thoughts and changes their content from unwholesome thoughts to more wholesome, productive thoughts.

4. Reduce Mental Agitation

Intrusive thoughts are sometimes the result of an overactive mind. In addition to using mindfulness meditation to calm your mind, you can reduce mental agitation by reducing (or eliminating) the sources. These sources can include too many activities or responsibilities in your life, and background noise, such as radio and television when you’re not engaged with them.

Dealing With More Severe Intrusive Thoughts

If you are dealing with intrusive thoughts that make it difficult for you to function, then you may need to seek professional help. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, but rather you may just need some help in learning how to cope with the intrusive thoughts. Here are a couple of approaches that a mental health professional might use.

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy where a mental health counselor helps you examine your thought patterns. The goal is to identify inaccurate or negative thinking and develop strategies for changing that thinking so that you learn to respond to thoughts in a healthier manner[4].

2. Medication

Sometimes mental health problems are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. In such cases, a mental health professional might prescribe medications, such as antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs)[5].

When considering medication for treating any mental health problem, it is advisable to proceed with caution. First, most medications come with unpleasant side effects. Second, they are generally not a cure, but rather intended to address the symptoms.

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Third, it isn’t always clear if the thought patterns are the cause or the result of the chemical imbalance. For example, addicts may show a chemical imbalance in the brain, but this is the result of years of unrealistic thinking. Addiction generally can be treated without medication. In such cases, seek help from an addiction expert.

The Bottom Line

Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life. They are the result of having an active mind that works 24 hours a day. For most people, intrusive thoughts are not a problem. They recognize that the thoughts don’t mean much and are fleeting.

For some people, however, intrusive thoughts can be more of a problem. The thoughts may be recurring and cause significant emotional distress. They can also indicate other mental health issues, such as OCD, PTSD, or addiction.

If your intrusive thoughts are making it difficult to live a normal life, it is advisable to seek professional help. A mental health expert can address the underlying causes of the intrusive thoughts and help you develop strategies for coping with them.

In either case, even though the content of the intrusive thoughts may be disturbing, they generally don’t indicate that you subconsciously intend on acting out those thoughts. Remember, they are just thoughts.

More Tips on How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Featured photo credit: Francisco Moreno via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
[2] Healthline: Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them
[3] American Psychological Association: Violence in the Media
[4] Mayo Clinic: Cognitive behavioral therapy
[5] Healthline: Intrusive Thoughts: Why We Have Them and How to Stop Them

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

How to Get “I Can’t Do It” Out of Your Vocabulary

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How to Get “I Can’t Do It” Out of Your Vocabulary

When someone says, “I can’t do it” . . . I say to myself, “What do you mean you can’t do it?” Maybe you don’t want to do it, but saying you “can’t” do it is a completely different story.

With the right mindset, positive attitude, and a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, the only thing that is holding you back is yourself.

Can’t is a terrible word and it has to be taken out of your vocabulary.

By saying you can’t do something, you’re already doubting yourself, submitting to defeat, and you’re making that barrier around your life tighter.

So today, right now, we are going to remove this word for good.

From now on there is nothing we can’t do.

“Attitude is Tattoo”

Your attitude is everything; it’s your reason, your why and how, your facial expression, emotions, body language, and potentially the end result. How you approach an opportunity, and the result of it, is solely based on you — not your boss or your co-worker or friend.

If you enter a business meeting with a sour attitude, that negative energy can spread like wildfire. People can also feel it — maybe even taste it. This is not an impression you want to leave.

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Now imagine you enter a business meeting with a positive attitude, that whatever happens in here is going to be your result, in your control, not someone else’s. Of course, we can’t always win, but even if the outcome is negative, your attitude and perception can turn it into a positive. The question is: can you do it?

Of course you can, because there is nothing in this world you can’t do.

It’s much better to be known for your positive attitude — your poise, your energy, the reason why things go so well because you are able to maintain such character. A negative attitude is easy. It’s easy to complain, it’s easy to be mad, and it’s even easier to do nothing to change it.

When I say your “attitude is tattoo”, it sounds permanent. Tattoos can be removed, but that’s not the point. Your attitude is like a tattoo because you wear it. People can see it and sometimes, they will judge you on it. If you maintain a negative attitude, then it is permanent until you change it.

Change your attitude and I guarantee the results change as well.

Believe You Can Do It

Do you know why most people say “can’t” and doubt themselves before trying anything?

It’s our lack of self-confidence and fear on many different levels. The one thing we have to purge from ourselves is fear — fear of bad results, fear of change, fear of denial, fear of loss, the fear that makes us worry and lose sleep. Worrying is the same as going outside with an umbrella, waiting for rain to hit it. Stop worrying and move on.

Confidence is fragile: It builds up slowly, but can shatter like glass. Project your confidence and energy into believing in yourself. This is a very important and groundbreaking step — one that is usually the hardest to take. Start telling yourself you can do something, anything, and you will do it the best to your ability. Remove doubt, remove fear, and stick with positive energy.

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Learn how to boost your confidence: How to Be Confident: 62 Proven Ways to Build Self-Confidence

Embrace Failure

Do not fear failure. Do not run away from it. Face it, learn from it, grow, and take action. Just remember: You will never know success if you have never failed.

Your confidence will bolster after embracing these facts. You will be immune to demoralizing results, and instead you will find ways to fix it, improve upon it, and make it better than before. You will learn to never say “can’t,” and will realize how many more opportunities you can create by removing that one word.

Don’t let one simple and ugly word plague your confidence. You’re better and stronger than that.

Start Making the Change

But to actually start the process of change is very challenging.

Why is that?

Fear? Time? Don’t know how — or where — to start?

It’s hard because what we’re doing is unlearning what we know. We are used to doing things a certain way, and chances are we’ve been doing them for years.

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So here are some ways that I avoid using the word “can’t”, and actually take the steps to put forth the change that I wish to see. I hope you can incorporate these methods into your life.

Write down What You Want to Change

Write it on post-its, notecards, whatever makes you comfortable — something you will always see. I usually write mine on post-its and put them all over the wall behind my monitor so I always see them.

Tell a Friend and Talk About It

Discussing your goals, what you want to change, is very effective when you say it out loud and tell another person other than yourself. It’s almost like saying, hey, I bet I can do it — watch me.

When you fulfill that goal and tell your friend, it feels rewarding and will motivate you to do it again in a different aspect. Who knows? Maybe your friend adopts the same mindset as you.

Stop Yourself from Saying the Forbidden Word

Sometimes,I can’t control myself in public when I’m with friends, so I have to be careful with the words I use so I don’t embarrass or insult anyone.

Treat the word “can’t” as the worst word you can possibly use. Stop yourself from saying it, mid-sentence if you must, and turn your whole perspective around — you can do it, you will do it, and nothing is impossible!

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You think this change will be overnight? No way. This is a practice. Something you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life from now until forever.

As I said earlier, you are unlearning what you know. You know how easy it is to say you can’t do something, so by unlearning this easy practice, you’re self-disciplining yourself to live without boundaries.

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Practice this everyday, a little at a time, and before you know it, the word can’t will not be part of your language.

Do Anything That Can Relieve Your Uncertainty

When I catch myself saying I can’t do something or I don’t know something, looking up information on that action or subject, doing research, educating yourself, relieves that uncertainty.

Sometimes, we think we can’t do something because the whole idea of it seems too large. We skip the small steps in our head and only focus on the end.

Before you say you can’t do something, rewind and slow down a little bit. Focus on what the first step is, then the next. Take it a step at a time, and before you know it you will have done something you previously thought you couldn’t do.

Final Thoughts

You know what you must do. The first step is right now. Once you begin this habit, and really start noticing some change, you’ll realize the door to opportunity is everywhere.

The funny thing is: Those doors have always been there. The evil word that we no longer use put a veil over our eyes because that’s how powerful that word is.

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Featured photo credit: Cata via unsplash.com

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