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Last Updated on December 8, 2020

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Eating You Alive

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

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Charles A. Francis

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

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