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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

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

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

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Last Updated on March 2, 2021

10 Negative Thoughts We All Have and What to Think Instead

10 Negative Thoughts We All Have and What to Think Instead

I’ll never forget the first time I heard that the way I was talking to myself, realizing how it directly influenced every aspect of my life. We can be our own worst enemy at times and our internal conversation and negative thoughts can be extremely limiting. Like most people, I was blind to this somewhat obvious piece of information.

Eventually, I realized that the negative thoughts I had weren’t facts at all, but instead self imposed limitations that I was putting on myself, which I also had the power to remove. Over the last decade, it has become very clear to me that most of us actually have very similar negative thoughts. Here are some of the most common negative thoughts we all have and what we should think instead.

1. I Am Not Good Enough

Have you ever thought that you weren’t good enough? When we feel that we aren’t good enough, we tend to drown in this emotion of self-doubt and pity. It can be a symptom of low self-esteem, but the truth is that every one is good enough.

You might not have the skills or tools to achieve what you want now, but you are certainly good enough and worthy of receiving what you want in life. If you have a $10 bill, and it falls on the ground into a puddle of mud, does that $10 lose its value? Of course not! So why do you feel that you lose value based on what you have done in life?

What to Think Instead

Instead of saying, “I am not good enough,” tell yourself that you are worthy of all you desire in this life, just like everyone else[1]. Focus on the things you like about yourself in this moment. You can even make a written list and post it nearby if it helps you to see it each day[2]

Practice Loving Yourself to Overcome Negative Thoughts

    2. I Can’t Do It

    “Can’t” is one of the most limiting words that you can tell yourself. Henry Ford once said,

    “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.”

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    If you tell yourself that you can’t, you are sending messages to your mind and brain that you can’t, and so that will be your experience. Your mind won’t try if you have already told it that something is impossible. 

    What to Think Instead

    Instead of focusing your negative thoughts on what you think you can’t do, tell yourself, “I can do whatever I put my mind to.” While we all do have limitations, believing in your abilities in the first step to achieving your short and long term goals in life. 

    And sometimes, you may just need a little motivation boost. Get the Instant Motivation Boost Worksheet, it’s a free worksheet that will guide you to do the little things for an instant boost of motivation. Grab the free worksheet here.

    3. I’m Not as Lucky as Other People

    This thought normally comes from holding an illusion that other people’s lives are better and they are luckier, and that is what separates you from them. “Perfect” doesn’t exist, and there is often a lot of effort that goes behind that perceived “luck.”

    It is very disempowering to think that life will never offer you good things; the truth is that if you tap into some gratitude, you’ll see that you already have good things all around you. 

    What to Think Instead

    Instead of focusing on all the luck others seem to have, tell yourself, “Good things can and will happen to me.” Use a sense of gratitude to begin to notice all of the good things you would normally never notice. For example, when was the last time you felt grateful for the roof over your head, the food in your fridge, or your comfy bed?

    4. I Don’t Think I’ll Ever…

    Whatever you believe will become your reality, this is true. You shape your future every day by the choices you make and your habits. You can sabotage your opportunities by limiting yourself with negative thoughts.

    What would it be like if you believed that you could do what you really desired and have the experiences you wished instead? It is not about getting it right the first time, but trying. Don’t stop yourself before you have even given yourself a chance.

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    What to Think Instead

    Don’t limit yourself with negative thought patterns that tell you you’ll never do something. Instead, tell yourself, “I am confident I will…” Even if you don’t feel confident in this moment, feeding your brain positive thoughts will slowly build confidence over time. 

    5. I Should Be Better Than I Am

    Using the word “should” in this context makes this a truly negative thought and makes one feel less than they are. How often do you find yourself saying “I should be more clever, more disciplined, more productive, etc. than I am”? Remember how you feel immediately afterwards?

    What to Think Instead

    Tell yourself, “I am making an effort to change what I don’t like.” Everyone has parts of themselves that they hope to improve, and this is certainly possible, but it requires approaching these things with a sense of self-love and patience. 

    Set yourself goals for the things you are not happy with instead of telling yourself what you “should” be like or be doing. Take action the things you wish to change and remove limiting modals from your vocabulary.

    Here are some ways you can start to improve yourself.

    6. I Am Not Strong Enough

    It’s normal to feel that you are not strong enough at times[3]. We are all human, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel weak at times. What is important though, is the conversation you have with yourself afterwards. If you keep reinforcing the fact that you don’t feel strong with negative thoughts, how can you expect to feel?

    What to Think Instead

    Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, tell yourself that you are strong enough to deal with the challenges in front of you, and support yourself in finding the strength you need in that moment.

    7. Nobody Cares

    It might feel that you are alone at times and that nobody cares, but I am convinced that there are people thinking about you that you don’t even know of. People do care; not everyone expresses their emotions in the same way. It isn’t nice feeling that nobody cares, so stop focusing on that and assuming what other people feel when you don’t actually know. Change your focus to something that makes you feel better instead.

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    What to Think Instead

    Instead of assuming that no one cares about you, remind yourself that there are people in your life who do, in fact, care very much. Do your best to cultivate those relationships and accept the love others are willing to give in order to combat your negative thoughts. 

    8. I Am Not Smart Enough

    This is a very general statement, yet many people tend to say it often and then feel bad about themselves afterwards. What are you not smart at specifically? I bet that if I asked you to identify some areas that you are smart in, you could if you really tried.

    Not everybody is clever and perfect in every area, and this is what makes us all unique. If you feel that you are lacking in a certain area of knowledge, instead of producing negative thoughts, make time to study and learn whatever it is that you want so that you don’t feel this way any more.

    What to Think Instead

    Instead of believing that you’re not intelligent, remind yourself that you are smart in a unique way and that you are capable of improving your knowledge in any area you choose. Lifelong learning can be a goal you constantly work toward.

    9. If I Don’t Do Well, I’m a Failure

    Holding high expectations for yourself and having conditions attached to your self worth on your performance isn’t fair. You need to take chances in life if you want to get different results. Don’t be scared of failing; the real failure lies in never having tried.

    What to Think Instead

    When facing a challenging situation or possible risk, tell yourself, “I am going to try; I am not scared of failing; that is not what is important.” Even if you “fail,” you will learn something about the world and yourself, and as long as that’s the case, nothing is ever a true failure. 

    10. Bad Things Will Happen

    Thinking negatively in general is thinking that whatever happens, it is most likely going to be the worst case scenario. What would it be like if you imagined the best case scenario instead? Our positive and negative thoughts are very powerful, and it’s common to use visualization as a technique to imagine the best case scenario.

    Whether you imagine the worst or the best case scenario, you are influencing your results. Stop focusing on what you don’t want to happen and rather on what you want to happen.

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    What to Think Instead

    Instead of thinking that bad things will happen when you try something, try thinking that the best will happen. This way, you’ll aim high, and even if you fall a little short, you’ll still get farther than you were before. 

    Final Thoughts

    We all have negative thoughts from time to time. However, when the majority of your thoughts are negative, you are undermining your happiness at the end of the day. Our thoughts directly affect how we feel and, therefore, what we do in life.

    If you’re feeling sad and are overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you can consider contacting a mental health professional to give your mental health a boost and get you back on track toward positivity.

    Don’t limit yourself or what is possible for you. Master your thoughts and change your results. 

    More on How to Stop Negative Thoughts

     

    Featured photo credit: arash payam via unsplash.com

    Reference

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