Intrusive thoughts refer to distressing, unwanted thoughts that seemingly pop up out of nowhere. Some of the thoughts are repetitive, whereas others are more random and spontaneous. Intrusive thoughts also coincide with numerous mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance use disorders.
Learning how to recognize and manage intrusive thoughts can help improve your emotional well-being.
Why Do We Have Intrusive Thoughts?
It's estimated that people experience between 12,00-60,000 thoughts per day. We're also biologically wired to survive, which means that the brain is consistently detecting threats and dangers. Intrusive thoughts are normal, and the vast majority of people experience them from time to time.
Intrusive thoughts vary in nature, but the common ones include:
Self-harm intrusive thoughts: These types of thoughts can sound like, "What if I just jumped off this building?" or "What if I stabbed myself with this knife right now?" These thoughts can exist even if someone has never self-harmed.
Violent intrusive thoughts: Violent thoughts can also be intrusive and may sound like, "What if I hit this pedestrian driving at this moment?" or "What if I threw this stapler at their head?" Many new parents also experience intrusive thoughts related to accidentally harming their baby.
Intrusive sexual thoughts: Sexual thoughts can also be intrusive, and they might be related to certain fetishes or desires. Sometimes they also have to do with fears of liking a specific sexual activity or wrongfully identifying with a particular sexual orientation.
Contamination and health-related intrusive thoughts: These thoughts may sound like, "What if I actually have brain cancer?" or "What if what I ate poisons me?" The chronic nature of these thoughts can result in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Religiously-based intrusive thoughts: These disturbing thoughts relate to causing sin or breaking specific religious rules. This particular OCD subset is known as scrupulosity.
How to Cope With Intrusive Thoughts
Although intrusive thoughts pop up for most people, they can still be uncomfortable, shameful, and difficult to manage. If you struggle with a mental health condition related to your intrusive thoughts, navigating the situation can feel even more challenging.
Here are some important reminders when you're experiencing intrusive thinking:
Label Them As Intrusive Thoughts or Junk Thoughts
The most important takeaway from intrusive thoughts is remembering that you are not a product of your thoughts. Thoughts are just thoughts- you don't have to act on them or let them determine your behavior whatsoever.
It may be simply helpful to tell yourself, "This is an intrusive thought," when you notice yourself experiencing distress. Aim to be as neutral about it as possible, as this can mitigate some of the anxiety associated with it.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
It's tempting to want to resist or fight intrusive thoughts when they arise. But sometimes, it's easier to simply be present with it. Grounding techniques, including focusing on your breath or thinking about what you're grateful can bring you back to the present moment. The more you practice mindfulness exercises, the easier they become.
Avoid Judging Yourself
Intrusive thoughts are not indicative of core values. Some experts believe that we have intrusive thoughts as a way to subconsciously "check ourselves" to ensure that we don't actually act out on the disturbing thought.
With that, aim to practice self-compassion and kindness to yourself. You are not bad or broken for how you think. You can't control how you think, but you can control the actions you take in response to your thoughts.
Seek Mental Health Support
Intrusive thoughts can sometimes coincide with unhelpful repetitive behaviors. For example, if you have intrusive thoughts about germs or contamination, you might wash your hands compulsively. Or, if you have a strong urge to harm yourself, you might engage in cutting.
Likewise, recurring intrusive thoughts that worsen over time may indicate significant depression or anxiety symptoms. Therapy can help you understand the nature of your obsessive thoughts and help you learn how to better reduce stress and treat any underlying problem. A mental health professional also offers compassion and support, which may help you feel less alone in how you feel.
Coping With Intrusive Thoughts At Resurface Group
Unwanted intrusive thoughts can impact your mental health and emotional well-being, particularly if they are connected to a mental health disorder. In addition, a traumatic event can exacerbate intense thoughts long after the event is over.
At Resurface Group, we treat and support people recovering from addiction and mental health conditions. We can help you learn how to manage intrusive thoughts in a way that feels compassionate and feasible. If you're struggling to cope in your daily life, we are here for you.