Intrusive thoughts are a common problem for many individuals. They can be upsetting, frightening and can even result in people feeling ashamed of themselves. However, intrusive thoughts need not be debilitating to the extent that it affects everyday life significantly.
There are methods to manage intrusive thoughts, from understanding their underlying conditions, acknowledgment, and acceptance, and considering therapy. Learning how to stop intrusive thoughts is helpful in recovering from the conditions that they are a symptom of, such as anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and depression.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are undesirable thoughts that can appear haphazardly and unexpectedly. These thoughts often appear repeatedly and uncontrollably. The content of these thoughts, as well as their frequency and unpredictable nature, can be extremely distressing.
Intrusive thoughts seem to pop up “out of the blue,” meaning that they are not connected to anything you may be doing at the time. What is important to remember is that the brain is constantly generating thoughts throughout the day and that not all of these thoughts are pertinent or even correct.
Many times, intrusive thoughts center around sexual, violent, socially unacceptable, morbid, and religious themes. Intrusive thoughts can also have an obsessive component to them, meaning that they recur and persist, with little ability to control them.
Some examples of intrusive thoughts include but are not limited to the following:
- Fear that you might do something embarrassing or inappropriate
- Thinking about committing an illegal act, or something violent
- Thoughts that trigger uncertainty
- Thoughts about past traumatic occurrences
- Thoughts about serious illness or germs (especially present in the COVID-19 pandemic)
What Conditions Are Related to Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are usually a product of various mental health conditions. Among these are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Understanding what causes intrusive thoughts can help in putting a stop to them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
The intrusive thoughts that are experienced as a result of PTSD often emerge as thoughts associated with the traumatic event. When intrusive thoughts occur in this context, they might initiate some symptoms of PTSD, such as a panic attack.
Intrusive thoughts experienced as a result of PTSD can be so intense that they cause flashbacks of the traumatic event, leading to psychological stress.
Those who suffer from anxiety may become anxious over the content of the intrusive thoughts or grow concerned as to why they may be experiencing intrusive thoughts at all. In this way, anxiety can contribute to intrusive thoughts, and conversely, intrusive thoughts may, in turn, cause more anxiety for an individual.
Depression is invariably connected with intrusive thoughts in that depression usually results from intrusive thoughts. The content of intrusive thoughts often causes feelings of worry and guilt, resulting in depression. Additionally, ruminating on the content of intrusive thoughts can worsen symptoms of depression.
Furthermore, the sheer frequency of intrusive thoughts can result in depression. Frequently occurring and debilitating intrusive thoughts can impede an individual’s regular everyday functioning, which can unsurprisingly result in depression.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) results when intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts become unavoidable. The intrusive thoughts are accompanied by repeating behaviors (compulsions) to stop the thoughts and prevent them in the future.
The types of obsessive intrusive thoughts related to OCD are usually related to things such as worrying about bacteria on surfaces, turning off appliances, locking doors, harming or bringing bad luck to others, etc.
As a result of these obsessive intrusive thoughts, an individual may form a ritual or procedure in response to these thoughts. This could be in the form of washing their hands an inordinate number of times or rechecking locks numerous times. These rituals get to a point where they impede everyday life.
What Can Be Done About Intrusive Thoughts?
Although intrusive thoughts can be debilitating and distressing, there are still things that can be done to address them so that they don’t take charge of your life.
Address the underlying issues
Since intrusive thoughts can be a result of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and OCD, it may be helpful to seek out treatment for these underlying conditions in order to ease the symptoms of intrusive thoughts. Therapy (either traditional or online therapy) can be helpful in dealing with these conditions.
Depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD are all treatable, and so the intrusive thoughts related to these underlying conditions are able to be treated as well, and recovery is completely possible. Treating causal conditions will aid in how to stop intrusive thoughts.
Accept intrusive thoughts instead of suppressing them
Suppressing intrusive thoughts will do more harm than good. The effort expended in being hypervigilant in monitoring your intrusive thoughts can quickly lead to you feeling overwhelmed. As a result, you may try to suppress your intrusive thoughts to push them away.
However, it has been shown that thought suppression is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can exacerbate symptoms in the long run and can cause more intrusive thoughts.
Instead, the overarching principle is to accept your intrusive thoughts and be aware of them without trying to suppress them. This is a more mindful technique, where you can acknowledge that although the thought is trying to control you, you have the capacity to confront it.
Ways to confront the thought include not immediately responding to it but rather pausing and reflecting on it first and not giving in to its insistence. Allowing yourself to create this distance between you and your intrusive thoughts allows you to look at them more empirically and lets you see what could be activating them.
Separate the thoughts from your identity
It is extremely important to remember that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not dangerous, whatever they might be. They are not a reflection of you but rather a manifestation of things that cause you the most anxiety.
Similarly, you are not your thoughts, and you are not obligated to take them seriously just because they came from your brain. For example, having a violent thought does not mean that you are a bad or violent person.
Address your shame and fear
People who experience intrusive thoughts frequently feel a great deal of shame and guilt relating to the intrusive thoughts themselves. The thoughts may also make them feel embarrassed and fearful.
The key to handling this is to remember to be tolerant and enduring with yourself. You should keep in mind that intrusive thoughts are common, and everyone experiences them from time to time. Keeping this in mind will help in recognizing the thoughts but not allowing them to form a part of your identity.
It is also helpful to work on reducing your stress and anxiety, as stress can heighten your intrusive thoughts.
If intrusive thoughts are causing you difficulty in coping with everyday tasks at home, school, or work, then it is advisable to speak with a mental health professional. Although it may be challenging to take the step to ask for help, treatments are extremely effective and can help in living a more peaceful life.
Therapy is helpful in treating the underlying conditions that result in intrusive thoughts and is one of the most effective methods in how to stop intrusive thoughts. Psychotherapy is helpful in managing PTSD (the primary condition causing intrusive thoughts).
Exposure therapy, an approach of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is commonly used to help manage intrusive thoughts by using techniques such as role-playing circumstances that cause you concern and walking through that situation with your therapist.
Online therapy is another method of attaining help that is more comfortable for most people. Online therapy is private, and some can even offer complete anonymity if sufferers feel too ashamed to talk about their intrusive thoughts. Therapy over text is also an option and is more accessible for more people.
Medication is sometimes used to manage the symptoms of underlying conditions, and therefore is helpful in stopping intrusive thoughts. Common medications used are anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant medications.
Medications should always be used under the supervision of a doctor.
The Bottom Line
Intrusive thoughts are a symptom of different underlying mental health conditions, but it is completely possible to recover and to feel better. Addressing underlying issues and acknowledging the thoughts as separate from you is a good start.
If you are still struggling, a therapist can help you get a better picture of the situation and aid you in how to stop intrusive thoughts.