How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts

Man in Black Shirt and Gray Denim Pants Sitting on a bench having intrusive thoughts

Over 6 million Americans experience the phenomenon known as intrusive thoughts. These may be violent, sexual, or weird but are often recurring, unwanted, and difficult to manage. For millions of us, these thoughts can interrupt what we’re doing, causing embarrassment, anxiety, anger, or even thoughts of suicide.

Dealing with those thoughts can be intensely difficult, especially if you don’t know where they’re coming from or why. And, often, the more you try to push them away, the more intensely those thoughts can come back. Those thoughts can be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or another mental health disorder. However, they can also occur on their own, with no other visible mental health symptoms. And, for many people, the only real “solution” is to learn coping mechanisms that help you to deal with them better.

At Compassion Recovery we know that every person needs a unique approach to managing their mental health. However, the following tips can help you to start dealing with intrusive thoughts in a healthy way.

Identify Intrusive Thoughts

One of the most important steps to dealing with intrusive thoughts is to identify when they are happening. If you can recognize that something is unwanted and “not you”, you’re already a long way towards being able to manage those thoughts. Instead, many of us realize after-the-fact and sometimes even after having acted on those thoughts.

Some symptoms of intrusive thoughts include:

  • Thoughts or sudden images that you wouldn’t normally have. For example, sudden violent thoughts or imagery when doing a normal or everyday thing
  • Thoughts that bother you or make you uncomfortable
  • Thoughts that won’t go away when you try to think about something else, try to manage them, or try to think through them.

Identifying intrusive thoughts will allow you to recognize that you’re dealing with something, accept that it is happening, and to move on. “this is an intrusive thought, it is unpleasant but I will go on with my day”. In fact, fighting with and trying to make intrusive thoughts go away can actually make them worse. Recognizing and accepting them for what they are is a much more effective tactic.

Take a Time Out

Taking time out won’t make your intrusive thoughts go away. In fact, taking time to focus on making intrusive thoughts go away could make them come back in a more intense and more disturbing fashion. However, taking 10-15 minutes to change what you’re doing can give you time to restructure what you’re doing in your head and to reframe it against what you’re doing.

That’s especially important for individuals with intrusive thoughts of self-harm or harming others. If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts of knife violence while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, taking a few minutes to go do something else can give you the time you need to step away from those thoughts and to examine what you really want in that situation.

Woman in White Tank Top and Blue Leggings Doing Yoga on Yoga Mat

Learn Grounding Skills

Grounding skills including meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness can be extremely helpful in managing intrusive thoughts. For example, mindfulness and meditation can help you to learn how to clear your mind. While you won’t likely be able to block out intrusive thoughts, you will be much more likely to be able to connect with your body, how you actually feel, and what you want from the moment you’re in.

Mindfulness techniques help you to live more in the now and less in your thoughts. That normally means paying attention to what’s happening now, how you feel, and experiencing that, rather than being caught up in your thoughts. While that won’t make intrusive thoughts go away, it will reduce their impact over if you were spending that time caught up in your thoughts.

Of course, no treatment will impact your mental health right away. For many people, intrusive thoughts only last a period of months or a year or some other finite stretch of time. But, if you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, learning skills like meditation and mindfulness will give you the tools and the habits to deal with those problems if they come back – or if they don’t go away.

Approach the Thought with Nonjudgement

It’s important to keep in mind that intrusive thoughts are intrusive, they aren’t you, they aren’t what you will do, you will not or do not have to act on them. For that reason, most psychologists recommend taking a detached and curious approach to them. Being able to identify and comment on your intrusive thoughts to yourself can make you feel much more in control.

  • “That’s interesting, that’s not at all like me”
  • “Actually I think that’s gross”
  • “That’s a really bad idea, I don’t feel like that at all”
  • “I feel like X instead”

Essentially, if you can treat your intrusive thoughts with compassion and nonjudgement, you can also remove much of their impact on your life. For example, feeling guilty or embarrassed that you’re having those thoughts, spending a large amount of time or effort analyzing and trying to figure out where those thoughts came from, or even trying not to act on them. Detaching and viewing them as something from a third party and looking at those thoughts with curiosity means refusing to invest further in those thoughts – because they aren’t you – all you have to do is reduce their impact on your life.

Get Therapy

Sometimes intrusive thoughts are mild enough that you can manage them on your own. In other cases, behavioral therapy can help you to identify underlying problems, to build coping mechanisms, and to build behaviors that make it easier for you to cope with intrusive thoughts in a healthy and sustainable way. That’s especially true if intrusive thoughts are a side-effect of another mental health disorder – where you might need treatment to help you cope with those symptoms.

Here, behavioral therapy can help you to assess behavioral responses, to understand how you respond to intrusive thoughts, and help you to build towards a healthy approach to those thoughts.

If you or a loved one is struggling, Compassion Recovery is here to help. Intrusive thoughts may be very short term, they may also become chronic. However, learning to manage underlying problems like stress, anxiety, and mental health disorders can help. And, if intrusive thoughts are disrupting your daily life, it’s extremely important to seek out professional help.

If you or you loved one need help with mental health treatmentdrug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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