How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts

by Vanya Sharma last updated - Medically reviewed by Gayle N.L. Rodi, MA/IOP

There are times in life when we are faced with thoughts that we don’t have control over, or so we think. For some people, these thoughts are a regular part of their lives. They come up uninvited and then simply make a comfortable home for themselves inside our heads. And what we don’t like is their constant knocking on the forefronts of our mind. These thoughts are annoying, frustrating, and overwhelming. These thoughts are known by the name of intrusive thoughts. In this article, we will discuss in-depth what intrusive thoughts are and how we can control them for a better life.

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Your day has just started, you are brushing your teeth and suddenly you remember that one time you accidentally stepped onto someone or maybe lost your favorite pen. These are basic examples of what intrusive thoughts may look like. What happens is your mind feels like it is going into this crazy and unforgiving loop of thoughts that pop up now and then, sometimes through triggers and other times just out of sheer randomness. They often leave us wondering what just happened.

These thoughts can be as basic as the examples given above or a reminder of something embarrassing from our past. But sometimes and for some people, these thoughts might be more than that. They can be troublesome to the point of triggering anxiety and major distress – they can involve the thoughts of killing or harming someone. They can involve abusive and loathing feelings for oneself. They can also be sexual. And what’s worse is that they tend to get stuck in the head, as also mentioned in a paper published in the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). What is important to understand and know here is that – if you are faced with intrusive thoughts, no matter to what degree or extent, you are not alone. At the end of the day, if these are just thoughts and you have no desire to act on them, they are not harmful. Below, we will try to understand the different ways to tackle intrusive thoughts. [1]

Young men talking on the stairs of an office

Reach out to friends and family if you are faced with intrusive thoughts. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

There are many ways you can gain control over your intrusive thoughts, these include identifying your triggers, practicing gratitude and self-affirmations, facing your fears, and talking about your feelings amongst other things. Let us take a detailed look at them below.

Identify Your Triggers

People who are constantly faced with intrusive thoughts, generally, tend to have some specific triggers. When proper attention is not paid, people often fail to recognize their own triggers. These triggers may include deadlines, a memory of a major life event, recollections of crowded places, or sometimes a particular belief about the wellbeing of your family, yourself, or someone else.

Intrusive thoughts sometimes come from an obsession with an object or a person. As per the AADA, what Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) intrusive thoughts do — is they go against our core values — our core feelings about something. This is what provides fuel to these unwanted thoughts. It is, therefore, important to identify what your triggers are. First and foremost, you need to understand your own thought process. Once you have recognized your thought patterns and what triggers you is when you will be more in control of your thoughts – intrusive or otherwise. Oftentimes, it can be a mere object or a song with some memory attached to them, thereby triggering your intrusive thoughts. [2]

Accept The Thought

The thing that doesn’t work with intrusive thoughts is trying to control or kill them. The more you consciously try to control them, the more you empower them and bring anxiety to yourself. Every time you try to push away a thought or attempt to avoid it is when it becomes bigger in your head. By trying to avoid your own thoughts, whatever it may be, you’ve given it more authority over you. This sends a threat signal to the brain and turns your thoughts into this thing insurmountable, something you feel you need to escape from, thereby triggering fear and anxiety.

Rumi, in one of his famous poems, said, “If I sit in my own place of patience what I need flows to me… without pain. From this, I understand that what I want also wants me, is looking for me, and attracting me”.

You can try applying something similar to your thoughts as well. Sit in the stillness with your thoughts and let them flow. Do not let these thoughts play tricks on you. Accept the thought, embrace it, and then remind yourself of — a thought is just a thought and it has no power over you. As quoted in the ADAA, [3] “Freedom from OCD is not about stopping the mind from offering up strange and occasionally disturbing thoughts but learning how to recognize spam vs. urgent mail.”

Refocus Your Energy

To take a break from your intrusive thoughts, try refocusing your mind and energy on something else. Find an activity to do that you will enjoy; it can be anything such as coloring, dancing, watching a TV series, or meeting people. All you need to do is mentally engage yourself in something else. When our brains are tired, stressed, or too quiet, intrusive thoughts come into play and they hold space in your brains. By giving your attention and concentrating on something else, these thoughts tend to shift to the back of our minds. This, in turn, can help you calm your mind and relax. [4]

Talk To The Thought

As per a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, small changes in the way we speak to ourselves during self-introspection can have significant impacts on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Give your thoughts love and compassion, hear them out, and then let them go. An intrusive thought usually comes from a place of distress and what it seeks most is validation and love like most any human being does in distress. Once you talk to your thought and listen to your thoughts, you need to tell the intrusive thought that is all you can do for now. It will help you de-stress and release the thought. [5]

Be Mindful

Mindfulness can help you focus your mind and regain control over it. Being mindful helps you stay in the moment, as per a health news report published in the NIH newsletter. It states, “You can practice mindfulness throughout the day, even while answering e-mails, sitting in traffic or waiting in line. All you have to do is become more aware—of your breath, of your feet on the ground, of your fingers typing, of the people and voices around you.” This will help prevent your mind from drifting away and taking you on long exhausting emotional journeys. [6]

Remember It Is Just A Thought

It is important to remind yourself that it is after all just a thought, and you have more control over it than anything else. A thought without any action has no power at all. Every day, all of us are faced with hundreds of thousands of thoughts, some we choose to act on and some we choose to ignore. The same thing goes for your intrusive thoughts. The only reason why intrusive thoughts seem so overbearing is because they trigger an emotion in us that we don’t like. It is, therefore, important to constantly remind yourself that a thought is just a thought. Just thinking about it doesn’t make it true.

Reach Out

If you’re being faced with intrusive thoughts, do not isolate yourself from others. Talk to people; your friends, family, or a stranger if it makes you feel comfortable. Find a person you can trust and open up to, it will help you feel lighter and also bring back some control. The more you try to avoid your thoughts, the bigger they will become. Besides that, another good thing about sharing your thoughts and feelings is that it may give you perspective and might also serve as a catharsis for you. So, reach out to people.

Seek Professional Help

If your thoughts seem to be getting the better of you and none of the above-mentioned suggestions seem to help, then seeking a mental health professional is a valid and perhaps, necessary idea. The telltale signs of intrusive thoughts affecting you include your daily routine suddenly becoming harder than before. This is when seemingly simple tasks start to become an arduous task. These intrusive thoughts may be the result of unresolved trauma, grief, or anxiety disorder, but generally speaking, intrusive thoughts are a normal part of our brain’s thinking and remembering. Recognizing the difference between a thought and an action is of the utmost of importance to think more clearly and calm your nerves should an intrusive thought enter your mind.

If you notice that your intrusive thoughts are becoming obsessive in any way and affecting your daily life is when you’ll know that your top priority should be to seek professional help. An intervention with a clinical professional in the mental health field will help you assimilate your thoughts and allow you to see them for what they really are. Seeking therapy will help you get back to your routine and resume your life.

It’s also important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with having intrusive thoughts, OCD, or any other mental health condition, for that matter. [7]

To increase your chances of successfully ridding yourself of intrusive thoughts, you may want to consider practicing mindfulness on a daily basis.

Be certain to bring your attention to the present moment. Are you home looking out of a window, are you engaged on the computer, are you driving your car, eating your lunch? If you focus on the present moment, you’ll start to notice that there is simply no room for intrusive thoughts to enter your mind.

Speak with someone, if that brings you comfort. But whatever it is you decide, make sure you don’t let your thoughts become bigger than you are. If you discover that your thoughts involve guilt, then the first thing you need to do is forgiveness – for yourself. A mental health professional can also help you with this too.

Forgive yourself. Have compassion for yourself. Then tells these thoughts to take a hike, thus leaving more room in your brain for different things – positive things, things that make you happy. Taking care of your mental health should be at the top of your priority list for a better and healthier life. Protection Status
About the Author

Vanya Sharma is a writer at heart with interests in the health and nutrition domain and has experience in content creation, collaboration, and content strategy. Vanya has completed the “Introduction to Food and Health” certificate program from Stanford University, US. She aims to bring unbiased and helpful information to all those seeking to make their health and lifestyle a priority.

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