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Coping with Intrusive Thoughts

A graphic that reads "Coping With Intrusive Thoughts" Above a stock photo of a woman in a hijab, resting her chin on her hand and looking out of a rainy window.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are sudden unwanted, and distressing thoughts. The good news is that they are actually very “normal”–meaning lots of people experience them, and there isn’t anything wrong with you for having them! It’s also important to remember with intrusive thoughts that they are often the most jarring or upsetting things our brains can come up with. This is significant because it means that these aren’t secret desires our mind is showing us–they are thoughts that deeply upset us! But your intrusive thoughts aren’t a reflection of you or your character, or how much of a “good” person you are. 

The easiest way to understand what we mean by that is with an example. In this article, a new mother talks about experiencing an intrusive thought any time she is at the top of the stairs–she imagined dropping her newborn baby and watching them fall all the way down the stairs. This is not a secret desire coming up to the front of her mind–it’s actually something that causes extreme fear and distress that she would never choose to think on her own. That’s what intrusive thoughts are like!

So how do we deal with them?

The instinct many people have is to try to immediately push those thoughts away, or to try to convince their minds not to think of those things. But, just like with our feelings, pushing them aside and not dealing with them doesn’t make them go away or lessen their impact. 

For example, have you heard of the white bear problem? In a study conducted by Daniel Wegner, PhD, Wegner had participants say their own stream of consciousness out loud, once after being told not to think of a white bear and once after being told to think of a white bear. Each time they thought of the white bear, participants were instructed to ring a bell. 

What Wegner found was that when being told not to think of the white bear, participants on average, still thought about it once per minute, much more than those who were told to think of the bear. 

What does this mean? Well, really it just reinforces what we said above! The process of monitoring your thoughts to eliminate certain thoughts is basically a one way ticket to only thinking those unwanted thoughts, rather than suppressing them. 

Unfortunately, we can’t stop intrusive thoughts altogether, but you can develop coping strategies to deal with them. Here are a few you can try: 

Acknowledge & release it:

This is a mindfulness technique that is often used in regulating unpleasant emotions.  Instead of trying to shove the thought out of your mind as quickly as possible, notice it. Let the thought run its course and then let it go. Instead of holding onto it out of fear or fixating on how much you don’t want to be thinking about it or trying to ignore it, which will only make you think of it more. Just realize that it is an intrusive thought and let it pass by once it’s been heard.

Refocus your energy:

Like we said, trying to ignore the intrusive thought  won’t work. But refocusing your energy isn’t just trying to not think of one particular thing, it’s engaging your mind completely in a new subject. It’s sort of like forcing yourself not to fixate on the thought by immediately providing yourself with something else to engage your attention. Remind yourself you can’t control your intrusive thoughts, but you don’t have to fixate on them:  “I can’t control the unpleasant thoughts coming into my mind right now. Instead of trying not to have them when that is not in my control, I will focus my attention on X.”

Try mindfulness techniques:

Just like we touched on above, different mindfulness techniques can be very effective in coping with intrusive thoughts. After acknowledging the intrusive thought, try to notice your surroundings. What colors do you see? What shapes? What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? Try to notice as many details about your surroundings as you can, immersing yourself fully in the present moment. Being fully active and engaged in the present moment can help ward off intrusive thoughts, since they tend to come when our minds are “blank” or when they are less active.

Seek professional support:

And of course,  regular therapy can also help you develop coping strategies suited specifically to your own needs and intrusive thoughts. You can discuss with your therapist if medication is necessary, and determine what your long term support needs are. 

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