What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
We all have involuntary thoughts and they might be disturbing or distressing at times. Think of the flash you have of a family member’s funeral or an unwanted “what-if” thought, such as “What if I just took my foot off my brake and ran into that car?”
Intrusive thoughts are upsetting, involuntary, likely repetitive thoughts. They are associated with anxiety
, and trauma
. Intrusive thoughts become problematic when they are frequent and result in significant distress.
It can feel like we’re out of control when we experience intrusive thoughts. We can start to question our character if the thoughts aren’t aligned with our values or typical behavior. Some people might worry that they’re “going crazy.” That’s one of the most distressing parts about these thoughts – the meta-thinking about them – the thoughts about the thoughts.
Coping with Intrusive Thinking:
We can’t really control what thoughts come into our minds but we can control what we do with these thoughts. Here are some coping tips:
1. Recognize that everyone has unwanted thoughts from time to time. Thinking something is very different from acting on that thought. For instance, if we’re mad at a colleague, some of us might have the thought, “I’d like to kick her in the face right now,” but we don’t actually do that. Thinking things is generally benign. When thoughts turn into problematic action is when we get into trouble.
2. Don’t react. It’s easier said than done, but the more bothered we get by these thoughts, the longer they can linger and the more distress we experience. Accepting them versus trying to suppress them can be helpful. Know that intrusive thoughts can come in waves, and remind yourself, “This too shall pass.”
3. Understand that your thoughts aren’t you and don’t define you. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
focuses on cognitive defusion, the process of separating from our thoughts. So instead of thinking, “I hate my stomach,” the defused thought is, “I’m having the thought that
I hate my stomach.” Framing it this way instantly places some separation between you and your thought.
4. Relax and distract. Take some deep breaths. Practice grounding techniques, such as noticing elements in your environment around you. Get involved with something that engages your senses.
Normalizing disturbing thoughts and practicing acceptance and defusion can go a long way. Taking the stance of, “Isn’t that interesting?” rather than catastrophizing what the thought means or implies about you can be helpful. Remember that having disturbing thoughts is a common human experience. Accept them and then move on. Intrusive thoughts are best dismissed as bothersome but normal. The more we worry about them, the more distressing they become.