Have you ever found yourself stuck with unwanted negative thoughts? You know that they are destructive and distressing but find yourself unable to get rid of them.
These bad thoughts seem to pop out of nowhere and refuse to go away.
The subject of these scary thoughts is usually violent or sexual in nature. They may be disturbing or embarrassing – socially unacceptable for sure.
When such morbid thoughts squat in your mind and refuse to budge, you find yourself at a loss as to what you should do or shouldn’t do. You feel scared that you will act on these crazy thoughts and make the situation worse.
This article tries to make sense of the senselessness of intrusive thoughts and offers suggestions on how to get rid of unwanted thoughts.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are distressing thoughts that become stuck in your mind. The content of the thoughts is anything but pleasant; they are either uncomfortable, embarrassing, aggressive or threatening.
Intrusive thoughts can be repetitive in nature. And this can make matters worse.
The very nature of intrusive thoughts is that they fluster you and disturb your peace of mind. The content of the uncontrollable thoughts may be harmless but embarrassing or serious and frightening. Either way, they are not socially acceptable and considered abhorrent and revolting.
After all, they are merely thoughts. They remain in your mind. But you still feel disconcerted or scared of them and want to stop obsessive thoughts as soon as possible.
There is a reason for this. The intrusive anxiety thoughts are so compelling and powerful that you feel as if you are going to act on them. Though you understand that they are socially unacceptable, you feel a compulsion to carry them out.
And this is what makes intrusive thoughts dangerous. And this also makes it imperative that you have a clear-cut strategy in place to get rid of them quickly before they do any permanent damage.
Intrusive thoughts seem to come to you out of the blue. Even if you try hard to find the trigger for them, you may not find them because that is how it is. The random nature of intrusive thoughts makes them more dangerous.
They are not related to your current life or have any context or meaning. They are neither signs of impending events in the future or warnings of imminent dangers. They are just thoughts that seem to crawl out of the crevices in your mind, creating worry, discomfiture, and/or fear.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to write them off as trivial or insignificant. Though they are disconnected from your present life, the impact they have on you and your mental health cannot be ignored. It is the emotions they generate in you that give them power over you. This is something that cannot be ignored.
When such thoughts invade your mind, you find yourself fixated on them and the feelings of shame or fear flood your mental space. You find yourself in such a tricky situation that you keep them a secret even from the people closest to you.
The simplest way to take the sting out of unwanted intrusive thoughts is to become aware that they are just thoughts and come what may, you are not going to act on them. This will render them harmless. Even if you can’t drive them away, they won’t be able to disturb you anymore.
Why do intrusive thoughts cause so much distress?
Intrusive thoughts are merely thoughts but create so much more pain and suffering than they should. Why so?
These thoughts are so real and intense that those having them tend to believe that they would act upon them. There is also the fear that there is some meaning in them, such as they are signs and warnings.
The truth is they are just weird thoughts that make no sense unless you have a medical condition that can compound the situation.
The fear that you would want to act upon these thoughts is unfounded. When you have violent intrusive thoughts, it is so alien and at odds with who you are that your instinct is to fight them. In fact, you have exactly the opposite personality as in your thoughts.
If you experience violent thoughts or have thoughts of committing despicable things, you are a gentle soul. If you have suicidal thoughts, you love life.
Though abhorrent and shameful, these thoughts are so real and threatening. That is the power they have over you.
And once you are under their influence, you start fighting it with all your might. You try desperately to get rid of them. The more you try and the more desperate you become, the more real and intense these thoughts will seem to you. The harder you suppress or hide them, the stickier they will be.
And the shame forces you to keep it a secret. So, you find yourself alone dealing with these thoughts, unable to seek help. That makes things worse for you.
What causes intrusive thoughts?
Most of us are unwilling to admit to the presence of intrusive thoughts in our minds. We are naturally embarrassed for allowing such socially unacceptable thoughts to enter and remain in our minds.
However, the statistics provided by doctors and therapists tell us a different story altogether. An overwhelming majority of the population who has sought medical help has admitted to having such thoughts. The actual count may be much more than this.
For some, having intrusive thoughts is a sign of an underlying medical condition. However, this may not be true for many others who suffer from it. A big chunk of those having intrusive thoughts won’t need medical help for the same. It is something they can work with and find a remedy by themselves.
However, for at least some people, intrusive thought is a symptom of a serious mental condition that calls for medical intervention.
Here are some mental health conditions that may lead to intrusive thoughts.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
When intrusive thoughts gain in intensity and become uncontrollable, it results in OCD. The intrusive thoughts turn into obsessions and trigger repetitive behaviors or compulsions. It is believed that you do this to get rid of the obsessive thoughts and prevent them from recurring.
Common obsessive thoughts in OCD are:
- Fear of contamination by germs
- Fear of forgetting important things
- Fear of losing or not having something you might need
- Fear of losing control and harming others or yourself
- Excessive focus on moral values or religious beliefs
- Violent or sexually explicit thoughts
These thoughts compel you to take action to bring relief. Intrusive thought examples for those with OCD are excessive double-checking of things like locking doors and turning off the stove, appliances, or switches.
Washing hands multiple times a day to get rid of germs is another example of OCD behavior. All such obsessive intrusive thoughts translate into compulsive repetitive action. In most instances, these actions are harmless but can interfere with your day-to-day functioning.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Here intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event invade your mind space and destroy mental peace. Though there is no follow-up action, the thoughts themselves create a devastating effect on your life.
These intrusive thoughts are so realistic, powerful, and compelling as if you are going through a real experience. They may even trigger physical symptoms like sweating and rapid heartbeat.
For some suffering from PTSD, the aftermath of the thoughts is so severe that they result in serious psychological problems. You may experience intense mental torture or flashbacks.
Though this is not true in all cases, people suffering from eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder may experience intrusive thoughts that are detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing.
Those with anorexia have tormenting thoughts about the effect of the food they eat on their body. The thoughts are so compelling and forceful that they find it hard to ignore or resist. This creates an aversion to eating and foods in general. In severe cases, these destructive thoughts may lead to extreme behaviors like purging to prevent the thoughts. They believe that acting on the thoughts will make them go away.
Is there a trigger for intrusive thoughts?
In most cases, intrusive thoughts are random and pop up in the mind without any rhyme or reason. They appear out of nowhere, totally unrelated to what you are doing. And often they leave you just as they came – quietly and with no fanfare. They may not leave any impression on your mind for the short duration they were there.
This is the best-case scenario for intrusive thoughts. Not everyone suffering from them is this fortunate.
Some intrusive thoughts are repetitive. Even in this case, they may not cause any serious harm. They come and go. That is all.
But not everyone is lucky enough to escape from the clutches of intrusive thoughts unharmed and unaffected. These thoughts are more devastating for those with underlying mental health conditions like OCD, PTSD, and eating disorders.
Intrusive thoughts can also be an indication of other health issues like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or even brain damage.
Even if intrusive thoughts are harmless, they are not to be taken lightly. Since they may be symptoms of some serious health conditions, better be safe than sorry. Take medical advice and rule them out.
When you notice a change in your thought patterns and become aware of intrusive thoughts, repetitive or otherwise, observe them for some time. If they display no signs of going away or become more intense, you should not hesitate to approach a medical professional for diagnosis. If advised, you should take the prescribed treatment.
Treatment options for intrusive thoughts
As long as the thoughts are harmless and do not prompt you to take action, you may be able to manage them with self-care. However, in its severe forms, medicines and therapy may be necessary.
The best method to manage intrusive thoughts is to recognize and accept them as they are – unwanted, yet harmless thoughts invading our mind space. Treat them as just thoughts. Try to absorb the fact that thoughts are different from intent or behavior.
Anxiety and stress may worsen the situation. Even if they are not triggers for these thoughts, the co-existence of anxiety and intrusive thoughts in your mind is not an ideal situation. You may take up self-care techniques to reduce stress and anxiety. Reduction in stress levels can reduce the intensity and frequency of intrusive thoughts.
You may also want to take a look at our guide on how to practice mindfulness for anxiety.
If your intrusive thoughts are accompanied by mental health disorders, medication can help in bringing down the severity of the disorders.
For medical conditions such as depression, OCD, and PTSD, medical professionals may prescribe medications like antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) along with therapy.
By bringing these medical conditions under control, intrusive thoughts will be less intensive and frequent, thus more manageable.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
An expert therapist can help you gain control over your intrusive thoughts and make them less scary and worrisome. Unlike many other mental health problems that you can discuss with someone you trust, the very nature of intrusive thoughts makes you keep them a secret from everyone. With a therapist, you are more likely to open up.
Therapists can teach you ways to manage your thoughts and reactions to them so that you are more resilient and less sensitive to them. If triggers exist for your intrusive thoughts, a therapist can help you handle them by exposing you to the triggers in a controlled setting. This will help you learn healthy responses to the triggers.
What is the prognosis when you have intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts, especially when coupled with mental health disorders like OCD and PTSD require time for effective treatment.
Once your therapist starts you on a treatment plan, stick to it assiduously. Don’t give yourself the option of giving up. Continue the treatment and you will see positive changes in a few weeks. Even small progress and victories are worth celebrating. These will act as encouragement to continue on the plan.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is helpful in cases where intrusive thoughts appear as a result of chronic mental conditions. Treatment plans are drawn up to get overall relief. Sticking to the plan will help reduce intrusive thoughts as well as symptoms of the chronic condition.
Some more self-care tips and suggestions
The best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to establish a good relationship with them. You need to get close to them and see them for what they are – irrelevant and unimportant.
You need to understand that not all thoughts entering your mind are meaningful and worth pursuing. There are junk thoughts that are best ignored. Train your mind to not pay attention or engage with such thoughts. When you adopt this approach, you will notice them dissipating and disappearing from your mind.
Intrusive thoughts may be scary or embarrassing but not impulses. Don’t be fooled by the anxiety and stress accompanying these thoughts that force you to look for reassurance. The only way to deal with intrusive thoughts and anxiety is to become more resilient and less sensitive towards them. Seeking reassurance or taking action so that these thoughts would go away will not work.
By engaging with them, worrying about them, finding reasons for them, and struggling against them, you are affording these thoughts more power and control over you than they deserve. Avoid them at all costs. Leave them alone. Treat them as if they are worth nothing. You will find them fade away eventually.
You may find these steps helpful when dealing with intrusive thoughts.
- Mark them as “junk thoughts”.
- Realize that you did nothing to trigger these thoughts; they are involuntary.
- Let them stay in your mind. Don’t avoid them or fight them.
- Learn to leave them alone and wait until they leave you just as they came.
- Ready yourself to have them back again. Repeat the same steps every time you have them.
- Live your life as if these thoughts are not there.
- Don’t engage with the thoughts in any manner.
- Don’t push them away or fight them.
- Don’t try to find their meanings.
- Don’t try different strategies to get rid of them.
Following these steps won’t be easy. You may not be able to follow them diligently or painstakingly as you would like to. But do the best you can. Even small victories are encouraging and they will help you improve your response.
Intrusive thoughts can be damaging and devastating because they linger and persist in your mind, refusing to go away. This can create anxiety and depression. They may cause distress and fear because they are so alien to your nature.
The presence of intrusive thoughts doesn’t always indicate chronic mental conditions. More often than not, they are just junk thoughts floating through your mind like many others.
If you find these thoughts creating roadblocks in your life, approach a healthcare professional for diagnosis. Do remember that intrusive thoughts are treatable. You can stop intrusive thoughts with the right approach.
You may also want to check out our examples of changing negative thoughts to positive, or our ultimate guide on how to get bad thoughts out of your head.