How To Handle And Overcome Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

Have you ever been going about your day, just minding your own dang business, when WHAM – an odd or even scary thought pops into your brain?

First of all, how rude of your mind to go wherever it went while you were looking for a new moisturizer at Ulta. Secondly, you are not alone if you suffer from these mind invaders. What are these intruders called? They are known as intrusive thoughts and can be unnerving as hell!

In fact, The OCD & Anxiety Center reported that over 90% of the population experiences intrusive thoughts, which means around 60 million Americans are affected each year, according to Harvard Health

So what exactly are they, and why do they happen? We spoke to psychotherapist Katherine S.T. Jackson, LPC, to find out.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

According to Jackson, intrusive thoughts can be any thought that is spontaneous and doesn’t appear to have a direct relationship to current thinking patterns. “Most of the time, people do not notice intrusive thoughts unless the thought evokes a strong emotion,” she said.

For example, you could be at work concentrating on a task and suddenly you’re thinking about laundry that needs to be done. You may not recognize this as an intrusive thought; it’s just another task you have to do when you get home.

The ones that evoke a strong emotion are often disturbing – I tell Jackson about one I recently experienced.

While driving on the highway at about 60mph, my brain went “I wonder what would happen if I jerked the wheel to the left.” Now, rationally, I know exactly what would occur – I’d wreck my car at the least, and I don’t want to put voice to the worst case scenario.

Jackson agrees that it’s definitely an intrusive thought and asks if I ever felt compelled to act upon it, to which I reply “No.”

Because I’ve been in therapy for years and had intrusive thoughts before, I’m able to recognize them for what they are, give it a “That was weird, I hate it” moment and leave it behind.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and have no bearing on reality or a person’s desires.

“Some intrusive thoughts that have been identified by people who do not experience clinical anxiety include: thoughts of swerving their car into oncoming traffic, images of hurting a loved one, thoughts of catching diseases, impulses to do something shameful, thoughts of leaving an appliance running and causing a flood or fire, thoughts that are blasphemous, etc.”

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

As to what causes these brief waking nightmares (as I refer to them) Jackson explained, “My theoretical orientation leads me to believe that intrusive thoughts may be a response to unconscious stimulation. Experiencing disturbing or uncomfortable intrusive thoughts frequently can be a symptom of a larger mental health issue.”

Is Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts Realistic?

Jackson states that when dealing with intrusive thoughts, what can be done is to accept them, be curious about them, and release them. 

“Clinically I’m interested in what the purpose of the thought is. But, it’s not necessary to find the purpose to find relief. Thinking and feeling are the only ways we know what’s going on with ourselves,” she says. 

When intrusive thoughts are upsetting or disruptive, the individual can experience a lot of shame and fear – believing that the intrusive thought means something deeper about them. 

Often, people will attach to the thought and think about it, making the intrusive thought last much longer than desired. 

“In my practice, most people experience shame or fear about disruptive intrusive thoughts. I’ve had positive outcomes when clients stop attaching judgment to intrusive thoughts and become mindful of the difference between thoughts and thinking,” Jackson says.

“We have intrusive thoughts about boring stuff all the time. The difference is we don’t continue to think about the thought because it’s not stimulating or important. So when we recognize that we’re experiencing upsetting thoughts intrusively, we can find room to breathe if we do not attach our attention to the thought.”

Types Of Intrusive Thoughts

Jackson says that any thoughts can be intrusive, but the most common disturbing ones include self harm, harming others, pedophilia, graphic sexual content, and drug use. 

These are the different types of intrusive thoughts according to OCD-UK:

Sexually Intrusive Thoughts

Examples of sexually intrusive thoughts can include:

  • Fear of being sexually attracted to infants

  • Fear of being attracted to members of their family

  • Worries regarding their sexual orientation

Religiously Intrusive Thoughts

Types of religiously intrusive thoughts can include:

  • God is not forgiving them for their perceived sins and sending them to hell

  • Having negative thoughts in a religious building

  • Repeat certain prayers continually

  • Fear that they have lost touch with God or their beliefs

  • Constantly analyzing their faith

Violent Intrusive Thoughts

  • Harming loved ones or children

  • Killing others

  • Using knives or other items to harm others, which can result in a person locking away sharp objects

  • Poisoning food for loved ones, which can result in the person avoiding cooking

Why Are Intrusive Thoughts So Common?

Intrusive thoughts are a type of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), a common disorder that involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. People with PTSD can also experience intrusive and alarming thoughts. PTSD is a condition that develops following a traumatic event and sufferers may become hyper-aroused and experience flashbacks to a traumatic situation. They might also experience intrusive thoughts that relate to the trauma. 

In some cases, however, the cause of intrusive thoughts is unclear, and in addition to the conditions mentioned above, anxiety and depression can also factor into having intrusive thoughts. 

Dealing With Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts/Treatment

Medical News Today explains that there are several treatment options for dealing with unwanted intrusive thoughts, including:

According to the Eco-Institute, “Mindfulness taps into your subconscious ‘90%’ (this number is based on the theory that, like an iceberg, 90% of ‘you’ is hidden in your subconscious) and allows it to clear out and promote healing instead of further pain and fear.

“Mindfulness meditation is an excellent tool for helping people cope with a lot of issues and improve their quality of life. OCD is no different – mindfulness meditation has results to offer.

“It can help the sufferer recognize and understand her thoughts, find out where they’re coming from, and figure out a solution to the brain’s intent to focus on the less savory or pleasant images it calls forth. It’s all about recognizing your thoughts, allowing them ‘in,’ then allowing them out again and sending them on their way.”

When To Seek Help In Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

If you are experiencing these sudden and unwanted thoughts, in most cases, it’s not necessary to seek medical help.

“However, anyone who experiences intrusive thoughts that cause regular or severe distress should see a doctor or therapist. These professionals can help the person understand what is causing the thoughts and how to treat them,” says Medical News Today.

Jackson advises to “Be mindful and accept intrusive thoughts as long as they aren’t interfering with your quality of life. We can never push anything away and hope it disappears. We can only accept what we’re experiencing and that will go a long way in overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts.”

To learn more or find useful information and contacts, go to the National Institute of Mental Health website.


Have you had success with overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts? Tell us in the comments!

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