Every day, we are at risk of experiencing intrusive thoughts. With thousands of thoughts per day, sometimes we don’t even realize they are there. The intrusive thoughts are the ones that are disturbing enough, we focus our attention to them.
Our everyday life concerns make up 67% of our thoughts. We experience 18% of thoughts that are bad, unacceptable or not comfortable to deal with. Disturbing intrusive thoughts make up 13% of our daily thought processes.
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Intrusive thoughts are normal. We all experience them. They are unwanted thoughts or images that can cause you to become obsessed or distressed. You may have a difficult time managing an intrusive thought and getting past it. While they are no different from any other thought, it’s our attachment to it that causes the real disturbance.
While we do all experience common intrusive thoughts, some are more affected by them. Complex PTSD or OCD intrusive thoughts can wreak havoc on someone’s life. When an intrusive thought occurs, it can result in disturbances that are hard to manage.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
You may be wondering, “What are intrusive thoughts anyway?”
Invasive thoughts and intrusive thoughts are normal. We all experience them. They are unwanted thoughts or images that pop into your head without reason and can cause you to become obsessed or distressed. You may have a difficult time managing an intrusive thought and getting past it. While they are no different from any other thought, it’s our attachment to it that causes the real disturbance.
While we do all experience common intrusive thoughts, some are more affected by them. Complex PTSD or OCD intrusive thoughts can wreak havoc on someone’s life. And when an intrusive thought occurs, it can result in disturbances that are hard to manage if you don’t know how to deal with intrusive thoughts.
Invasive thoughts may take the form of fears of the future, intrusive memories from the past, inappropriate thoughts (e.g. sexual intrusive thoughts), intrusive images, and a variety of other disturbing thoughts as well.
Ultimately, intrusive and invasive thoughts are absolutely normal. In fact, some studies have shown that a whopping 94% of the population experience unwanted thoughts that are intrusive and unpleasant on a daily basis.
It’s when these intrusive thoughts become obsessive that the real damage is done.
Obsessive Thoughts vs. Intrusive Thoughts
There’s an important distinction between obsessive thoughts and intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts (a.k.a. invasive thoughts) are just as they sound. They seem to appear out of almost nowhere and may be disturbing thoughts that are sexual, violent, fear-based, or inappropriate in nature.
What causes intrusive thoughts has always been a bit of a mystery. But some researchers link these unwanted and invasive thoughts to an imbalance of a brain chemical known as GABA, responsible for inhibiting activity of certain cells in the mind.
And while they can be jarring, they usually aren’t a sign of an underlying disorder unless they’re severe or incredibly persistent.
It’s when these invasive thoughts (and thinking about those thoughts) starts to negatively impact normal functioning that they should be a cause for concern.
If, for example, you are so grappled by fear about driving that you walk 5 miles to work every day, it could be a sign of a problem. Or if you’re bombarded by intrusive thoughts throughout the day that you left the stove on so you check it every 15 minutes and can’t leave the house, you may be too fixated on these unwanted thoughts.
These kinds of intrusive thoughts and the behaviors they cause can be thought of as obsessive thoughts – because you literally find yourself obsessed with and unable to move on from them.
Obsessive thoughts, then, are often indicative of an underlying problem and could point to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So while it may be a waste to wonder how to stop intrusive thoughts since they’re just a part of being human, knowing how to stop obsessive thoughts can be the key to living a healthy, functional life.
Common Intrusive Thoughts List
Here are a few examples of intrusive thoughts:
- Fear-based thought that you might do something inappropriate or embarrassing.
- Fear-based thought that you’ve got a disease with no basis to support it.
- Flashback to unpleasant things from your past. (Ex. intrusive memories PSTD).
- Inappropriate thoughts or images of sex.
- Thoughts of committing illegal or violent acts.
- A thought that if you don’t do something, you might ruin your luck.
Intrusive thoughts and OCD are commonly connected but it’s not always the case. In fact, the vast majority of people experience intrusive thoughts on a daily basis.
Fixating on these intrusive thoughts and being unable to let them go, however, can be problematic.
So, if you’re wondering, “Are intrusive thoughts normal?”
The answer is yes – it’s when they become obsessive thoughts that you need to start worrying.
OCD and Intrusive Thoughts
If you’re suffering from OCD, intrusive thoughts can cause you to overreact. At a cellular level, the brain sends signals that something is wrong and it needs to be tended to right away. And while it may be clear to others that these fears and obsessive thoughts are unfounded and many intrusive OCD thoughts are not real, to the person experiencing them, the fear and dread are as real as can be.
The fears that develop through the thoughts happen only with things that are important to the person. The basis is different for every OCD patient.
Intrusive thoughts from OCD examples include fear of loss in the family, fear of being killed or killing someone else, and other intense end results. For someone who is nonclinical OCD, intrusive thoughts affect them much less. The level of emotional distress resulting from thoughts is a criterion for OCD.
If you’re suffering from intrusive thoughts from obsessive-compulsive disorder, you’re probably wondering just how to get rid of OCD and stop intrusive thoughts from taking over your life.
However, there usually isn’t an easy fix. Like treating PTSD, some of the best methods of overcoming overwhelming fears and obsessions is through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). These treatments force patients to rationally focus on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and observe how they relate.
The most well-documented type of CBT for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) according to the International OCD Foundation.
In the end, though, getting professional treatment is often the absolute best way of finding out how to overcome OCD intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive Thoughts and Depression
When you feed into intrusive thoughts, it can lead to depression. Each mood disorder has its own set of intrusive thought patterns. This makes it challenging to get out of the hole of depression.
Depression and constant thinking are closely connected to one another. Depression causes thought processes that are more prone to be negative, sad, hard to manage, and exhausting.
Those who are depressed will feed into these intrusive thoughts and fall deeper into a hole. Self-analyzing will cause them to find flaws in themselves and welcome further negative thinking.
Intrusive thoughts have to be managed in order for the person to get through their depression. Beating out intrusive thoughts is extremely difficult when a person is already depressed and the two will feed off one another. Medical and Psychiatric services may be helpful.
As you can probably guess, intrusive thoughts and anxiety often go hand-in-hand as well. The incessant and overwhelming fear that comes with obsessive thoughts can lead to the development of a crippling anxiety disorder that can make it incredibly hard to function on a day-to-day basis.
Beyond that, the overwhelming anxiety these intrusive thoughts can cause can eventually lead sufferers to turn to substance abuse and eventually addiction in order to cope with the condition.
Intrusive Thoughts and Negative Impact on Addiction
Some may manage intrusive thoughts with compulsive coping mechanisms which can include alcohol or drug abuse. In an effort to not cope with unwanted thoughts, a person may take part in destructive behaviors. Trying to stop the feelings altogether can cause a person to chronically use drugs or drink, leading to addiction.
In a study by the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, they estimate that over 25% of patients with OCD meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder. Most OCD symptoms begin to occur in childhood or early adolescence and cause the development of drug or alcohol problems.
Having to cope with intrusive thoughts can cause depression, anxiety, and irrational fears. When treating an addictive disorder in someone who has OCD, it’s imperative to also treat emotional symptoms of OCD.
Treating the gamut of mood disorders that occur with addiction (depression, anxiety, etc.) as well as OCD at the same time as when you treat your substance abuse disorder is essential. When these mental disorders are treating individually, the disorder left untreated can often cause a relapse soon after.
For instance, if you go into addiction treatment without treating your OCD, the obsessive thoughts of your OCD will make it much harder to abstain from using once you get out of the rehab program.
This is what’s known as “dual diagnosis” – when a substance addiction overlaps with another mental disorder like depression, anxiety, or OCD.
So along with treating addiction, there should be additional treatment like cognitive-behavioral therapy. This helps to cope with emotional triggers that cause compulsive behavior. It also trains the mind to deal with intrusive thoughts differently.
What Does Clinical Intrusive Thoughts Treatment Look Like?
It can be incredibly hard to function when you’re plagued by obsessive thoughts every waking minute of your day. And for some, the absolute best option just may end up being professional treatment.
In fact, there often is no better way of learning how to deal with intrusive thoughts than through the guidance of a professional.
Your treatment may include:
- Being prescribed the best medication for OCD intrusive thoughts like SRIs which help regulate serotonin.
- Group talk therapy
- One-on-one counseling
- Specialized behavioral therapy like CBT
- Experiential therapy
And much more. In general, these treatments will help show you how to stop obsessive thoughts from taking over your life and how to deal with intrusive thoughts functionally rather than letting them take over your world.
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7 Tips on How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
When you allow the thoughts to run your life, you make choices that negatively affect you. How to stop OCD intrusive thoughts depends on the severity of the problem.
If you’ve already been avoiding the problem for some time, you may also have co-occurrence disorder as a result of negative behaviors. Treatment can be as simple as using intrusive thoughts self-help methods like mindfulness. Others may require medication for intrusive thoughts from OCD along with cognitive therapy.
Here are 7 things you can do to help you not react negatively to intrusive thoughts that come up.
1. Understand Why Intrusive Thoughts Disturb You
Intrusive thoughts latch onto things that mean a lot to you. This is what makes it such a disturbance for your nervous system. It could be your family, animals, your job, or your reputation.
If something pops into your mind that you’re hurting an animal when you love them, it’s going to get your attention. Alternatively, there are people who hunt animals so the same thought wouldn’t be intrusive.
There are many unwanted thoughts running through your mind. It’s the ones that go against your core values that become intrusive. An unwanted thought will naturally make you feel fear, disgust, or alarm. If you react negatively, it’s going to make the thought seem even stronger.
Understanding your own core values will help you to understand those unwanted thoughts you have. You will understand why they make you feel afraid or why you’d react negatively to them.
Eventually, you can turn these obsessive thoughts into ones you can simply move on without.
2. Attend the Intrusive Thoughts
You can minimize the damage of intrusive thoughts with self-help. This includes being mindful in the wake of an intrusive thought. In the moment of an unwelcome thought, you might react to them as though they’re real. You may incessantly fear that you’ll act upon these obsessive thoughts.
Accepting intrusive thoughts is the key to dealing with them. They no longer mean anything to you when you acknowledge them.
Don’t try to figure out what it all means or use tactics to avoid causing harm to others. This causes your mind to pay extra attention to the intrusive thoughts, which is the last thing you want. How to get rid of intrusive thoughts is to see them come through you and move on.
3. Don’t Fear the Thoughts
One of the coping mechanisms for dealing with intrusive thoughts can include avoidance. Commonly you’ll avoid these intense thoughts because you don’t know how to deal with them. When intrusive thoughts are fear-based, it’s key not to push it away.
Talk yourself down and tell yourself its fine. Accept that the obsessive thought is there and don’t try to resist the experience. You may feel tension all throughout your body but it will pass. Trying to run and hide from a fearful thought with your own feelings of fear qualifies it.
4. Take Intrusive Thoughts Less Personally
OCD thoughts are not real and yet we tend to believe them to the extent that we’ll apologize for something that never happened. It’s important not to take the thoughts you have as the person you are. An emotional reaction to how you think just keeps the thought alive.
Letting go of thoughts is something we do all the time. It shouldn’t differ when it’s a disturbing thought. You know that these intrusive thoughts are not likely to happen. Find the deeper sense of trust in yourself.
You can reason with yourself by saying,
“This thought could become a reality but the chances are pretty slim. I won’t worry about it right now. Everything is okay at this moment.”
5. Stop Changing Your Behaviors
Compulsive behavior can manifest when you try to change who you are based on the intrusive thoughts you experience. OCD thoughts are not real so changing your reality to try to work around it is not a solution.
Compulsions are mental behaviors you’ll do to get some kind of comfort or certainty about these thoughts. Somewhere in your mind, you believe that obsessive hand washing is how to get rid of bad thoughts forever.
You may change your life around too. If you have intrusive thoughts about kids, you may avoid parties for example. You can’t avoid triggers of these obsessive thoughts. This strategy just keeps the cycle going.
6. Cognitive Therapy for Treatment of OCD Intrusive Thoughts
Those with intrusive thoughts from OCD or complex PTSD intrusive thoughts benefit from mindfulness exercises but usually require treatment past self-help also. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has shown to be 70% effective in patients with OCD.
Through CBT, patients have to deal with their fears which helps alleviate the compulsions. It’s essentially a treatment of detoxing the mind holistically. A modified CBT approach for intrusive thoughts include:
- Taking a self-report questionnaire like an OCD intrusive thoughts test.
- Role-play simulation with electronic cueing.
- Determining the thought process a person goes through.
- Refocus the brain through mental education.
- Gathering evidence to challenge the deep beliefs the patient has.
- Intentional thought exposure.
- Situational exposure.
- Non-judgemental acceptance.
7. Medications that Help with Intrusive Thoughts
OCD ruminations and anxiety are closely linked. If a medication can make you less anxious, it’s likely to lower the desire to ruminate.
Anxiety = Ruminations = Panic = Depression
Intrusive thoughts are harmless but have the ability to cause harm based on your reaction to them. Sometimes, it’s not possible to control the impulses or handle the anxiety that occurs with invasive or intrusive thoughts.
Medication for intrusive thoughts comes with mixed reviews. There is opportunity to relax the nervous system and help with holistic development. It can, on the other hand, causing prescription drug addiction, worsening the situation.
Anxiety medication for intrusive thoughts can calm your reaction to the thoughts. In OCD patients, this can help them alleviate triggers that cause their obsessive behaviors. The heightened nervous state leading to the fight or flight response leads to less sleep and unhealthy choices. Removing anxiety from your life will allow you to experience less obsessive thoughts that evolved from intrusive thoughts.
In general, a specific type of medication called serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SRIs have been found to be the best medication for OCD intrusive thoughts and other symptoms of OCD. The anxiety and depression that often come with obsessive thoughts and the resulting fixation tend to be far more manageable with these drugs.
Zoloft does work well as intrusive thoughts treatment indirectly in OCD patients, helping to manage the rituals, repetition, and senseless behavior. While Zoloft can’t prevent intrusive thoughts, which is a natural part of our cognitive functioning, it can help you manage the aftermath. This is the same story with Buspar for intrusive and obsessive thoughts.
There have been reviews regarding Prozac for intrusive thoughts medication that say their symptoms became worse. Others said that it helped them relax and get rid of disturbing thoughts.
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The Right Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts happen to everyone. It’s how you cope with them that defines how much they’ll rule your life. For some, many phases have built up through time, creating an uncontrollable compulsion to avoidance or reacting to the thoughts.
It’s important that even if you’re taking medication for intrusive thoughts that you also learn how to manage intrusive thoughts as well. This learned habit can be done through cognitive-behavioral therapy and other proven treatments.
The various effects that intrusive thoughts have on people means that the treatment for intrusive thoughts vary as well. For those trying to recover from addiction, intrusive thoughts can plague the person, making it more difficult to overcome. Those with OCD or PSTD may not be able to overcome the thoughts without professional treatment and intrusive thoughts anxiety medication.
In the end, it’s absolutely crucial that you work with a professional to find out how to stop intrusive thoughts in your particular situation.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
In many cases, intrusive thoughts present as just harmless, random thoughts that come to mind unexpectedly. But sometimes they could indicate that something else is going on, such as a mental health issue or emotional disorder. When they are left unchecked, they can cause people a lot of stress and make it hard for them to cope or even function properly.
Some of the mental health issues that can cause intrusive thoughts include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur when someone lives through a traumatic event. It can cause a lot of emotional stress because the person struggles to come to terms with what happened. Intrusive thoughts are often a part of what people with PTSD experience on a regular basis.
- Eating disorders – When people struggle to deal with their emotions, it can often manifest as an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. People these conditions are typically trying to overcome intrusive thoughts that are recurring and dominant in their minds.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder – When a person has OCD, they struggle with repetitive intrusive thoughts and they do not have the ability to control them. Those thoughts urge them to complete certain actions in hopes that the they will go away.
- Addiction – A lot of people will turn to drugs, alcohol or certain behaviors like gambling as a way to cope with their problems. Eventually, they develop addictions, which can change the way they think. Intrusive thoughts are common in people with addictions because of the way addicts compulsively think and behave.
Are Some Intrusive Thoughts Normal?
Researchers and psychologists really are unsure about why intrusive thoughts suddenly come to our minds at times. But there are some theories out there.
It has been suggested that intrusive thoughts could be the result of something difficult or wrong in a person’s life. Sometimes people struggle with relationships or they have work problems and they try to keep those struggles locked safely inside. But that rarely happens, and when these and other issues work their way to the surface, they can present as intrusive thoughts.
But sometimes the brain creates what some experts refer to as junk thoughts. They are just a part of our stream of consciousness and they have no real meaning. Giving them no attention allows them to get washed away in the flow of consciousness.
When intrusive thoughts are rare, they are usually nothing to worry about. Feel free to let them go and think of them as nothing more than passing contemplations. But when they are violent, disturbing or bizarre and they happen on a regular basis, they might be the sign of a more serious problem.
How do Professionals Diagnose Intrusive Thoughts?
If you are having intrusive thoughts that are bothersome to you, the very first step is to talk with a doctor. They will talk with you about your symptoms and go over your health history with you. Their job is to look for any physical issues that could be contributing, such as a thyroid or other health problem. They may also do a short psychological evaluation.
If there are no physical health problems that could be causing your intrusive thoughts, the next step is for you to see a mental health professional. They will be able to talk with you about what you are experiencing and help you figure out what is causing the intrusive thoughts.
With the right treatment, it is possible to stop intrusive thoughts altogether. All you need to be is willing to get the help you need.
When Should I Start to Worry About Having Intrusive Thoughts?
What a lot of people do not realize is that almost everyone has intrusive thoughts to some degree. Most of the time they let them go and then they never bother them again. These types of thoughts are nothing to worry about. The problem is when the intrusive thoughts get “stuck,” for lack of a better term. Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say you are driving your car over some train tracks and you briefly have an intrusive thought about a train hitting your car. Instead of shrugging it off and letting it go, the thought will not leave your mind. It sticks around, causing you a lot of anxiety. You might have thoughts like:
- How could I possibly think that such a thing could happen to me?
- Am I suicidal because I am thinking about this?
- How can I be normal when I am having such an awful thought?
Intrusive thoughts are only a problem when they become obsessive. At that point, they could be a sign of a serious mental health disorder like anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What is a Common Myth About Intrusive Thoughts?
There is a common myth about intrusive thoughts and that is that they must mean that we subconsciously want whatever we are thinking about to happen. But this is generally not the case at all. Sometimes good, kind and loving people have intrusive thoughts, but they are just random and they are not consistent at all with their intentions. They simply need to be ignored.
Another myth people have about intrusive thoughts is the belief that they need to be closely examined. But remember they are just thoughts, and they only have the power we give to them. If there is no mental health issue present, letting them go should not be a problem.
What Could Happen if I Ignore Recurring Intrusive Thoughts?
Recurring intrusive thoughts that you have been obsessing about should not be let go. It is important to talk about them with a professional before they become a problem that is much worse. For example, they could develop into an addiction, anxiety or another mental health problem.
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