Do you feel like an unwanted thought has stuck in your mind and find it hard to ignore it? Sometimes there are thoughts so powerful that they don’t allow you to concentrate on your daily duties, and you can’t help it — those unwanted thoughts just popping up in your mind and you can’t move on.
If this experience sounds familiar to you, you might be dealing with intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are negative thoughts that repeatedly come to your mind all of a sudden and disrupt adaptive functioning. Usually, experiencing intrusive thoughts is a symptom of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or trauma.
Luckily, research proves that therapy can help with overcoming intrusive thoughts and understanding links between intrusive thoughts, emotions, and consequent behaviors (e.g., Abramowitz, 2002).
Let’s explore what intrusive thoughts are and what the most effective therapeutic strategies are to deal with them.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can be defined as thoughts that come out of nowhere, stick in our minds, and cause anxiety, depression, and more symptoms. Usually, these unwanted thoughts are repetitive and lead to distress every time they pop into our heads. The content of intrusive thoughts varies, but people often experience intrusive thoughts about sexual or violent acts, immoral actions, bad memories, horrible imagined future, harming other people, failing to manage duties, or becoming infected.
In either case, the content of intrusive thoughts is so unacceptable to the individual who experiences them that it leads to maladaptive levels of anxiety. While it’s normal to experience intrusive thoughts once in a while, if they become repetitive, intrusive thoughts might contribute to the development of mental health disorders, as well as “burning out” from stress.
In fact, if you realize that this thought doesn’t have any particular meaning and you don’t have the desire to behave based on these thoughts, they’re not harmful. But if you’re afraid that they might interfere with your daily activities, then it may be a sign of an underlying mental health struggle.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
The most common types of intuitive thoughts are related to excessive levels of stress and anxiety. The truth is that people who suffer from anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often experience unwanted thoughts that are difficult to regulate.
However, some researchers argue that intuitive thoughts aren’t exclusively a mental health issue and can be related to hormonal changes. Specifically, studies show that women tend to experience unwanted thoughts in the perinatal period, during the first few weeks after giving birth (Collardeau et al., 2019).
In addition, studies also show that intrusive thoughts might be associated with specific brain regions that take part in language production. For example, in a 2013 study, individuals experienced intrusive thoughts more frequently when they performed language production tasks related to particular brain regions (Kuhn et al., 2013).
Nevertheless, stressful life experiences, excessive anxiety, and traumas are considered the most common reasons for repetitive intrusive thoughts that disrupt normal daily functioning.
Common Disorders Characterized by Intrusive Thoughts
Even though anyone can experience intrusive thoughts, it’s more common among people who are diagnosed with the following mental health disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – People who have generalized anxiety disorder often experience irrational intrusive thoughts. Usually, these thoughts are related to their performance and achievements or the well-being of their loved ones or themselves.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Intrusive thoughts with people who have OCD are often represented in obsessions about getting infected by germs, acting out in public, or harming other people with aggressive or immoral activities. These thoughts are usually accompanied by compulsive behaviors.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder – People with PTSD usually experience intrusive thoughts related to past traumatic events. These thoughts pop up memories of trauma, leading to excessive stress and anxiety and disrupting their daily functioning.
- Depression – Experiencing intrusive thoughts is a common symptom for those who suffer from depression. In fact, lowered mood and hopelessness make it hard for them to think rationally and as a result, these irrational thoughts stick with them for long periods.
- Eating disorders – People who suffer from bulimia, anorexia, or other eating disorders tend to have intrusive thoughts about the way they look. This may cause them to feel guilty and change their eating-related habits, as a result.
Ways to Manage Intrusive Thoughts
Considering that intrusive thoughts are common symptoms of serious mental health conditions such as anxiety, PTSD, or OCD, the most effective way to regulate these unwanted thoughts is to receive professional help from counselors. However, there are some ways to learn how you can reduce the impact of these thoughts to feel that you’re in control.
- Practice self-care
The first thing you need to realize and accept about intrusive thoughts is that they are just thoughts. This means that you’re the one who has the power to manage them and reduce their impact.
Therefore, instead of ruminating over this thought, you may consider forcing yourself to focus on positivity, trying relaxing activities, spending time in nature, and talking with your loved ones. Practicing self-care may help you regain control and reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts.
- Identify the roots of the intrusive thoughts
Do not try to suppress your intrusive thoughts whenever they pop up in your head. Try to take a mindful approach instead and look for the causes. What might be the reason you’re having these thoughts? Is it related to a particular problem you faced in the past? Are these thoughts going to cause you long-term harm?
Try to reflect on these questions and identify the root causes of these unwanted thoughts. Keep in mind that regardless of the reason, intrusive thoughts are temporary, and they should pass either without professional help or with it.
- Focus on the present moment
As a result of intrusive thoughts, people often ruminate on their past or obsess about an imagined future. They are concerned that something will negatively affect the upcoming events in their lives and/or they may be looking for reasons for things they have done wrong in the past.
Focusing on the present moment will help you realize that these unwanted thoughts aren’t so powerful after all. It turns out that remaining in the here-and-now moment reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. So, try practicing mindfulness meditation, performing breathing exercises, and focusing on the present moment to reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts.
How Can Therapy Help with Intrusive Thoughts?
The research about the effect of therapy on intrusive thoughts proves that specific counseling techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can effectively reduce the frequency and impact of these thoughts. In particular, according to a 2017 study, CBT for intrusive thoughts associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) leads to connectivity changes in specific brain areas that result in increased resistance to compulsions and decreased unwanted thought patterns (Moody et al., 2017).
Furthermore, it turns out that not all types of interventions are effective. In fact, strategies that aim to suppress intrusive thoughts instead of mindfully focusing on them have counterproductive effects and increase intrusive thoughts (Cowan et al., 2017). On the other hand, accepting unwanted intrusive thoughts decreases their severity and therefore is an effective technique to manage them (Najmi et al., 2009).
Considering this, therapists and counselors these days focus on mindfulness techniques to help clients regulate intrusive thoughts and reduce their impact on their mental health. The following types of therapies are considered the most effective for dealing with intrusive thoughts:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy – CBT aims to help individuals raise awareness about their irrational thoughts and behaviors and provides tools to help them change the way they think. During CBT sessions, therapists might intentionally trigger intrusive thoughts in order to help you develop adaptive strategies to deal with them.
- Mindfulness & Holistic interventions – Holistic approach in therapy helps individuals learn effective ways to live in the present moment and accept their intrusive thoughts instead of suppressing them. This approach effectively reduces anxiety and increases psychological well-being (e.g., Hoge et al., 2022).
- EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a modern type of integrative psychotherapy that incorporates different therapeutic approaches. During EMDR sessions, therapists use bilateral stimulation to help clients process traumatic memories and reduce their current distress toward past traumas. EMDR therapy is also effective in order to process intrusive thoughts and deal with them.
Final Thoughts regarding Intrusive Thoughts
All in all, different types of therapies can effectively help with intrusive thoughts and reduce their impact on your everyday functioning, quality of life, and psychological well-being. So, if you notice that unwanted thoughts interfere with your daily activities and are looking for strategies to learn how you can deal with them, reach out to professional therapists at Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI.
Licensed counselors at Health for Life Counseling use research-backed treatment options to help you get to the root of your condition and cope with it. Keep in mind that therapy sessions with us are available both physically in the West Michigan area and online.
*Therapy is also known as Psychotherapy and Counseling.