Becoming aware of your thought patterns is the first step toward breaking the cycle.
Our thoughts are never entirely within our control, and it’s natural for our minds to skew negative from time to time. But for some people, intrusive thoughts can become a daily challenge.
If you experience intrusive thoughts, it’s important to remember that a thought has no power or significance in itself.
Having a violent or disturbing thought doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” person. In most cases, intrusive thoughts can be managed, and the first step is recognizing them for what they are.
It may not always be possible to stop intrusive thoughts, and that’s not necessarily the goal.
Instead, you might consider focusing on ways to make them less overwhelming and create some distance between you and the thought. The goal is to feel that you’re in control of your thoughts, not the other way around.
One of the core principles of mindfulness is learning how to calmly observe your thoughts, without judging or becoming emotionally tangled up in them.
This can make it a great way to cope with intrusive thoughts because you’re not denying that the thoughts are present — just changing your relationship with them.
You don’t need any special equipment to start meditating, just a few spare moments, and somewhere quiet to practice, if possible.
There are also lots of meditation apps available, with courses specifically geared toward beginners and people living with intrusive thoughts, that may help you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can be effective for all kinds of thought disorders.
It can be especially helpful for intrusive thoughts that become obsessive because it helps to create distance between a person and their thoughts.
CBT is based on the idea that our thought patterns can be unlearned or changed. A CBT therapist can work with you to identify your intrusive thoughts, process them, and reframe them so that they aren’t as powerful.
Remember, ‘This too shall pass’
This is a simple but powerful mantra that may help you to regain perspective.
When an intrusive thought occupies your brain, it can sometimes feel like it will never go away. But thoughts are always temporary, and there is no such thing as a permanent state of mind.
Identifying a mantra like “This too shall pass,” or “My thoughts are temporary” could be helpful in reducing their power.
Visualizing your thoughts can allow you to feel more in control of them.
For example, you could picture your mind as a blue sky, and your thoughts as passing clouds. Some of the clouds are light, and some dark, but none of them are permanent.
This is a mindfulness technique known as thought clouds, but it can be used outside of meditation practice.
Spend time with a pet
Animals can be incredibly calming to an anxious mind. They have no understanding of our complex, troubled thoughts, so they can provide distraction and uncomplicated emotional support.
A large 2019 study involving animals showed that interacting with them can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which plays a role in many mental health conditions.
In addition, animal-assisted therapy for trauma is becoming more common.
Externalize the thought
Our brains can be incredibly good at telling us stories that feel like reality. So, an intrusive thought can take on outsized power when it only exists in your mind.
Consider externalizing the thought, by journaling or even just speaking it out loud, and see whether the impact of it changes.
Ground yourself in the present
Intrusive thoughts can often lead you to focus on the negative and create stories that aren’t based on reality.
Without even realizing it, you may be spending a lot of your time living in the past, or obsessing about the future.
Focusing on the present moment can be a powerful way to manage this. Grounding techniques that can help you center your focus may include:
Take a walk in nature
According to the American Psychological Association, there’s a lot of evidence that spending time in nature can boost mental health and sharpen cognitive abilities.
Taking a walk or jog in a green space can help you to break a cycle of rumination, by engaging your body and your senses in a way that gets your mind off your thoughts.
Approach the thought with curiosity
Not all of these tips will be practical in every situation. But one thing you can always try to do is reframe the intrusive thought you’re having.
Consider observing your thoughts without judgment, and approaching them with curiosity by turning your attention to how your body responds to certain thoughts that may arise.
Distressing thoughts could be your brain’s way of processing something.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, involuntary thoughts that are usually disturbing or distressing in nature. They usually seem to appear out of nowhere and may reoccur again and again, which makes them feel even more powerful. The thoughts are often out of character and may be against the person’s values or beliefs.
In many cases, intrusive thoughts are violent, disturbing, sexually graphic, or reflect beliefs that the person finds abhorrent.
This can make them even more distressing, because the person experiencing those thoughts may judge themselves harshly.
The subject matter of intrusive thoughts can vary, but here are some common themes:
- harming a loved one
- harming themselves
- sexually graphic fantasies
- driving a car into oncoming traffic
- catching an illness
- their loved ones dying
Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of mental health conditions, such as:
But people without mental health conditions can also experience intrusive thoughts. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), some 6 million Americans are affected by intrusive thoughts.
People with anxiety or another condition may be more likely to fixate on an intrusive thought, and see it as a negative reflection on themselves.
They may also worry more about the implications of the thought, which in turn only gives it more power.
So, while intrusive thoughts can happen to anyone, they may be more severe for people who live with mental health conditions.
Intrusive thoughts can be alarming and distressing for a number of reasons. These thoughts often seem to come out of nowhere and may be completely at odds with your usual beliefs and behaviors.
It’s important to remember that a thought only has as much power as you give it. It’s just a sentence in your mind, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect anything about you or your true character.
There are self-help techniques available to you that can allow you to regain power over your intrusive thoughts, including:
- visualization exercise
- spending time in nature or with animals
You may also want to consider speaking with a mental health professional, who can help to identify what’s behind your thoughts.