Most commonly, intrusive thoughts are associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety. They can also be a symptom of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Bipolar Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Postnatal Depression. This doesn’t mean that if you have intrusive thoughts, you have any of the disorders mentioned. However, if you are particularly concerned that your intrusive thoughts may be part of one of these disorders, I would recommend seeking the advice of your GP or other healthcare provider.
So, what are intrusive thoughts? Intrusive thoughts are thoughts you have that don’t seem to fit with the general way you usually think. They may take you by surprise and seem to come from nowhere at all. They will feel unwelcome and uninvited, like you haven’t thought of anything else that would lead you to this thought.
Intrusive thoughts can be very distressing and disturbing. They can be violent or sexual in nature. They can be thoughts about behaviours, practices and criminal acts that you find abhorrent and totally against your nature. They may involve harming yourself or others, or they may be thoughts that you already have done this in some way.
They can reoccur frequently and can worsen over time. This often happens because of the thought processes that take place after the intrusive thoughts. You may start to question what the thoughts say about you. If the thoughts involve you carrying out acts and behaviours, you may start to question whether you could end up doing these things for real.
This can lead to a sense of shame and intense anxiety and depression. It may make you question your very sense of who you are. You may feel that you’re losing your grip on reality and going ‘mad’. You may be scared to tell anyone about the intrusive thoughts for fear that they will judge you.
The fixation on the intrusive thoughts and the worry about what they might mean or say about you is what gives them more power over you. The secrecy reinforces the thoughts and makes them seem stronger and more real.
The first step towards overcoming intrusive thoughts is to recognise that they are just thoughts. They don’t say anything about you or your true nature.
On average, the human brain has up to 60,000 thoughts every day. Of these, an average 80% of these thoughts have been found to be negative and irrational thoughts.
There are all sorts of reasons why your brain feeds you negative and irrational thoughts. I won’t go into them in depth here.
The brain’s primary purpose is to ensure your survival. There is a part of the brain that has evolved over thousands of years and works on an instinctual level. It’s sometimes referred to as the lizard or reptilian brain. This part is completely focused on your survival.
When this survival part of the brain is triggered by what it feels is danger it will tell the other part of your brain whatever it needs to hear in order to get it ready for potential danger. Of course, most of the time there isn’t really any danger, but if the survival part of the brain believes you are in danger it will just throw out these negative and automatic thoughts anyway. It’s a bit like a fire alarm going off, even when there isn’t any fire there. The more unresolved trauma you have suffered, the more sensitive you will be to triggers, and the stronger and more frequent the thoughts will be.
In the case of intrusive thoughts, these are extremely strong irrational and untrue thoughts that are more irrational and more untrue than usual. They are powerful, distressing and unwelcomed thoughts that you just can’t accept and that go against your personal values and your sense of who you are.
But they are still just thoughts. You don’t have to accept them. If a thought comes in and it doesn’t it with your sense of who are and what you believe, you can reject it. You don’t have to accept it as truth.
The more you are able to reject your intrusive thoughts and recognise that they’re not a real, valid part of who you are, the less power they will have. Their power relies on you believing what they are saying and if you stop believing it, they will lose their power. The intrusive thoughts and their emotional effect on you will become weaker.
Connecting to your sense of who you are and building your sense of identity will help you to be able to see the intrusive thoughts for what they are. What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Who are you really?
Think of some of the things that make you who you are. The person who you really are is so different from the one your intrusive thoughts are suggesting to you. Notice the differences and know that the person you really are doesn’t really think these things.
Try to ground yourself. Grounding yourself will bring a sense of reality in and will distract you from the thoughts. A good way of grounding yourself is to use an object that you can hold in your hand when you are having the intrusive thoughts. This could be a stone, a keyring or a phone. Anything that helps you to retain a sense of reality and separate out the unreal intrusive thoughts from your reality.
A grounding technique that also helps to remind you of who you really are is to list some of your favourite things. List your favourite films, TV shows, sports teams, holiday destinations or actors. Anything like that is good. You could try to list them in alphabetical order too. This will help to distract your mind from the intrusive thoughts, bring in some reality and build up your identity, all at the same time.
Intrusive thoughts are not real. Yes, they will feel very real and may be extremely disturbing and distressing. But they are just thoughts. They don’t reflect who you are as a person and having thoughts about certain behaviours doesn’t mean that you will act on those thoughts.
I hope that reading this has helped you to understand and start to deal with and overcome intrusive thoughts. If you are having long term, persistent intrusive thoughts that are affecting your daily mental health, I would recommend speaking to your GP or other healthcare provider.