Does Everyone Have Intrusive Thoughts?
How often has an intrusive thought entered your mind, and you have felt accompanying feelings of disgust, self-loathing, anxiety, and shame?
Commonly, these could be sexually inappropriate thoughts, thoughts about committing violence to another, including towards loved ones; thoughts about something terrible happening to you; or thoughts against your own beliefs or religion.
This is something that happens to the vast majority of people, so if you feel that you have something to be ashamed of, stop right there. You don’t.
We cannot control the thoughts that come into our minds. We can only control what we choose to do about them.
Why Do I Have Intrusive Thoughts?
There are multiple theories about what causes intrusive thoughts, but there is no concrete evidence that determines what causes intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts aren’t always a result of an underlying condition and are often just thoughts. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that they are involuntary and rarely have any correlation with the person’s desires.
Essentially, our brain likes to explore different scenarios and as long as we can recognize that they are just thoughts and that we would never act on them, intrusive thoughts are generally something not to worry about.
Mental Health & Intrusive Thoughts
If these thoughts are persistent and causing you distress, it might be a sign that there is something else going on with your mental health, as intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of another mental health condition.
Here are some of the most common conditions:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)/Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): While they are different disorders, people who struggle with OCD or GAD may be more inclined to intrusive thoughts that range from paranoid thoughts about the world around them to the unshakable worry that we forgot to lock their doors. The tendency to dwell on the thought can reoccur throughout the day and generate great distress for the individual.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Living with PTSD can often bring on intrusive thoughts that can be associated with their original stressor or other psychological distress. While it doesn’t occur as it does in the movies, reliving incidents through PTSD flashbacks or visions is common.
- Eating Disorders (ED): Often associated with negative self-talk involving food and body image, intrusive thoughts are a major part of the mental health issues surrounding eating disorders at all levels.
If you experience extended intrusive thoughts and are concerned about one of these or other disorders, please reach out to your doctor to explore what this means for you.
Stopping Intrusive Thoughts
Troubling and intrusive thoughts do not have to consume your life. Ultimately, you decide what to do with these thoughts.
We often make the mistake of thinking that because a sudden thought has entered our minds, it represents who we are and what we believe. This is not the case. These thoughts do not define us, and we can master them if we choose to.
If you have an unexpected thought about pushing someone off a bridge or engaging in a violent act, this does not mean you are a violent person. If you were a violent person, why do feelings of distress accompany the thought?
The subconscious mind is a deep and mysterious thing. In almost all cases, aspects of ourselves - whether they are thoughts, feelings, or characteristics we are not aware of - are hidden somewhere in the subconscious, and they manifest themselves into our reality.
But we must always remember that we are the master of both our subconscious and our conscious. The ultimate authority is ourselves - we do not have to be slaves to our thoughts.
How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can seem like a prison with no way out. Obsessive thoughts can be debilitating to the point where you begin to question who you even are.
The good news is that there are ways to deal with them. Yes, you may not be able to stop them entirely. But you can learn to deal with them and then, perhaps, in time, they will reduce and you may be free of them entirely. Much of it is about training your mind and making it clear that you are the boss of these thoughts, not the other way round.
So what are some ways you can deal with intrusive thoughts?
1. Face the Thought: Don’t Try to Bury It
The more you resist the thought and make a big deal out of avoiding it, the stronger it becomes. This is when surrender truly is the highest form of victory.
You may have experienced this when tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep at night. You try not to think about something, and suddenly you start thinking about it.
Facing your intrusive thoughts can follow two paths.
Accept the thought and analyze It
This can include writing the thought down, writing about how it makes you feel, considering why you are having the thought, and thinking of solutions to stop thinking about it. This is a more challenging option for most people because it means digging into the unpleasantness. But it is also one of the most effective ways to halt the thoughts and gain mastery over them.
This is a good coping mechanism when having intrusive thoughts that allows you to reground yourself and center your thoughts in who you truly are. If unwanted thoughts spring into your mind, do something to distract yourself. Intense exercises, reading a book, chatting with a friend, watching a film, pursuing an interest, passion, or hobby are excellent options.
All that matters is that you do not feed the thought by wallowing in it.
Try this: A Mindfulness Exercise to Curb Anxiety
2. Remind Yourself: They Aren’t Serious
Have you ever heard of laughing in the face of danger? There’s a reason people do that. It’s to let the danger know they are not afraid of it.
Do not allow your thoughts to frighten you because fear of them is what leads them to have power over you.
So when the thought appears, either laugh at it or treat it with the disdain it deserves. Say to yourself, “Hah! You think I would do something like that?” or “Yep, keep trying. That thought is so ludicrous and clearly not me!”
It’s not like you’re lying. It’s not you. The sooner these thoughts understand that you’re not willing to entertain them, the sooner they will be under your control. Yes, it can be tough laughing at a thought where you are committing a murderous act or engaging in something sexually perverse, but the fact is it is not you, so why should you even entertain the notion?
3. Focus on Your Mental Health
Having intrusive thoughts isn’t a sign of mental weakness, in fact, they can be a way to dive more into our mental health and talk more openly about the issues that plague us on a day-to-day basis. An unhappy environment or state of being can create extra negative energy in your life, so taking the time to explore avenues of treatment can help us fight off intrusive thoughts.
Start going to therapy, talk to a doctor about your intrusive thoughts and pair this with journaling and meditation to find the best fit for your mental health.
The more balanced and self-aware we are, the harder it is for intrusive thoughts to affect us. We can actively change our lifestyles. Our eating habits, our movement, and the way we choose to react to situations are within our power. It is just a question of harnessing that power. It is not a question of whether we have it or not.
Taking Power Back
Intrusive thoughts can be debilitating to our lives and, in some cases, make life unbearable for us, but when we take steps to understand them, we take power away from them.
The power is in our hands. It is remarkable how easily we tend to disregard our own power.
Think of the most precious possession you own. Would you allow harm to come to it or let it be mistreated or manhandled by another? No. So why would you allow intrusive thoughts to do the same thing to your mind?
Your mind is no different from that prized possession. We are the only ones who create a safe, understanding, and nurturing environment within our own minds.
Related article: How to Embrace Self-Ownership & Acceptance