Intrusive thoughts and how to tackle them
Intrusive thoughts are natural; everyone will experience them and sometimes have them daily. They are defined usually as thoughts, desires, or urges that are inappropriate for the context you find yourself in. You can have intrusive images too.
Having intrusive thoughts or images usually isn’t the sign of a mental health concern; if they aren’t impacting on your functionality and they are fleeting then they are within the normal range of human experience. When they linger, cause increasing distress, and prevent you from experiencing life then they have become problematic and require some attention from a professional.
Here we are going to look at mild to moderate intrusions. If you think yours are beyond this and you find them very invasive then please do speak with a counsellor or your GP.
Unsuitable or inappropriate thoughts, themes or images can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and momentarily distressing; this can lead to feeling restless, sad, tearful, or bordering on turning to obsessional behaviour to counteract your feelings.
You’ll generally find that they occur out of the blue which can often add to the level of shock, surprise, and discomfort. They can also be caused by a trigger or lay in a deep-seated memory. If you find they are recurring with the same image or thought, then this may be a flashback as opposed to an intrusive image and this may be linked to a previous incident or trauma you experienced recently or in the past.
There may be a few things going on in the moment for you so have a think about if the below apply to you and your situation:
- Irrational thoughts or images: consider if you have any anxiety symptoms?
- Intrusive thoughts with a compulsion to carry out a behaviour that makes you feel safer: this may be OCD.
- Intrusive thoughts/ images/ flashbacks with a trigger- may be linked to past trauma.
Whatever the cause, it’s likely that that you feel anxious when they arise, and you find they happen with more frequency in line with how troubling you find them.
Some common intrusive themes:
Can include violence, swearing or thinking about hurting yourself or others, wishing harm to loved ones or strangers.
Inappropriate thoughts related to intimacy, sex, rape, touch and non-consenting situations, with friends, family, colleagues, strangers, religious figures or animals- usually the ideas are far removed from your own preferences and morals and your actual approach to sex. This in turn can cause discomfort, disgust, guilt, anger or other intense emotional responses.
They’ll arrive at inappropriate times and can range from fleeting to persistent. As mentioned, they can appear out of the blue, from seemingly nowhere and it can be confusing and frustrating in the moment and afterwards. They often lack purpose too.
If we pay attention to them then we can become fixated and stuck in distress. With OCD you’re unable to ignore the thoughts and will have given them airtime; they become your main focus which leads to greater distress.
Pushing them to one side can increase their intensity over time.
What’s behind the thoughts/ images?
There are varied views on what may be instigating these, but I’ve listed a few below:
- Instability in daily life,
- Frustration or stress in a life area that you are avoiding resolving,
- In avoiding resolution, the brain occasionally shows you what needs attending to, or
- Parts of the self that haven’t been fully processed or understood
In these situations, it can be hard to not attend to the thought or image/ much like when you’re told to not touch a boiling kettle for instance, the overwhelming desire is usually to touch it anyway. However, giving life to these thoughts can help you get stuck in rumination (overthinking) or obsession (fixating on the thought).
Tackling Intrusive Thoughts:
- Treat it like a wave– let it rise then flow away by not paying it any attention as a real entity.
- Move your focus to something in your environment- if it’s arisen at an inappropriate time then paying attention to what is around you can allow the thought to pass. Looking up at the ceiling or at a colourful wall can assist, so can scribbling/ doodling in a pad as this is a creative outlet.
- If you’re aware of a trigger, then consider how to address that person/ place or thing. You may need help from a counsellor or GP to do this.
- Evidence check the thought– is it rational, is it fear-based, is anxiety attached to it? Consider the facts about the thought rather than believing it to be true.
- Create space to relax: self-care, relaxation and getting used to calmer pockets of life are essential for mental health.
If you think you need some counselling for intrusive thoughts and images then please do click here.