What to do About Intrusive Thoughts

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Intrusive thoughts are more than a nightmare for people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They’re a bizarre behavior of the human brain that can happen to anyone.

You ever just going about your day when – out of nowhere – you suddenly imagine a strange image or think up an unsettling thought?

These thoughts can vary, from an embarrassing memory to something that’s downright immoral.

Such occurrences can leave people feeling distressed. Especially if they’re happening frequently and getting in the way of one’s ability to live.

Luckily, there are things you can do to manage intrusive thoughts. This article seeks to define just what these thoughts are and to teach you what to do when they appear. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

An intrusive thought is when a thought suddenly (without warning) enters your consciousness and portrays an image that is either upsetting, unsettling, and/or completely strange [1].

For the most part, everyone has an intrusive thought from time to time. Yet, there are many out there who suffer from repeated intrusive thoughts – either of the same thought or versatile thoughts.

Those who have repeated intrusive thoughts will often find themselves facing difficulties in life other people don’t face. Some of these include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Difficulty maintaining personal connections (i.e. friends or family)
  • Frustration with parenting
  • Relationship complications
  • Trouble with responsibilities (i.e. school or work)

Understandably, many of us would never act upon an intrusive thought. Most of the time, they stay within the realms of our consciousness and, on the surface, we appear normal. Still, just because we appear normal doesn’t mean we’ve got these thoughts altogether.

Why Do Intrusive Thoughts Appear?

There are a number of different reasons intrusive thoughts appear – most of which correlate back to a mental health condition [2].

People with anxiety may have apprehensive intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are usually meaningless, but nevertheless, leave us with a lot of fear. When it comes to someone struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s often difficult for them to get their mind off of worries. In effect, apprehensive intrusive thoughts seem to appear naturally.

Similarly, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are bound to have flashbacks from their traumatic experience. Just like an intrusive thought, these flashbacks appear at random. The only difference is they’re much more intense (sometimes realistic) and may show physical signs other people can see [3].

If you’re struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts may appear to have become a normal part of your everyday life. You may find yourself compulsively completing tasks simply because you can’t stop thinking about said tasks.

Still, there remains those who don’t have a mental health condition that continues to have intrusive thoughts. The truth of the matter is psychologists aren’t entirely sure as to WHY we have them.

For the most part, if an intrusive thought isn’t overwhelming your daily life, it’s not necessarily a big issue. Just something that comes and goes.

However, if intrusive thoughts are detrimental to your daily life, you’re most likely dealing with some form of a mental disorder. And it’s important to consult a medical professional about this issue.

Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts?

While scrolling through the internet, you’re going to find a ton of tips and tricks about how to handle intrusive thoughts. However, those these can be helpful, it’s extremely vital you seek medical assistance.

An intrusive thought can be dangerous to both yourself and others around you. It can lead to violence or damages within relationships. For these reasons, it’s necessary to speak with a professional about your specific condition.

The treatment you’ll receive will correlate together with the mental disorder you’re diagnosed with. The most common associated with intrusive thoughts include:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Tay-Sachs Disease (TSD)

Within treatment, you’ll receive medication alongside psychotherapy that fits specifically to your needs.

Medication

Much of the medication currently approved for the symptom of intrusive thoughts is similar to the medication of OCD. Only a doctor can give you the proper medication for your specific condition. Still, you’ll most likely receive one of the following antidepressants [4]:

  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Clomipramine (Anafranil)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

NOTE: Antidepressants can be addictive and, if taken improperly, will cause further complications. Only take as your doctor recommends.

It should also be noted, many people are able to curb intrusive thoughts without the aid of medication. We recommend you give psychotherapy a try before turning to medication as a means of relief. If psychotherapy isn’t enough, then consult your doctor about the right medication.

Psychotherapy

There are a number of different psychotherapies designed to help you better understand your mental functioning. The purpose of teaching you how your thought patterns work is to help you develop habits which better your consciousness.

Common psychotherapies used for treating intrusive thoughts include [5]:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – The most common form of therapy for all mental disorder, CBT has helped people develop a better understanding of who they are and how they want to live their life. By talking about unwanted and negative thoughts, you’ll be given ideas on how to rid them from your conscious. This is usually done through one-on-one or group talk sessions with a psychiatrist.
    • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – A form of CBT which focuses on accepting your thoughts and emotions rather than trying to change them. Through acceptance, it’s hoped you’ll develop mindfulness and, in turn, become a more adaptable thinker.
    • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) – A form of CBT which seeks to expose you to your fears on a number of occasions. In turn, it’s believed you’ll have the ability to face your fears and develop the idea that they’re irrational. This is most commonly used for people struggling with PTSD but has been used for other psychological disorders [6].
  • Hypnosis – More often than not, people with intrusive thoughts have the habit of “spacing out” when these thoughts arise. It’s believed by some that hypnosis communication can be a way to rid the consciousness of fear. However, this isn’t treatment your doctor will necessarily recommend [7].

What Can You Do About Intrusive Thoughts?

While you receive professional treatment, there are a number of different things you can do when it comes to intrusive thoughts.

The most important is to develop a worksheet that lays out what your intrusive thoughts are, when they happen (if applicable), and how you can improve on them.

When developing this worksheet, it’s recommended you take the following steps [8]:

  1. Categorize the thoughts as “intrusive thoughts”.
  2. Remember you have no control over these thoughts and they’re usually an automatic response.
  3. Accept these thoughts and allow them to take hold of your consciousness. It’s important not to PUSH them away.
  4. When these thoughts appear, try to let them pass rather than fighting them.
  5. Pause and remember to give yourself the time.
  6. Understand that these thoughts will come back again.
  7. When you feel these thoughts coming on, do whatever you can to let them pass with ease.

If you haven’t yet entered therapy, you’ll find many professionals give the above advice. Since intrusive thoughts aren’t entirely understood, there isn’t a current treatment to completely rid them from a person’s conscious. In effect, it’s best to let them happen while maintaining yourself through the process.

Your Questions

Still have concerns about intrusive thoughts?

We invite you to leave any questions you might still have in the comments section below. If you have personal experience or insight with intrusive thoughts, we’d also love to hear from you.

We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources

[1] NIMH: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: When Unwanted Thoughts or Irresistible Actions Take Over

[2] ClinicalTrials.gov: The Role of Cognitive Control in the Transdiagnostic Conceptualization of “Intrusive Thoughts”

[3] MedlinePlus: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

[4] Psychiatry MMC: Clinical Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

[5] World of Journal Psychiatry: Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Evidence-based treatments and future directions for research

[6] NCBI: Exposure and response prevention process predicts treatment outcome in youth with OCD.

[7] WJM: Hypnosis and relaxation therapies

[8] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

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