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Managing Intrusive Thoughts


Intrusive thoughts are by their very nature thoughts or images that come out of nowhere and can cause you distress. They can be sexual in nature, aggressive, a reoccurring thought that you’ll do something embarrassing or inappropriate, or about a past mistake or worry you have. Often, they are unpleasant or unwanted. You will notice that the more you try to push these thoughts away, the more often they come to harass you.


Who Gets Intrusive Thoughts?

Most people get intrusive thoughts at some point in life, which is completely normal. At any given time, approximately 6 million Americans experience intrusive thoughts. In one study, 94% of people asked had experienced at least one intrusive thought in the 3 months before the study. These thoughts become a problem when they occur frequently or cause significant distress in your life. Intrusive thoughts can occur as a symptom of a mental illness such as OCD, PTSD, anxiety, or even just plain stress. For instance, new mothers often experience intrusive thoughts following the birth of their new child.


Types of Intrusive Thoughts

There are several different types of intrusive thoughts that you might be experiencing. Some of these might be about:


  • Germs, infections, or other contamination

  • Violent acts, aggression, or causing harm to others

  • Thoughts about doing tasks wrong or failing

  • Religion, blasphemy, or acting in an immoral way

  • Sexual acts or situations outside of your usual

  • Acting out or doing the wrong thing in public


How to Identify Intrusive Thoughts

There are some particular characteristics to keep an eye out for:

  • The thoughts are unusual for you. Intrusive thoughts generally are notably different than your usual thoughts. They might be overly sexual or aggressive. They may prompt you to do things you wouldn’t usually do, or to worry about topics that your don’t usually think about too much.

  • The thoughts are disturbing. These types are thought are difficult to imagine. They make you wonder about yourself, are embarrassing, or may make you anxious.

  • The thought feels hard to control. These thoughts often are repetitive and you want to push them away. But when you try to push them away, they can become stronger and more entrenched.


What to Do About Intrusive Thoughts

If you are experiencing intrusive thoughts that are frightening or embarrassing, or otherwise distressing, the most natural thing to do would be to try and stop them. Many people in fact try to force the thoughts to stop. However, this is a mistake and may actually make the thoughts stronger or more frequent. There is something called the “Pink Elephant Paradox” which basically states that the more you try to stop thinking about a particular thing, the more you will actually think of that thought. Try it yourself. Right now, try to not think about a pink elephant. What did you think of? Chances are, the more you tried to not think about a pink elephant, the more you thought of one.

Instead, try one of these strategies:



1. Identify the thought as what it is, an intrusive thought. Tell yourself, “This is an intrusive thought. It’s not me, it’s not what I believe or want”.

2. Don’t fight the thought. If you notice an intrusive thought, accept it for what it is and try not to stress over it. Just notice it and let it go.

3. Don’t judge yourself. Intrusive thoughts by their very nature, are not things that you believe and do not reflect your values. They are just thoughts and thoughts are different than behaviors. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you will do it, or even that you want to do it.


Do I Need Professional Help?

If the techniques above are not helpful and you are still overly distressed by the intrusive thoughts you’re having, it is probably time to seek professional help. There are some medications that can be helpful, as well as various types of therapy. If you would like to talk more about this topic or would like to seek anxiety treatment, please follow the link. I would love to talk with you.

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