Intrusive Thoughts and How to Manage Them
Have you ever been lain awake at night dwelling on a thought that you just can’t seem to get rid of. It may be, for example, worrying that something bad will happen to a family member, a sense that something catastrophic will happen in your next exam, or that your blog post will be horrendously reviewed. If you have, it is possible that you have experienced intrusive thoughts.
With decades of experience as a senior cognitive behavioural therapist, grounded in his experience as a mental health nurse, Alan Dovey, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist based in Birmingham, explains what intrusive thoughts are, and some top strategies for managing them.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are comprised of typically unwanted negative thoughts and images that are particularly difficult to dismiss. These thoughts are often defined as entering into our conscious experience without a desire for them to be there. It is suggested that the most distressing aspect of intrusive thoughts, is not the thought itself, but rather the perceived lack of control of your thoughts.
Although a large proportion of research into this matter focuses on the association between negative thoughts and obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), the evidence suggests that intrusive thoughts are not necessarily indicative of psychological disorder. Adam Radomsky, director of the Center for Clinical Research in Montreal has researched this phenomenon extensively in both individuals with and without OCD. Interestingly this research determined that almost everyone has intrusive thoughts and that they are subsequently a normal part of being human. Radomsky went on to explain that it’s “not the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are the problem — it’s what you make of those thoughts“. (The belief about the thoughts)
How can I overcome them?
Now that we have established the shortfalls of trying to suppress invasive thoughts, here are five ways to actually deal with them, according to the experts.
DON’T SUPPRESS THOUGHTS
Although it may seem natural to try and suppress negative intrusive thoughts that may occur, this approach may be counterproductive for positive psychological well-being. A large number of studies have demonstrated that denial of them is largely ineffective at removing them. A research study by Purdon in 2007 identified that only 11% of suppression attempts were successful in removing a negative thought. For instance, if I said to you “don’t think of a big white fluffy bunny rabbit” ….. what happens….. exactly. This is what we call the rebound effect. Trying to suppress a thought actually brings it on louder.
ALLOWING THEM TO FLOW
As we’ve mentioned, intrusive thoughts can become more distressful the more that we try to actively stop them. It is suggested that this occurs because trying to suppress them brings them to the forefront of our minds, making them more likely to reoccur. Instead of suppressing them, allowing them to run their natural course will be a more strategic long-term strategy to reduce distress. One way which you can practice this is by using reflective talk such as ‘I am having this negative thought- instead of focusing on it, I accept that I am having it and will eventually let it pass’. This will not only help you become more self-aware but will reduce the negative burden of having these thoughts.
IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGERS
Learning to identify the triggers of your intrusive thoughts is a preventative tool that you can use to prepare for negative thoughts. By using this tactic, you are likely to be more able to understand when these thoughts will occur and the subsequent interventions you can take to manage them. Dr Klapow, a clinical psychologist with expertise in intrusive thoughts, mentions that they are NOT completely random. These thoughts are often incited by cues such as certain environments like being indoors or outdoors, or internal feelings such as stress or fatigue. By learning what your triggers are, you will become more capable of knowing when they will occur and the action you need to take to prevent them recurring. Try keeping a journal of your surroundings and feelings at the times of your intrusive thoughts and use these to determine any patterns that may lead to these negative thoughts arising.
TRY TO SHIFT YOUR FOCUS
It may appear obvious but trying to engage your mind in another activity may help in reducing intrusive thoughts. Most often negative thoughts come to us when our minds are ‘quiet’ or when we feel burnt-out and stressed. Researchers suggest that intrusive thoughts can be reduced by finding an activity that can attract our attention to. Our primitive minds only have a finite capacity for stimuli, therefore by shifting our focus to an activity that can engage our brain, we actively move these thoughts to the background. If you experience intrusive thoughts maybe try listening to music, watching a movie, socializing with friends, or exercising!
SEEK PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
Most importantly, it is important to always utilise health care professionals if your intrusive thoughts are negatively affecting your day-to-day, work, academic or social life. When intrusive thoughts become chronic or persistent, they can lead to a feeling of isolation. This is problematic as if these thoughts worsen, they may become increasingly difficult to manage alone. There are a host of reasons for the onset of intrusive thoughts such as trauma, anxiety disorders or grief, therefore if you feel like you are unable to manage these thoughts yourself, do seek out support from your GP or a mental health professional.
Although intrusive thoughts are a natural phenomenon that most people experience, it is completely rational for them to upset and incite negative emotions. Whether you choose to get help by practicing reflective talking, moving your focus away, or seeking professional support, reducing intrusive thoughts is fundamentally about forgiving yourself. Reducing the pressure, you place on yourself to not have these thoughts, will provide you more head space allowing you to return to a less stressed state.
“When you can’t control what is happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what is happening… for that is where the power is”