You’re headed to bed early – excited to finally get a full night’s rest. But as soon as your head hits the pillow, your brain is consumed with an unwanted, disturbing thought. You continue to dwell on that thought, tossing and turning all night long.
Have you ever experienced a similar scenario where an unwelcome thought seemingly appeared out of nowhere?
Most likely, you have. A study on the general population found that around 99.4% of individuals experience intrusive thoughts occasionally. However, only 13% of those individuals experience them frequently.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
While it’s completely normal to experience intrusive thoughts from time-to-time, the underlying problem with them occurs when we continue to obsess and worry about them. So, it comes as no surprise that intrusive thoughts are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders.
While intrusive thoughts can be random, a person’s own life experience or reactions to an event typically influences them. For example, someone may see a report on their local news station about a burglary. This report can subconsciously cause obsessive thoughts that a burglar may break into their own home.
Intrusive thoughts come in a variety of forms, but some of the most common themes include:
- Committing violence or harm to oneself or others
- Engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviors
- Blasphemy or performing acts against one’s religion
- Fear-based thoughts
Five Tips to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
The good news is that disturbing thoughts don’t have to consume your life. You can overcome and free your mind from them. Next time you’re faced with an intrusive thought, keep these five tips in mind.
1. Don’t suppress the thought
For many people, the first reaction they have when faced with an intrusive thought is to try to forget it about it. Unfortunately, this method results in the exact opposite effect – you end up thinking about the intrusive thought even more.
An experiment by Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, demonstrated this concept. He asked participants in the study not to think about white bears for 5 minutes, and guess what happened? The participants thought about white bears more than once per minute on average.
Instead of consciously suppressing your thought, try to divert your attention away from it with an engaging activity. For example, try completing a crossword puzzle or reading a book.
Make sure you aren’t switching between a bunch of tasks. Fully immerse yourself in a single activity, and make sure it can’t be linked back to the intrusive thought in any way. For example, if you’re having intrusive thoughts related to death, it wouldn’t make sense to divert your attention by reading a book about murder.
2. Recognize the difference between thought and reality
A big concern for many people with intrusive thoughts is the fear they may act out on a dark intrusive thought, such as harming someone they love. They want to understand the meaning behind these thoughts and seek reassurance that they won’t commit them.
However, intrusive thoughts are what they suggest – just thoughts. These thoughts are not a sign of what’s to come, and there is no intent to act on them, no matter what your OCD or anxiety wants you to believe.
With that in mind, accept these thoughts as mere thoughts when they arise. Let them pass freely through your mind – recognizing them, but not allowing them to consume you. By accepting intrusive thoughts as just another thought, you’ll become less likely to worry about them over time.
3. Identify the triggers
Often, your thoughts are not entirely random, and your day-to-day interactions may influence them. Keeping a journal of your intrusive thoughts can help you understand patterns over time.
In addition to listing out your thoughts, keep a record of your overall mood, and notes about your day. As you start to notice similar thoughts appearing over time, refer back to those notes, and see if you can identify any patterns.
Maybe these thoughts were happening when you had a lot of free time, or perhaps they were occurring after you watched a violent movie. By tracking these patterns, you may be able to pin down the root cause and fix the underlying issue.
4. Implement a positive change into your daily routine
If you infuse your life with more positive vibes, you’re less likely to have space for negative ones. So why not integrate a lifestyle change that’s proven to make you feel good and develop it into a consistent habit?
Some examples of changes you could make in your daily routine include:
If you notice yourself having intrusive thoughts more commonly in the morning, implement these activities as soon as you wake up. A shift in your mindset could do wonders in shaking off intrusive thoughts.
5. Talk it out and don’t rule out therapy
Many people feel ashamed to admit they’re having intrusive thoughts or even experience feelings of guilt related to them. They attempt to deal with their thoughts on their own and keep them hidden from others.
However, talking through your feelings with someone you trust can be extremely beneficial. By being open and vulnerable about how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing, you may develop a whole new perspective on your situation.
For some people, talking to a stranger can be easier than talking to someone you know. In this scenario, therapy can be a good option. There are many types of therapy available – both in individual and group settings. Do your research and take time to evaluate all of your options.
Intrusive thoughts happen to us all from time to time. With a little bit of focus and commitment, you can overcome your intrusive thoughts. Your success depends on your ability to fight the urge to worry and obsess over them.
About the Author: Krystal Childrey is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She specializes in creating blog posts, email campaigns, and website copy for mental health businesses. When she isn’t writing, you can find her hiking around the PNW.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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