Navigating Intrusive Thoughts

What are intrusive thoughts? Intrusive thoughts are unanticipated or spontaneous thoughts that may seem to arise out of nowhere and typically elicit distress. Typically these thoughts are contradicting the authentic values or intentions of the person experiencing them. These thoughts may be violent, graphic, or disturbing and having these thoughts does not make someone a “bad” person. In most cases, intrusive thoughts can be managed, and the first step is to increase our awareness of when they are occurring along with what they are. 

What Kind of Intrusive Thoughts Are There? 

Different people experience intrusive thoughts in a multitude of ways and across a range of topics and situations. Most intrusive thoughts can start with “what if?”. Intrusive thoughts that may elicit distress might involve one of these themes: 

Sexual behaviors that elicit distress, disturbing or violent imagery, catastrophes such as a “freak accident”, germs or contagion, taking action that would cause physical or emotional harm to others or yourself, taking action that would violate religious or cultural beliefs. 

Tips To Manage Intrusive Thoughts: 

It is important to note that it may not always be realistic to stop intrusive thought, and that it is not necessarily the goal. Try shifting your focus to exploring ways to make them less distressing and cultivate some distance between you and the thoughts. The goal may look like feeling more in control of our thoughts, instead of feeling like they control us. 

Again, the first step is just to notice you are having an intrusive thought. Saying to yourself “this is an intrusive thought” or “it is just a thought. Nothing more” can create some distance between you and the thought. 

A visualization technique commonly used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involves allowing the thought to “pass by” using visualization. First: “visualize your mind as a running river, imagine your thoughts are falling leaves and one of these leaves falls into the water, label the leaf as an intrusive thought you are experiencing and notice it wash away down the stream, and continue to repeat with any additional thoughts that are eliciting distress. 

It is important to attend to our thoughts with non-judgement and to not necessarily try to figure out what these thoughts mean. Sometimes, distracting ourselves and letting them “pass by” can take away their power. 

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