Do you ever get into bed, all set to go to sleep, when you suddenly remember an embarrassing thing you did four years ago? Then, it slowly takes over your mind until you’re wide awake, and it’s all you can think about. Welcome to intrusive thoughts. If you’ve ever experienced them, you know that they can have a negative effect on functioning and even interpersonal relationships. So let’s break down what they are, how they come about, and what you can do about them.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts Anyway?
They’re unwanted, unpleasant, and come out of nowhere. These are the three characteristics of intrusive thought. You can experience them because of some unlikely scenario, or even minor mistakes and errors. For example, you accidentally said ‘thanks, you too’ to a waiter who said ‘enjoy your meal,’ or went in for a high-five when your co-worker’s hand clearly indicated a fist bump. Now, years later, you feel distressed whenever you think about it.
Our study showed that most participants, about 94 percent, get the occasional intrusive thoughts. The results showed that intrusive thoughts like doubts were the most common, like asking yourself if you locked the front door, or if you left the stove on.
But while it’s usually nothing to worry about, experiencing them frequently may require implementing coping strategies, seeking an anxiety therapist maybe a good start if you are uncertain and want to speak to someone about it.
How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts
On the outside, the solution can seem as easy as ‘just don’t think about it,’ but how? Intrusive thoughts are quite influential because they can remain in your mind. Hence, solutions revolve around managing them and making them less disturbing, instead of completely stopping them. Practicing these techniques can help you feel like you’re in control of the thoughts in your mind.
Label Your Intrusive Thoughts as intrusive are they real?
For starters, you must be aware of which thoughts are intrusive and label them as such. Because they don’t occur as a direct result of a precipitating event, they tend to pop out of nowhere. Here’s a strategy to know which thoughts are intrusive. Ask yourself if the thought came up suddenly and whether it has a direct relation to your current situation. Then, ask if the thought is uncomfortable and recurrent. If the answers are yes and no, and then yes to both, it’s likely that the particular thought in question is intrusive.
Emphasise the Difference Between Thought and Behaviour
Intrusive thoughts aren’t always innocuous, though. At times, they can be aggressive in nature, and they can make you feel guilty. In these cases, remember that your thought is only a thought. They’re not a predictor of your behaviour, so just accept that you’ve had a certain thought, and move on. It’s crucial that you accept these and not ignore them, as that can make you less likely to worry.
Removing Yourself From the Environment
Sometimes, dealing with an intrusive thought requires more than a mental effort. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, removing yourself from the environment can prove effective. The APA suggests that experiencing a natural environment can enhance cognitive function, so try finding a quiet place in your local park. Here, you can take a walk and engage your senses to take your mind off an intrusive thought.
Spend Time With Your Pet
Animals can have a calming effect when you’re feeling anxious. While some pets can detect some changes in your emotional state, they don’t care much for the complex thoughts festering inside your mind. This allows them to give you a simple form of emotional support. And if not, they have hilarious antics, and the fact that you have to look after them, can act as a distraction.
Being mindful is the act of directing your attention toward the present and using it as an anchor to ground yourself. It’s an effective way to challenge the negative feelings that arise from having an intrusive thought. Practicing mindfulness can look like meditating, relaxing, or focusing on certain sounds. Because there’s no set way to do it, you can practice them for as little as a few minutes, up to an hour.
Seek a Therapist
Many treatments can prove effective for dealing with disruptive, intrusive thoughts. You may get a whole new relationship with your thinking. It essentially helps a person understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. A professional therapist works with you to develop new ways to relate to your thinking so you’re less sensitive to intrusive thoughts.