5 Effective Strategies for Coping with Intrusive Thoughts

January 2, 2023

Do you ever feel like you can't get your thoughts to stop racing? Or that you're constantly on edge, feeling like something bad is going to happen? If so, you're not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults each year. And intrusive thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety disorders. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or images that pop into your head unexpectedly and make you feel uncomfortable or scared.

Where do intrusive thoughts come from?

intrusive thoughts are defined as unwanted and persistent thoughts, images, or urges that are experienced as distressing and bothersome. They can range from mildly annoying to completely debilitating, and they are often accompanied by anxiety, depression, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

There are several theories about where intrusive thoughts come from, but the most commonly accepted theory is that they are a product of memory biases. According to this theory, people with mental health disorder like this are more likely to remember negative experiences than positive ones. This biased memory recall can lead to intrusive and unwanted thoughts about feared situations or objects.

Additionally, people with OCD may also have difficulty inhibiting their thoughts, which can further contribute to the development of intrusive thoughts. While the exact cause of intrusive thoughts is still unknown, understanding the role of memory bias can help people with OCD to manage their symptoms and reduce the impact of these thoughts on their lives.

Anxiety and intrusive thoughts

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, or fear. It can be mild or severe. Everyone feels anxious at times. An anxiety disorder is when these feelings don't go away and are so strong that they interfere with your everyday life. Anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions - just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Just like physical diseases, they often get worse if they are not treated.

People with anxiety may have trouble talking about their feelings. They may feel ashamed or think that others will judge them badly because of their anxiety. But it is very important to get help if you have an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders often feel better with treatment.

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, persistent, and recurrent thoughts, images, or impulses that are experienced as intrusive and distressing. People with anxiety disorders often experience intrusive thoughts.

These can be about anything, but usually involve themes of worry, such as:

  • bad things happening to self or loved ones
  • an unwanted thought about making mistakes - over and over again
  • contamination, disease, or other negative thoughts
  • situations that cause emotional distress
  • fantasizing about drug abuse or substance abuse
  • obsessive thoughts about germs
  • violent thoughts
  • sexual intrusive thoughts or sexual thoughts that interfere with daily life

Obsessive compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts

OCD is characterized by intrusive or unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that trigger anxiety and the urge to perform compulsions (repetitive behaviors or mental acts) to relieve the anxiety. These obsessions and compulsions can significantly interfere with everyday life, relationships, work, and school. People with OCD may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both.

Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive and cause distress or anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels compelled to perform in order to relieve the obsessions and/or reduce the anxiety caused by them.

People with OCD may have only obsessions or only compulsions, but most people have both obsessions and compulsions. Although people with OCD may be aware that their obsessions are irrational and their compulsions are excessive and unnecessary, they cannot control their unwanted intrusive thoughts or behavior without assistance. These are called intrusive thought patterns, and OCD intrusive thoughts are very common.

People with OCD may have many of the same unwanted thoughts that are listed above: sexual intrusive thoughts, violent thoughts, disturbing thoughts, or any repetitive intrusive thoughts. While OCD is a mental health disorder, it's not life ending. Such thoughts can be controlled with the help of a mental health professional.

Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder typically involves exposure therapy and/or medication. Exposure therapy involves gradually learning to tolerate the anxiety associated with the obsessions and resisting the urge to perform repetitive behaviors. Medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used in combination with exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat OCD. With treatment, most people with OCD will lead normal lives.

Post traumatic stress disorder and intrusive thoughts

Many people associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with soldiers who have experienced battle. However, PTSD can affect anyone who has gone through a traumatic event. It is estimated that 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance of anything that reminds the person of the trauma. It is important to seek help if you are struggling with PTSD. There are many effective treatments available, and with professional help, you can learn to manage your symptoms and live a full life.

Tips for dealing with intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are a type of unwanted thinking that can cause significant distress. They can be about anything, but they often involve themes of violence, self-harm, or sexual content. Intrusive thoughts are common, and most people experience them at some point in their lives. It's important to remember that intrusive thoughts are just thoughts - they don't necessarily reflect your true desires or intentions. Here are some tips for dealing with these exhausting pieces of our brains.

Tip 1. Identify your intrusive thoughts and anxiety triggers

The first step is to become aware of your intrusive thoughts and what triggers them. Once you know what your triggers are, you can start to develop a plan for how to deal with them.

Tip 2. Challenge your intrusive thoughts by questioning their validity

Intrusive thoughts are often based on irrational fears or misconceptions. Once you identify your thoughts, you can start to challenge them. Ask yourself if there is evidence to support the thought, and whether the thought is helpful or harmful.

Tip 3. Redirect your attention to more positive or neutral thoughts or activities

Once you've identified and challenged your intrusive thoughts, it's time to start redirecting your attention. This can be done by focusing on more positive or neutral thoughts, or by engaging in activities that you enjoy.

Tip 4. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation

Relaxation techniques can help you to manage your anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation are all effective relaxation techniques that can be learned with the help of a professional.

Tip 5. Seek professional help if your anxiety is severe or persistent

If your anxiety is severe or persistent, it's important to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide you with the tools and support you need to manage your intrusive thoughts. If you can't find a therapist or psychiatrist, you can check with the Anxiety and Depression association, or even your family doctor.

Intrusive thoughts are common, but that doesn't make them any less distressing. If you're struggling with anxiety or intrusive thoughts, get help before it gets worse.

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