This article was last updated on September 26, 2017
Imagine driving home late at night after a fancy dinner with a hot new date. Things went amazing, and you’re already thinking this person has potential to be “the one”. And that’s when it strikes. An intrusive though. You think back to when an ex-lover hurt you, and you start to wonder, “Does this person actually like me? I had a lot of fun, but now that I think about it…”
Before you know it, you are replaying the entire night in your head, down to every last word and gesture. The car ride home is a blur – you were completely lost in the depths of your own mind. Sound familiar? Intrusive thoughts are an interesting can of worms, and they can rob you of happiness.
If you have ever wondered how to stop intrusive thoughts or even what they are, this article may be for you. Let’s open up the can of worms and see what we can learn.
What Is an Intrusive Thought?
On any given day, you experience a continuous flow of thoughts swirling inside your mind. Most of these thoughts occur without your permission. They just happen.
You actually don’t pay much attention to the vast majority of these thoughts. They come and go, and they rarely affect your conscious being.
If you have ever tried a form of meditation, you are probably familiar with the act of noticing your thoughts. Meditation creates awareness, but you still do not engage with those thoughts. You simply sit back and observe.
Intrusive thoughts are different. Intrusive thoughts rush to the center of your attention…and then stay there. They demand your focus and insist that you obsess over them. Anyone who’s ever experienced repeated intrusive thoughts may feel as though their life has been taken over.
This would be fantastic if intrusive thoughts were about unicorns, rainbows, or that happy feeling you get when listening to your favorite song. However, intrusive thoughts are almost always unwanted. Sometimes they are related to a deep pain you’ve experienced in your life. Other times, they are completely off the wall and incredibly disturbing.
Examples of Intrusive Thoughts
There are MANY types of intrusive thoughts, and disturbing really only begins to describe some of them.
Intrusive thoughts could be:
- Thinking about committing a violent sex act such as rape or sexually abusing a child
- Sex with inappropriate people or things: family members, coworkers, your brother’s fiancé
- Questioning your own sexuality
- Obsessive doubts over whether your relationship will work
- Constant analysis of your own feelings or your partner’s feelings for you
- Obsessively thinking your partner is cheating on you or being unfaithful
- Thinking you may be cheating on someone
- Wondering if you’re good enough
- Constantly wondering if the other person actually likes you (true for sexual and non-sexual relationships)
- Obsessively fearing that you will commit a violent act against a loved one or stranger
- Thoughts about killing an innocent person, intentionally or unintentionally
- Seeing a kitchen knife, or other sharp object, and spiraling down a violent scenario
- Jumping in front of a car, train, or bus
- Obsessing over a mole on your body that could be cancerous, or a bump that you never noticed before
- Anxious thoughts and feelings that you have a terminal disease
- Constantly wondering why you’re sick all the time
- Not believing doctors when they give you a diagnosis
Does Having Intrusive Thoughts Mean I’m a Bad Person?
Everybody, at some point in their life, has experienced intrusive thoughts. Some are better than others at managing them. It absolutely does not mean you are a bad person. Your brain’s job is to think. All day, every day, it spits random thoughts from within your mind. Just because you think about something, doesn’t mean you have to associate with that thought.
Your actions and your behaviors make up the person you are. Not your thoughts. It’s easy to see why one might think intrusive thoughts might make you a bad person. After all, most intrusive thoughts are negative or obsessive-compulsive by nature.
But, know that they are perfectly normal. They are just thoughts and do not reflect on you as a person, so long as you don’t act on them inappropriately. There are actually ways for you to manage these intrusive thoughts in such a way that they no longer affect your life. Let’s look at one method for dealing with intrusive thoughts.
How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
- Learn to recognize and become aware when you experience an intrusive thought
The first step to managing your intrusive thoughts is recognizing when you are having them. One method that I’ve found to be highly effective for helping with this is mindfulness.
I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. It was initially my reprieve from anxiety and stress, but as I’ve continued, meditation and the mindfulness it offers has had some profound benefits in many aspects of my life.
Dealing with intrusive thoughts is one of them. Mindfulness gives you that extra moment or two of clarity before acting on your thoughts. Basically, when you have an intrusive thought, you have the ability to stop, recognize it’s just a stupid thought, and then dismiss it as nothing more.
- Learn to accept them
Once you’ve gotten good at recognizing intrusive thoughts, how do you make them go away? You don’t. Attempting to ignore or suppress your intrusive thoughts usually makes them worse. What you should be doing is accepting them. You’ve likely tried many times in the past to “get rid” of your intrusive thoughts, but I’d be willing to bet that hasn’t worked so far, has it? As mentioned earlier, intrusive thoughts are normal, and they’re going to happen. The best course of action after recognizing an intrusive thought is to accept it for what it is.
“Oh, I’m having an intrusive thought. This isn’t me. This is just something running through my mind.” Accepting it and shining light on it for what it is – just a thought – takes away its power over you and sets you free.
- Use the pop-up blocker technique
So, you just recognized you’ve had an intrusive thought, and you did the right thing by accepting it for what it is. Now what?
Your next step is to let it pass by.
This is the most important step. When an intrusive thought happens it can be extremely easily to get caught up in it. For example, let’s say you and your girlfriend are sitting at home, watching your favorite TV show on Netflix. Her phone buzzes. She glances over, picks it up, laughs, and then replies back to whoever it was.
Your mind immediately starts thinking she’s talking to another lover. You spiral down that deep, dark path, and it begins eating away at your happiness and otherwise healthy relationship. Whew, that was intense.
Instead of getting caught up in your intrusive thoughts, you need to train yourself not to. A good method for doing this is what I like to call the pop-up blocker technique. Basically, when an intrusive thought pops into your head, recognize it, accept it, and then let it slip away. Allow your mind to start thinking about other things. If you have to, find another way to occupy your mind. If you do find yourself obsessing over your thought, use your mindfulness training to stop, recognize you lost control, and then turn your attention away from it.
- Live your life
The three steps above should help you in dealing with your intrusive thoughts. This last step is a simple one: it’s to continue living your life. By now, hopefully you realize that intrusive thoughts are normal and happen to everyone. If you allow your intrusive thoughts to change your behaviors, then you let them win. Instead, keep on doing your thing, enjoying life, and don’t let those pesky intrusive thoughts affect your actions in any way.
Where to Go from Here?
The next time you experience an intrusive thought, give the method above a try and see how it works. This technique, much like mindfulness, is a practice that you must work on in order to see the maximum benefits.
If you’re struggling with where to begin, I suggest you start with mindfulness. It’s been the single most beneficial tool I’ve developed in my life for dealing with anxiety and intrusive thoughts. And you, too, can overcome them.