What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and unpleasant thoughts, images, or ideas that pop into our mind.
They are a common symptom in those with anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD; however, the truth is most people experience intrusive thoughts from time to time.
Common intrusive thoughts are usually associated with aggression, impulsive urges, and sexual fantasies. And although intrusive thoughts are rarely acted upon, they are often considered “inappropriate” by the person thinking the thoughts.
As a result, many intrusive thoughts can lead to strong feelings of guilt and shame, even when the person never physically did anything wrong. Fortunately, there are ways we can accept these thoughts without letting them have too much influence on our mental health.
Some intrusive thoughts you may have are:
- Thoughts or impulses to harm or kill ourselves.
- Thoughts or impulses to harm or kill a person, small child, or animal.
- Thoughts or impulses to shout out or verbally abuse someone by saying something rude, inappropriate, nasty, or violent.
- Thoughts or impulses to do something very risky or dangerous.
- Thoughts or impulses regarding inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Thoughts or impulses to do something we find morally wrong.
There are many different examples of intrusive thoughts, but these are some of the thoughts most commonly associated with the term. For the remainder of this post, I’m going to share 3 steps we can follow to let go of these types of thoughts and limit the power they have over us.
Step 1: Accept your thoughts in the moment
The first step toward letting go of our thoughts is by accepting them. It is pointless and unhealthy to pretend that we don’t have intrusive or negative thoughts every now and then. And by trying to run away from these thoughts we are only deluding ourselves.
In fact, we invest more energy in these thoughts when we try to avoid and suppress them, rather than just acknowledging that they are there. And by running away from intrusive thoughts, we actually give them more power over our well-being.
The purpose of thinking is for our minds to produce new and better ways to respond to our environment. Some of this thinking is conscious, but a lot of it is unconscious. Our brains are constantly working “behind the scenes” to think of new and better ways to behave.
Sometimes, as a byproduct of this creativity, our brains think of some really bizarre and inappropriate ideas – intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that surprise us and make us ask ourselves, “Did I really just think that?” because they seem so out-of-character.
The answer is, “Yes, you really did just think that, and that’s okay.” Intrusive thoughts can often be a side effect of a healthy mind. And just because you have intrusive thoughts from time to time doesn’t mean you have lost your sanity. It means your brain is being active and creative – although maybe sometimes a little too creative.
Remember, just because you accept the thought doesn’t mean you need to act on it.
Step 2: Watch your thoughts from a non-judgmental state of awareness
As explained above, intrusive thoughts are a natural occurrence. Therefore we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for thinking bizarre and spontaneous things once and awhile.
It’s common for intrusive thoughts to be followed by feelings of guilt and shame, but try to understand that there is nothing to feel guilty over. After you accept your thoughts, try to watch them in a non-judgmental awareness. Don’t necessarily react to them or judge them as “good” or “bad.” Just sit back and passively watch them as if you were watching a movie.
This perspective will help you disengage from the thoughts both physically and emotionally. You will be less likely to act on them, and you will be less likely to judge yourself negatively. The key is to just “watch your thoughts” from an objective and depersonalized point-of-view – almost as if a scientist was observing a specimen under a microscope.
Step 3: Ride out your thoughts until they subside
If you watch your thoughts long enough in a non-judgmental state of awareness, you’ll notice that they eventually “ride themselves out” without much effort.
This is because our thoughts are always changing. Our mind is always going in new directions. So if we can be patient and wait long enough, intrusive thoughts will often go away all on their own.
In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, there is a technique known as urge surfing that operates on this same principle. The main idea is that our thoughts and emotions are impermanent – they are in a constant state of flux. Therefore, even negative thoughts and emotions will eventually subside when we allow them too.
Through urge surfing we can remain non-reactive to our intrusive thoughts until they eventually become less intense and disappear. It’s analogous toward “riding out” a wave in the ocean. If we can remain balanced within the ebbs and flows, we can more easily navigate safely through the waves. In the same way, if we can remain patient and calm in the midst of intrusive thoughts, we can better overcome them.
It’s not always easy to disengage from intrusive thoughts, but with practice we can learn how to more easily let go of them. Once we learn how to do this, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever have intrusive thoughts anymore, but they will at least have a lot less influence over our mental well-being.
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