Ever feel like your thoughts are running your life? Like no matter how many times you try to ignore them or distract your mind, they won’t stop? Unfortunately, the more we continue to dwell on the thought, the more power we give them. These thoughts are called intrusive, also known as unwanted thoughts that can feel impossible to manage. Yet, in this article, you’ll learn how to challenge intrusive thoughts so you can take back control and feel peace of mind.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and persistent thoughts that keep popping up in your head. They are often patterns that feel like a broken record and can be challenging to stop even with effort. But having an intrusive thought every once in a while is common – everyone experiences them. However, if they’re repetitive, it can cause significant stress that impairs your functioning and sleep and can even affect your relationships.
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
Sometimes intrusive thoughts don’t always have a cause. They can occur randomly and exit without leaving harm. However, other causes pinpoint a stronger aftereffect.
- Stress. Many intrusive thoughts are triggered by stressful life experiences like financial concerns, divorce, work problems, and other stressors.
- Disorders. Many occur from an existing mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or even conditions like dementia or a brain injury.
- Hormonal shifts. Some women are more vulnerable to intrusive thoughts after pregnancy due to fluctuating hormonal levels.
8 Types of Intrusive Thoughts
There are several different types of intrusive thoughts that create worry, shame, and discomfort. Here are a few common examples and themes.
- Sexual acts, experiences, or situations
- Worry about saying or doing the wrong thing in public
- Concerns about harming yourself or others
- Germs, contamination, or infections
- Stress about completing a task wrong and its consequences
- Negative self-talk and thinking traps
- Delusional thoughts that are abnormal for you
- Religious thoughts or concerns about being immoral
If you’re having any of these thoughts, there are several strategies and ways to help you manage them.
How to Challenge Intrusive Thoughts
1. Don’t ignore the thought
When a distressing thought occurs, it’s tempting to ignore it, especially if it’s causing you shame, stress, or emotional pain. But if you suppress it, you’ll create the reserve effect – you’ll think about the thought even more. So, instead of avoiding it, acknowledge its presence and allow time to pass. Eventually, your thoughts will slowly reduce when combined with the next step.
2. Label them
After you allow the thoughts into your mind, label them. For example, if you’re worried about a family member dying, say it out loud or within yourself, “Fear. Dread. Concern. Harmful. Intrusive”. Labeling your thoughts allows you to build more awareness about the patterns you’re having and helps you create space between yourself and their presence.
3. Identify your triggers
What were you doing before the thought arose? Were you driving, completing a difficult task, or having an unpleasant experience? Often, your thoughts do not occur without a trigger, and your daily routines or interactions can influence their presence. But keeping a journal and listing your thoughts, experiences, and associating emotions will build stronger self-awareness. Over time, you can review your notes and see if you can identify recurring incidents and patterns.
4. Practice self-forgiveness
Intrusive thoughts can make you feel shameful and embarrassed by their arrival. As a result, you may feed your mind with self-criticism and judgment. But unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle because it gives your thoughts more power. Instead of punishing yourself for having the thought, redirect your internal dialogue to self-love and self-forgiveness. You can even say, “It’s okay I’m having this thought. I love and forgive myself and know this thought will pass”.
5. Create a positive routine
If you prioritize a consistent self-care routine with positive habits, you’ll feel less stressed and anxious, both physically and emotionally. Activities like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises for anxiety, exercise, and connecting to nature will create more joy, happiness, and love. These habits will also provide a healthy distraction or coping mechanism when a distressing thought keeps nagging you.
6. Recognize thoughts are thoughts
When an intrusive thought enters your mind, it can feel like it will never leave. But try to remember that thoughts are temporary and fleeting moments. So, the next time you find yourself struggling to sleep or work, repeat an affirmation, “My thoughts are temporary, unimportant, and will pass with time”.
7. Release the thought
Sometimes the best way to learn how to challenge intrusive thoughts is to give them an outlet. So, consider releasing their impact by speaking to a friend, journaling, or talking to yourself out loud. When you start addressing your thoughts and feelings, you’ll notice that it’s not the state that’s difficult but the resistance to it. And giving them an outlet reduces this resistance.
8. Investigate with curiosity
Another way to gain control is to reframe the thought or learn how to challenge cognitive distortions. Try observing your thoughts without judgment and approach them with loving kindness. Essentially become an investigator and avert your attention to your mind-body connection. How do you feel in your body when you have these thoughts? Sweaty palms, tight chest, or tense shoulders? Investigating this connection will give you more information. For example, if you feel like your chest is tight when an unwanted thought arises, you know that’s your body’s way of responding to a current stressor in your life.
9. Engage in the present moment
Our minds have an incredibly sneaky way of making us think that any thought we have is a fact. But the truth is, thoughts aren’t facts. Indeed, they are temporary states that are dependent on our moods. Therefore, if you acknowledge this and avert your attention to the present moment, your thoughts won’t have the space to continue. If you ground yourself in the present moment, you will no longer obsess about the past or future.
10. Seek therapy
If your thoughts persist and disrupt your daily functioning, it’s worth speaking to a therapist. Cognitive behavior therapy, in particular, is very helpful because it targets the root cause of your thoughts and helps you identify yourself as separate from them. Over time, you’ll learn to no longer perceive them as powerful and how to respond better to their presence.
Intrusive thoughts can feel challenging to manage, but they are temporary. In fact, it’s only a sentence or story in your mind and does not reflect anything about who you are. It’s also not a harbinger of the future. You can learn how to challenge intrusive thoughts and use your mind as a tool to create the life you want and deserve.
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