Practical Tools for Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts

Women's Health | | Clara Wang
4 min read

Do you ever feel like your brain is being invaded by strange or distressing thoughts that pop out of nowhere, often at the most inconvenient times?

Our minds are extremely complex mechanisms that are not entirely within our control, and there are many reasons why we may have unwanted thoughts that feel out of character or against what you personally believe or would ever act upon. Some examples of intrusive thoughts include:

  • Harming yourself
  • Harming someone close to you
  • Doing something extremely violent, such as throwing a rock at somebody
  • Sexually graphic fantasies that don’t arouse you
  • Picturing yourself or your loved ones dying
  • Catching an illness

Although it may feel extremely distressing, especially when the thoughts are recurrent, know that they are probably not reflective of who you are as a person or what you actually want to do. In fact, typically the opposite is true – these thoughts come up so frequently because they seem so unacceptable, alien, and the opposite of your character that your brain struggles to process them.

Often, people who have such thoughts are sensitive and gentle. For example, people who love life may picture throwing themselves off a cliff when they see one, or think about what would happen if they drove their car off the road. 

Unless diagnosed by a mental health professional, these thoughts are not usually significant messages or red flags. However, people who have these thoughts may have other mental health conditions such as anxiety, OCD, and PTSD.

Consult with a mental health professional if you believe you need help for a mental health disorder, and they can also give you additional tools to cope with these thoguhts. 

Tips For Handling Intrusive Thoughts

We’ve established that intrusive thoughts are not necessarily reflective of who you are as a person, and don’t connote any special message from your subconscious. Now that you know it’s impossible to completely eliminate intrusive thoughts, here are some ways to handle them when they come along.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

For people who feel like intrusive thoughts are severely impacting their life, Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, may help. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help treat different kinds of thought disorders by pinpointing your intrusive thoughts and teaching you how to process and reframe them so they don’t affect you as much.

Focusing on being in the present

Intrusive thoughts can cause a person to obsess about the past or the future rather than living in the present reality. Learning how to ground yourself in the present moment can help you stop focusing on the negative (which isn’t happening now or hasn’t happened yet) and distance yourself from these thoughts.

Learning to be more mindful through meditation

Part of being grounded in the present is being mindful of yourself, your surroundings, and your internal workings without starting a domino effect of judgements or emotions. Meditation is a technique to become more mindful that you can practice anywhere, anytime – all you need is somewhere quiet and a few minutes. You can try taking a class, or download one of the many meditation apps available to help guide you if you’re a beginner.

Use active coping mechanisms

Our brains can tell extremely convincing stories that feel like reality when they are anything but, causing intrusive thoughts that only exist in your mind to take on an outsized power. Active coping mechanisms involve dealing with stress through action rather than internal obsession.

Some active coping mechanisms include solving problems, seeking social support, finding information, planning activities, changing environments, and reframing the meaning of the problem in a way that is optimal to your function. 

Externalizing the thought through active coping mechanisms like journaling, therapy, or even speaking it out loud to yourself can help you reframe the thought and cope with stress that may be causing it.

Enjoy nature

Time spent in nature has been proven to sharpen cognitive abilities and improve mental health. Clear your mind and break a downward spiral of thoughts by taking a stroll in the park or going for a trail run.

Spend time doing things that you enjoy

Everybody has activities that help calm them down or bring them to a better state of mind. For example, if you enjoy gardening, spending some time with your garden when you can’t keep intrusive thoughts out of your mind may bring some clarity. Whether it’s exercise, playing games with friends, or cooking, spending time doing things that bring you joy can help break a cycle of rumination.

Be curious about the thought

Oftentimes when we try to banish a thought from our mind, it causes us to obsess about it even more. Rather than making a judgment about your thoughts and what they mean, try approaching them from a place of curiosity to see how your body responds and what you were doing when that thought popped up. Distressing thoughts are not necessarily subconscious cues, but could be your brain’s way of processing something you’re going through.

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