3 Ways to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome and involuntary thoughts, typically negative or disturbing in nature. They usually take the form of self-talk or images, often seem foreign or inappropriate, and generally lead to a painful emotion like anxiety, shame, or regret.

For example:

  • As you’re driving down the freeway, you suddenly have a thought pop into mind about how you could swerve off the road and everyone in the car would die. You don’t want to do this—you’re not suicidal—it’s just a strange and disturbing possibility that pops into mind.
  • You’re lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and an image of you being romantically involved with someone other than your partner or spouse comes to mind. Again, this isn’t a reflection of what you want, and in fact, it may be actively contrary to what you want.

While incredibly common and normal, intrusive thoughts can become problematic depending on how you respond to them.

Specifically, you can unintentionally make negative intrusive thoughts much more frequent and intense if you treat them as a threat by trying to eliminate them or even overanalyzing what they mean and where they come from.

If you struggle with intrusive thoughts, here are a few tips for managing them in a healthy and productive way.

1. Don’t assume your intrusive thoughts mean something

Like children and new puppies, intrusive thoughts love attention. And the more attention you give them, the more frequent and intense they become.

Of course, when an intrusive thought is particularly strange or disturbing, it’s natural to assume they must be a sign that something is wrong or “off.” As a result, you end up thinking a lot more about the thought…

  • Where did this come from?
  • Why am I thinking this way?
  • What does it mean about me that such strange, disturbing thoughts are in my head?
  • Am I going crazy?
  • Etc.

But here’s the thing…

Intrusive thoughts don’t necessarily mean anything.

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are very common. Research suggests that more than 90% of people experience them at some point, and common themes include aggression, contamination, and sexually inappropriate behavior.

But when you start thinking a lot about them and assuming they mean something, you give them attention, which reinforces them and—ironically—makes them more likely to arise in the future.

So, don’t assume your intrusive thoughts mean anything. Acknowledge them as weird or scary, remind yourself that your mind does strange things all the time (just think about dreams…), then refocus your attention back on whatever it is you were doing.

2. Don’t get into arguments with your intrusive thoughts

Many people who experience intrusive thoughts understandably react to them by trying to disprove them—often by analyzing them and explaining why they’re untrue or irrational.

And while this strategy seems to make sense superficially, it’s almost always unhelpful for the simple reason that you’re giving the thoughts more attention, and as a result, reinforcing them.

So, even if you generate three logical reasons why your intrusive thought is irrational and doesn’t make sense, that’s not necessarily going to make it go away any faster. But it does signal to your brain that those thoughts are important or even dangerous, which then makes you hypervigilant to them in the future.

Instead, get in the habit of validating them…

  1. Acknowledge that you’re having an intrusive thought: That’s an intrusive thought.
  2. Remind yourself that they’re normal: This feels disturbing, but I know intrusive thoughts are normal and everyone has them from time to time.
  3. Explain that they’re valid or understandable: My mind throws weird thoughts at me all the time—especially in my dreams—just because they’re strange or uncomfortable doesn’t mean they’re bad.

3. Don’t distract yourself from intrusive thoughts

In 1987, the psychologist Daniel Wegner did the now famous White Bear Study showing that explicitly instructing participants to not think of a white bear during a study task resulted in an ironic ‘rebound’ effect where thoughts of a white bear became even more frequent.

This phenomenon became known as the ‘ironic process’ theory of thought suppression, which holds that, even though suppressing or distracting yourself from a thought can reduce its frequency in the short term, the mind then ‘checks in’ on that thought again in the future, resulting in more intrusions. It’s like suppressing or distracting yourself from a thought tells your brain: “This thought is extra important, so remind me about it later.”

In fact, when people develop serious problems with intrusive thoughts, it’s almost always because they’ve unintentionally developed a habit of immediately trying to get rid of or distract from the intrusive thoughts, which, over time, creates a vicious cycle of ever increasing and intense intrusive thoughts.

So whatever you do, remember this:

Trying to get rid of or distract yourself from intrusive thoughts will only strengthen them in the long-run.

As we’ve talked about before, the key is to briefly acknowledge and validate them, then be willing to have them.

Remind yourself that intrusive thoughts are not dangerous or “bad” (research shows that the presence of unwanted intrusive thoughts doesn’t increase the likelihood of acting them out) and that thinking more about them or deliberately trying to get rid of them or distract from them only makes them worse. Then allow yourself to have the thought and refocus your attention back on the task at hand.

This isn’t easy—especially if you’ve built up a habit of always thinking about and reacting to your intrusive thoughts—but one way or another this is the only way to deal with them effectively and lessen their frequency and intensity long-term.

You’ll always have some intrusive thoughts. We all do.

But if you want to have fewer of them, you must show your brain that you’re willing to have them.

As the great Carl Jung said:

What you resist persists.

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