Intrusive Thoughts: 3 Strategies for Overcoming Them

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

An unwanted, intrusive thought starts just like any ordinary thought. It pops into your head seemingly out of nowhere, but not wanting the thought, worrying about it, or fighting with it stops it from passing quickly. And because you worry and try to push it away or reject it, the thought pushes back and becomes recurring.

It may even increase in intensity and make you start to fear or question your safety, intentions, morality, self-control, or sanity. But, as long as you recognize that these are just thoughts and that you have no desire to act on them, intrusive thoughts aren't harmful. They're not warning messages or red flags. They're simply thoughts.

In Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thoughts, Sally M. Winston and Martin N. Seif offer proven-effective cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills and strategies to help you get unstuck from disturbing thoughts, overcome the shame these thoughts can bring, and reduce your anxiety.

Getting Stuck in a Loop

If you continue to do what you've always done, you are going to get what you've always gotten.

Experiencing intrusive thoughts doesn't mean that there's anything shameful or terrible about you. In fact, many people experience these kinds of thoughts.

It's more than likely that you had an unwanted, intrusive thought if:

  • You got upset or worried that your thoughts might lead you to do something awful

  • A thought plagued you that you might have already done something wrong, and somehow it slipped past you

  • You were convinced that a thought which repeatedly crosses your mind must mean something important

  • You had a thought you couldn't get off your mind

Even though most people have them, the difference between individuals who overcome unwanted, intrusive thoughts easily and the ones who get stuck in the loop, in most cases, is in the coping mechanisms.

Strategy #1: Recognition

Neither thoughts nor feelings are facts.

The first step is to observe yourself as you're experiencing intrusive thoughts. According to Sally M. Winston and Martin N. Seif, your goal should be to allow yourself to have these thoughts, even when you're not expecting them, and to try not to be blindsided by their appearance.

Think of the Chinese finger trap, in which you have to do the opposite of your intuitive reaction in order to free yourself. Leaving the thought alone may feel like the counterintuitive thing to do, but it's an excellent way to release the grip on the thought.

Any time you notice an intrusive thought, try asking yourself:

  • What emotions do I feel?

  • What sensations comprise the feeling that accompanies the intrusion?

  • Am I attempting to remain as mindful as possible, watching myself from a curious and nonjudgmental viewpoint?

For example, you can tell yourself something like, "I have a thought that intrudes on my awareness. It has caught my attention because of how it feels. It feels dangerous, but it isn't."

Try reminding yourself that these thoughts are automatic and you can safely leave them alone. By stating this fact to yourself, you may differentiate between what you can and cannot control.

How the Brain Creates Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Donald Hebb

The part of your brain that was initially designed to keep you safe during times of danger may become confused and misdirected. It can start misidentifying safe things as dangerous. And your brain learns as a result of experiences.

When fearful pathways are triggered frequently, they may become automatic. Just as we associate two things with each other, like "left and right," a well-worn pathway in the brain associates two things that follow each other, and they become connected. You create thinking habits.

So if an anxious experience follows a thought, the pathway from thought to fear is established. When this happens repeatedly, your brain may become conditioned to react anxiously and automatically to that thought which sets up the conditions for unwanted, intrusive thoughts to take hold. But don't get discouraged. It’s possible for your brain to learn new pathways that are not fearful.

Strategy #2: Acceptance

Unwanted, intrusive thoughts get stuck because you inadvertently fuel them by trying to push them away.

Accepting your thoughts doesn't mean that you'll be stuck with them forever. Instead, it means that you're actively allowing the thoughts to be there and not wishing they were gone. When you stop struggling, the thoughts may lose their power.

This attitude may help you grasp that the thoughts are unimportant and don't require any attention or response. You might even welcome the thoughts as another opportunity to teach the brain a different way of thinking.

Things you should probably avoid doing when intrusive thoughts arise:

  • Exploring the ideas or content of your thoughts.

  • Coming up with a plan or solving any problem that appears to be created by your thought. When you do this, you try to figure out the answer to a problem with no answer. Furthermore, it is not a problem!

  • Trying to determine whether the thought is "true" or "false" (It's a thought, not a fact)

Strategy #3: Presence

The feeling of urgency that comes with an unwanted, intrusive thought is a false message from your brain.

When you notice an unwanted thought, try returning to the present moment. You can do this by:

  • Focusing on what you sense when the intrusive thought arises. What can you see, hear, smell, and touch?

  • Allowing time to pass. Observe your anxiety and distress from a curious, disinterested point of view. Do not keep checking to see if this is working; just let the thoughts be.

  • Slowing your pace. You can intentionally slow down, talk slower, and walk and act slower.

  • Continuing whatever you were doing before the intrusive thought. Even if you feel afraid and even if your intrusions return, your most powerful response may be to continue with your life as if nothing has happened.