✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD
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.
Any thought that produces a repeated feeling of urgency in most cases is just discomfort, not actual danger. The feeling comes automatically with the thought, but it's not a signal for action. That's why slowing down and returning to the present moment allows your natural calming reaction to take effect on its own.
How CBT May Help With Dealing With Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts
CBT stands for “cognitive behavioral therapy”. This type of therapy focuses on changing how an individual thinks about a situation in order to help them modify specific behavior patterns.
Unlike more traditional forms of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy doesn't look for unconscious reasons behind actions, but instead looks for an effective solution to a particular problem.
In order to help clients discover, challenge, modify, or replace their negative intrusive thoughts, CBT therapists use a technique called “cognitive restructuring”. This technique aims to help people reduce their stress through cultivating more positive and functional thought habits.
Here are some cognitive restructuring strategies you may want to consider:
Socratic Questioning relies on the importance of questioning as a way to explore complex ideas and uncover assumptions. Try spending at least 1-3 minutes on answering each of these questions:
Is this thought realistic?
Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
What is the evidence for this thought?
Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
Am I viewing this situation as black and white when it's really more complicated?
Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
Decatastrophizing is sometimes called the "what if" technique because of the style of questioning. Try asking yourself, "What if?" or "What's the worst that could happen?"
Answering these questions may help you reduce the irrational level of anxiety and highlight that even the worst-case scenario is manageable.
For example, if there's a lot of traffic on your way to work, instead of thinking that you'll never get there on time, try replacing that thought with: "I may be late, but I will get there safely. In the meantime, I can enjoy the radio."
Putting Thoughts on Trial
In this exercise, you're supposed to act as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and a judge.
First, you should defend your negative, intrusive thought, and then make an argument for why the thought is true, relying on facts only. The next step is to present evidence against the negative thought. Finally, you should act as the judge by reviewing the evidence and delivering a verdict in the form of a rational thought.
The thought: My partner probably hates me.
An argument in defense of the thought: We often argue about minor things.
An argument against the thought: When we do argue, we always find a way to resolve the problem.
The verdict: Arguments are sometimes upsetting, but overall, this is a healthy and loving relationship. There's no evidence that my partner hates me.
Using Mindfulness Techniques to Cope With Intrusive Thoughts
Cognitive behavioral therapists Jillian C. Shipherd and Joanne M. Fordiani put forth an approach in which mindfulness practices may improve people's ability to access and manage their intrusive thoughts.
Mindfulness practice, by definition, promotes an awareness of the present moment and facilitates an ability to choose where attention is directed.
According to Shipherd and Fordiani, you can view yourself as a "thinker" of thoughts by practicing mindfulness techniques. From this perspective, a context can be built where thoughts can be experienced without any need to suppress or avoid, but rather it becomes possible to observe the thoughts as they come and go.
To evaluate their approach, Shipherd and Fordiani worked with active duty soldiers who had recently returned from deployments. They asked the soldiers to identify thoughts that continued to be bothersome in their daily lives up to one year post-deployment.
Then, the soldiers were provided with a brief description of mindfulness practice and given audio files to practice 5-minute guided experiential mindfulness exercises. Their training focused on psychoeducation about intrusive thoughts and skills to cope with them, and summarized these main points in a catchy acronym (RESET):
Remember, it is normal to have intrusive thoughts.