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How To Overcome Intrusive Thoughts: Understanding, Coping, and Releasing

intrusive thoughts coping skills

Intrusive thoughts are an experience that many people endure but rarely discuss.  These unwelcome, involuntary thoughts can surface unexpectedly, causing distress and confusion. They may make you wonder “who is thinking that?”, or “what is wrong with me?” The good news is that intrusive thoughts are a relatively common phenomenon. And, importantlythey often do not reflect your true feelings, intentions, or values. Whether they occur at night, during the day, or in a specific time of life such as postpartum, understanding and coping with intrusive thoughts is essential for mental well-being. This blog explores what intrusive thoughts are, how to manage them, and effective strategies to release them.

 

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, involuntary thoughts, images, or ideas that can be disturbing and difficult to manage. They often can pop into your mind without warning and can be distressing due to their content. Common themes include violence, sexual content, blasphemy, or self-harm. It’s important to note that having these thoughts doesn’t mean you will act on them or that you endorse them in any way. They are a natural part of the human mind’s functioning, albeit an uncomfortable one.

 

Are Intrusive Thoughts Real?

Yes, intrusive thoughts are real in the sense that they occur in your mind and can cause significant emotional distress. However, they do not reflect your true intentions or desires. Understanding this distinction is crucial in managing and overcoming the anxiety they cause.

 

Common Triggers for Intrusive Thoughts

Higher levels of stress and anxiety can trigger or increase the frequency of intrusive thoughts. This may be due to a change in one’s life, or anxiety about a future event. Fatigue or physical exhaustion can also lower one’s ability to filter unwanted thoughts. New mothers often experience intrusive thoughts during the postpartum period, as all of the above factors (life change, anxiety about being a mother, stress of caring for a newborn, fatigue and sleep deprivation) combine with a flood of hormonal changes. Finally, underlying mental health conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) often involve intrusive thoughts.

 

intrusive thoughts

 

Intrusive Thoughts: Developing Coping Skills

The best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to develop robust coping skills. There are many approaches you might take to cope with intrusive thoughts, so notice if one of these seems to resonate with you. Here are a few different approaches to coping with intrusive thoughts, as well as several examples of each:

1. Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for intrusive thoughts. It involves identifying and challenging irrational thoughts and beliefs. Techniques include:

  • Cognitive Restructuring: Reframe negative thoughts into more rational and balanced perspectives.
  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): Gradually expose yourself to the thoughts that cause distress while refraining from engaging in compulsive behaviors.

2. Mindfulness and Acceptance

Mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Acceptance means acknowledging intrusive thoughts without trying to change or suppress them. Techniques include:

  • Mindful Breathing: Focus on your breath to stay present and grounded.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Learn to accept your thoughts and feelings while committing to actions that align with your values.

3. Distraction Techniques

Engaging in activities that occupy your mind can help reduce the intensity of intrusive thoughts. Some examples include:

  • Physical Exercise: Exercise releases endorphins, which can improve your mood and reduce anxiety.
  • Creative Activities: Drawing, painting, writing, or playing music can provide a healthy outlet for your emotions.

4. Support Systems

Talking to someone you trust about your intrusive thoughts can provide relief and perspective. This could be a friend, family member, or mental health professional.

 

Rumination and Intrusive Thoughts

Rumination involves repeatedly thinking about distressing events or feelings. It often occurs in the wake of a difficult emotional event, such as a breakup or serious trauma. Common lines of thinking in rumination involve “what if” scenarios, in which the mind plays out alternative actions and choices to those that really happened. It often accompanies intrusive thoughts and can exacerbate their impact. To break the cycle of rumination:

  • Set Time Limits: When processing trauma, some amount of rumination may be unavoidable. Allow yourself a specific amount of time each day to ruminate, then move on to other activities.
  • Problem-Solving: Ask yourself: can I solve this problem? If the answer is yes, focus on finding solutions to the issues you’re ruminating about, rather than just dwelling on them. If the answer is no, allow yourself to release the subject of rumination.
  • Engage in Positive Activities: Shift your focus to activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.

 

Impulsive Thoughts vs. Intrusive Thoughts

It’s important to distinguish between impulsive and intrusive thoughts. Impulsive thoughts are sudden urges to act in a certain way, often without considering the consequences. This could be an impulse purchase you can’t afford, or something more impactful like quitting your job on a whim. Intrusive thoughts, on the other hand, are unwanted and distressing, and you typically have no intention of acting on them. Understanding this difference can help you respond more effectively to each type of thought.

 

intrusive thoughts postpartum

 

Intrusive Thoughts Postpartum

The postpartum period is a vulnerable time for many new mothers. Intrusive thoughts can be particularly distressing during this time due to hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and the stress of caring for a newborn. Common intrusive thoughts postpartum include fears of harming the baby or concerns about the baby’s well-being. To manage postpartum intrusive thoughts:

  • Seek Support: Talk to your partner, family, or friends about what you’re experiencing. Joining a support group for new mothers can also be helpful.
  • Practice Self-Care: Prioritize rest, nutrition, and relaxation. Taking care of your physical health can improve your mental well-being.
  • Professional Help: If intrusive thoughts are overwhelming, seek help from a mental health professional. Postpartum depression and anxiety are common and treatable with therapy and medication.

 

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts at Night

Nighttime can be particularly challenging for managing intrusive thoughts. The quiet and darkness can amplify these unwanted thoughts, making it hard to relax and fall asleep. Here are some strategies to help you manage and reduce intrusive thoughts at night:

  • Establish a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Create a calming pre-sleep routine to signal your brain that it’s time to wind down. This can include reading a book, taking a warm bath, or practicing deep-breathing exercises.
  • Limit Stimulants: Avoid caffeine and electronic devices before bed. The blue light from screens can interfere with your sleep cycle and increase anxiety.
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness can help you stay grounded and focused on the present moment, making it easier to let go of intrusive thoughts.
  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts before bed can help you process and release them, reducing their intensity and frequency.

 

Releasing Intrusive Thoughts

No matter what modality you choose to cope with intrusive thoughts, learning to release and relax around this process is helpful. Here are some specific mindfulness strategies for releasing intrusive thoughts:

1. Label Your Thoughts

When an intrusive thought occurs, label it as just a thought. Remind yourself that it doesn’t reflect reality or your true desires.

2. Let Go of Judgment

Avoid judging yourself for having intrusive thoughts. Recognize that everyone experiences them and that they don’t define you.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Remind yourself that it’s okay to have these thoughts and that you’re not alone in experiencing them.

4. Use Visualization

Visualize placing your intrusive thoughts on a leaf and letting it float down a stream or putting them in a balloon and letting it drift away. These visualization techniques can help you create distance from the thoughts.

5. Engage in Mindful Activities

Activities such as yoga, tai chi, or mindful walking can help you stay present and reduce the power of intrusive thoughts.

 

When to Seek Professional Help

If intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress or interfering with your daily life, it’s important to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide you with the tools and support you need to manage and overcome these thoughts. The Truism Center has locations in Grand Rapids, Grandville, Troy, and Commerce Township that can provide support for individuals experiencing intrusive thoughts. We also have a virtual office that can work with individuals anywhere in Michigan. Treatments may include CBT, mindfulness practices, medication, and more.

 

Conclusion

Intrusive thoughts can be challenging, but they are a normal part of the human experience. Understanding them, developing effective coping skills, and learning to release them can significantly improve your mental well-being. Remember, you are not alone in this journey. By seeking support and practicing self-compassion, you can regain control over your thoughts and live a fulfilling life.

If you find yourself struggling with intrusive thoughts, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance and support. With the right tools and strategies, you can overcome intrusive thoughts and find peace of mind.

 

 

 

Robb Kornoelje is a practicing CBT Counselor, Relationship Counselor, owner of the Truism Center, and creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day email course offers guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.

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