Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses that enter our minds without our intention or control. They often involve disturbing, distressing, or taboo content that may go against our values or desires.
How often, while driving your car, have you felt like bumping into the other vehicle in front of you or just scaring that pedestrian crossing the road in front of you? These thoughts feel disturbing and go against your values and intentions. You may experience a sense of shock, confusion, and anxiety, wondering why such a thought would even cross your mind.
As a new mother, sometimes, you may get thoughts about accidentally harming your baby or the baby experiencing harm or accidents from another person. These thoughts can be distressing; you may feel guilty, anxious, or ashamed for having them as a mother.
But the best way to deal with intrusive thoughts and anxiety is to remember that they are just thoughts, don’t have any power over you, and don’t hold any significance.
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
Those are nothing but intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are not a reflection of your true desires or intentions. It’s simply a product of the mind’s automatic and sometimes random thought processes. However, due to the distressing and contradictory nature of the thought, it can trigger anxiety.
The anxiety arises from the meaning we assign to the intrusive thought. We may interpret it as a sign that we’re dangerous, morally flawed, or even losing control of our own minds. This interpretation leads to a cascade of anxious thoughts and emotions, such as “What if I act on this thought?”, “Does this mean I’m a bad person?” or “Am I capable of harming others?”.
As anxiety intensifies, we may engage in certain behaviors to alleviate our fears and gain reassurance. For example, you might start avoiding crowded places or consciously avoiding physical contact with others. These behaviors temporarily reduce anxiety but reinforce the belief that the intrusive thought has validity and that avoidance is necessary for safety.
What causes Intrusive Thoughts and then anxiety?
The exact causes of intrusive thoughts are not fully understood but are believed to result from various factors. They can be associated with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression (PPD), or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Other factors may include stress, trauma, a history of abuse, or specific imbalances in brain chemistry.
Research suggests that intrusive thoughts are a common experience among the general population. A study conducted by Rachman and de Silva in 1978 found that nearly 90% of the participants reported experiencing intrusive thoughts at some point in their lives. These thoughts ranged from mildly disturbing to more distressing or violent in nature.
It’s important to note that having occasional intrusive thoughts does not necessarily indicate a problem or mental illness. For many individuals, these thoughts are fleeting and easily dismissed. They may arise in response to stress, anxiety, or specific triggers, but they do not significantly impact daily functioning or cause distress.
However, intrusive thoughts can be more frequent, intense, or distressing for some individuals, and they may interfere with their ability to concentrate, engage in activities, or experience a sense of well-being. In such cases, seeking professional help to explore potential underlying causes and develop appropriate coping strategies may be beneficial.
How to deal with Intrusive Thoughts and Anxiety?
Here are a few strategies that may help manage intrusive thoughts:
- Recognize and accept:
Acknowledge that intrusive thoughts are a normal phenomenon that many people experience. Understand that having these thoughts does not make you a wrong person and does not reflect your true desires or intentions.
Acceptance involves allowing these thoughts to come and go without judgment or attempts to suppress them. So you can tell yourself that “This too shall pass,” I am what I was originally, and nothing has changed in me.
2. Reframe and attribute:
Remember that intrusive thoughts are automatic and do not reflect who you are. Recognize them as random mental events and not accurately represent your character or intentions. Remind yourself that you can control your actions and choices and that these thoughts do not define you.
Attribute those thoughts to your stress, tiredness, or mental state at that moment; they do not define you. Once you know where these thoughts are coming from, you can try to reduce those root causes by taking the much-required breaks.
3. Practice mindfulness:
Practice mindfulness techniques and enjoy your present moments without getting bogged down with unwanted thoughts. Mindfulness involves observing your thoughts without getting caught up or reacting to them.
Meditation, deep breathing, or grounding exercises can help you cultivate a non-judgmental and accepting stance toward your thoughts. And the best thing about mindfulness is that you don’t need special equipment or room to start your practice, and you can do it wherever you are present and start observing your breath and try to meditate if possible.
Related Read: Tips to Inculcate Mindfulness
4. Cognitive restructuring:
Challenge the validity and impact of intrusive thoughts by actively questioning them. Examine the evidence for and against the thoughts and generate alternative, more realistic interpretations.
For example, if you have a thought about harming someone, consider the lack of evidence or likelihood of it actually happening. This process can help you reduce the power and significance of intrusive thoughts and develop a more balanced perspective.
You can journal your intrusive thoughts or vocalize them by saying them aloud. Once you have done it, you will realize these thoughts are silly and laugh them out.
5. Engage in self-care and stress management:
Taking care of your overall well-being can help reduce the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts. Engage in activities that bring you joy, practice relaxation techniques, exercise regularly, and ensure you get adequate sleep.
You can spend some time in nature or with your pets. Research proved that nature and animals have an uncanny ability to reduce human stress levels. Managing your stress can positively impact your thought patterns and overall mental health.
We need to remember that managing intrusive thoughts takes time and practice. It’s normal to have ups and downs, but with consistent effort and support, it is possible to develop healthier thought patterns and reduce the impact of intrusive thoughts on your life.
If you still have problems with the intrusive thoughts, and if they are causing significant distress or impairing your ability to function, you need to consult a mental health professional for an accurate assessment. A mental health professional can provide guidance, support, and evidence-based strategies tailored to your situation. They can help tailor an appropriate treatment plan based on your specific needs.
Intrusive thoughts are a common and normal experience for many individuals. They can range from fleeting and mild to more distressing or unsettling in nature. By implementing the abovementioned strategies and seeking support, we can deal with the intrusive thoughts and anxiety in our daily lives.
But in case you are experiencing something more dangerous, like postpartum depression or suicidal thoughts, or maybe becoming a danger to someone else, then you need to seek help immediately. So understanding and scrutinizing our thoughts is the primary key to dealing with intrusive thoughts and resulting anxiety.
QOTD: Ask your children, as to what are the thoughts that keep coming back to them and how they are bothering them?
Suhasini, IP, is the Author of the book “Practical Tips for Kids Mental Health.” As a certified kids and parents life coach, she helps/guides you toward a happy family life for your kids. She firmly believes, that “Emotionally Happy Kids of today are the Mentally Strong and Happy Citizens of tomorrow.” Let’s make the world a happy and beautiful place for our kids to thrive.