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How to Beat Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive Thoughts

An intrusive thought is an unwelcome, involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate. (source: Wikipedia)

Common examples include unwanted, intrusive thoughts about the safety of oneself or others, causing distress, and thoughts of performing dangerous actions.

These thoughts may lead to negative behaviors, which may increase vulnerability to future experiences of trauma.

Intrusive thoughts have been linked to recent life stress, sleep deprivation, prior anxiety, and childhood abuse.

The state of depression, suicidal ideation, or anxiety may also be caused by the release of stress hormones.

Analysis of studies in subjects who had experienced prolonged periods of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that intrusive thoughts and flashbacks are associated with greater than 50% of symptoms, especially memory fragmentation.


Intrusive thoughts often occur in people with disorders such as schizophrenia and severe depression.

About 20–30% of people with depression have intrusive thoughts, about 9% of people with anxiety have intrusive thoughts, and about 5% of people with thoughts of suicidal behavior have an intrusive thought or memory.

While some research suggests that frequent intrusive thoughts are an early symptom of psychosis, a review of the evidence found no evidence that such thoughts are a precursor to mental illness.

Anxiety and intrusive thoughts are frequently co-occurring in people with mental disorders, but even in those without any anxiety disorders, intrusive thoughts about a particular cause may contribute to the anxiety.

This relationship is different from that of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which intrusive thoughts are accompanied by behaviors that help to maintain avoidance from the intrusive thought's content.

Experiencing negative thoughts often decreases anxiety and increases motivation to act to avoid the feared outcome.

How to Beat Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts. We know. We all have them. You can't escape them. They come in the shower, or during a meditation class, or as you're driving on the highway. You know you're thinking it, even as you're doing it. If someone is right beside you, you can't do anything to stop it. No matter how hard you try, you are driven by the notion that the driver behind you is plotting to kill you.

Intrusive thoughts are those that exist, unbidden, without volition, without any rational motivation. If you stop to think about it, they are worse than normal thoughts, which are usually formed in our head in response to external stimuli. These are thoughts that exist, without volition, but can, and in fact do, take over your life. They are more than mere rumination or 'thinking'. They are pervasive and sometimes disabling.

Often intrusive thoughts are accompanied by other disturbing behaviors. If you've ever gone through a round of deep meditation, where you think for the first time in your life about the benefits of being dead, or contemplated suicide, you have probably experienced unwanted, but sometimes even nearly uncontrollable thoughts. Often a person in this state will experience feelings of depersonalization, a feeling of detachment, and even of floating or nothingness. Some people lose a sense of time and become indifferent to even basic life's pleasures.

We're all susceptible to this kind of thinking. In fact, in my experience, the most common person to experience unwanted thoughts, whether they are intrusive, intrusive and asinine, or intrusive and obsessive, is a woman. Here are a few of my tips on how to deal with them:


1. Have a healthy self-esteem (Let go of the shame and guilt). Try to understand the source of your intrusive thoughts, and then forgive yourself for having them. This doesn't mean to pretend that you're not having them. You may feel that you need to do this, to gain the 'credibility' of a regular person in the event that they question you about your irrational thoughts. Doing so will only compound the problem. You can tell others that you've taken steps to make these thoughts less of an issue, and will be more than happy to talk about them.

You should also understand that your intrusive thoughts are perfectly normal and do not make you a psycho. You are not a 'sick' person for having them. Instead, you have an abnormal reaction to an abnormal stimulus. You should, however, be a bit less sensitive to the triggering stimuli, and accept that they exist, rather than being defeated by them.

2. Avoid the source of your anxiety. It's tempting to head for the hills when you experience intrusive thoughts. Coupled with depersonalization, some people also experience emotional numbness, meaning that you are incapable of feeling joy, love, worry, sadness, or anger. These are also signs that you're having an anxiety attack. Avoidance is a bad idea. In most cases, these can be prevented if you simply realize that they are not a valid way to manage your anxiety.

3. Redirect the thoughts. When you notice yourself focusing on your inability to leave a party or a big meeting, interrupt the thought by reminding yourself of your actual strengths. You're not a person who forgets things; you're the kind of person who remembers things! If you can remember, you can go to a meeting or a party and you'll be fine. If your inner critic had a stronger grip on you, your life would be in serious trouble.

4. Resist the urge to label. An intrusive thought is an unwanted, but understandable, reaction to something that your fearful mind is attempting to process. You should never get into the habit of labeling these thoughts as 'bad' or 'healthy'. The word 'bad' is one of the most common terms used in therapy to label thoughts as 'negative' and 'abnormal'. If your mind is telling you that you are bad, no matter how irrational that belief is, it's a bad idea to agree.

5. Re-frame it. There are times when your intrusive thoughts are not a reaction to an external stimulus. Instead, they are a reaction to your own state of mind. You need to start rethinking them in terms of what they are: a reaction to a negative emotional trigger. Your negative thoughts will usually cause your actions to be inhibited. The question is: can you inhibit your negative thoughts? Once you realize that these thoughts are not a reflection of your health or strength, but rather of how you are at the moment, you may be able to engage in activities that you find enjoyable.

6. Practice mindfulness. One way you can practice mindfulness is to sit quietly in your favorite chair or on the floor. Take a few deep breaths, focusing your attention on your breath. Do not allow your mind to wander or stray to thoughts of past trauma. As you focus on your breathing, watch the thoughts and feelings pass by without acting on them.

7. Get the help of a doctor. Whether you have depersonalization or not, medication can really help you deal with the symptoms. In extreme cases, some people need an introduction to a more radical form of therapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). In the meantime, however, talking to your doctor about medication can be very helpful, as it can help you control your experience of the world. They may suggest antidepressants or mood stabilizers, so make sure you ask about those before you make the decision to start taking any medication. Also, never forget to discuss and explore any underlying mental health issues that may be causing the anxiety. Your physician can help you to identify the best way to approach your anxiety.

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