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Thousands of thoughts go through our minds each day at the conscious and subconscious levels. Most of them come and go as they please without you noticing or causing distress. Things become somewhat problematic when negative intrusive thoughts seep into our consciousness.
Practically everyone experiences these thoughts from time to time, but they can get out of hand for some people. The thing with intrusive or distressing thoughts is that they can interfere with your mental health.
Today, we will examine how to stop intrusive thoughts. Before going through each of the nine steps to ease your mind, I'll explain what causes upsetting thoughts to pop up. I'll also touch on types of intrusive thoughts and how they relate to your mental health.
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are random, unwanted thoughts that fill your head. They pop up out of nowhere and tend to repeat, over and over again. These thoughts are negative, disturbing, or far-fetched in nature and can occur any time of day. Oddly, they usually have no connection to what you're doing or thinking of at the time.
It's also difficult to pinpoint their origin. They simply enter your consciousness without warning and often affect your feelings, emotions, or mood. The thoughts usually leave as fast and as suddenly as they arrive, but some people get stuck in a negative or disturbing thought loop.
Types of Intrusive Thoughts
According to Mental Health America, these thoughts can be violent, sexual, bizarre, weird, paranoid, or delusional in nature. For example, a person may imagine themselves hitting or harming someone. If not, they may see themselves in sexually explicit scenes with a random person or someone of the same or opposite gender. The images can be shocking or gross and cause feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment.
Intrusive thoughts can also take the form of negative self-talk, where there's an inner voice creating self-doubt about your talents and abilities.
What Causes Intrusive Thinking?
Approximately six million Americans are affected by intrusive thoughts, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The figure could be higher if you take into account unreported cases. Nevertheless, what causes this type of thinking, where do the thoughts come from, and what are they telling us?
Psychologists and scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause but suggested different theories. In general, psychological experts think recurring disturbing thought patterns might stem from stress or problems in everyday life you're trying to suppress in your subconscious. Instead, of remaining quarantined, the thoughts find their way into your conscious mind.
In other cases, inappropriate ideas may suddenly pop up as a way of reminding you of things you are unlikely to do. That's why they appear so outrageous and shocking to you.
Intrusive thoughts experts, Dr. Martin Seif and Dr. Sally Winston, call them “junk thoughts” that stream into your consciousness. They are meaningless and get “washed away in the flow of consciousness” if you don't pay attention or engage with them.
Intrusive Thoughts and Your Mental Health
Most people are able to dismiss these thoughts and continue life as normal. For others, the problem becomes chronic. If you've been frequently experiencing distressful thoughts for weeks or months, it might relate to an underlying mental health condition, such as.
Experts are not 100% certain whether these disorders are actually the cause or are merely symptoms of intrusive thoughts. For example, bothersome thoughts may prompt anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Something important to note is that not everyone who experiences these thoughts has a mental health disorder.
How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts from Overtaking Your Mind in 9 Steps
Disturbing, violent, or otherwise inappropriate thoughts can make you feel disgusted and uneasy. While you cannot really control when they pop up, there are ways to manage how they affect you. Using these strategies can help stop intrusive thinking from spiraling out of control as well as reduce its frequency.
Step #1. Acknowledge the thoughts
Having intrusive thoughts is perfectly normal. Welcome them, instead of trying to block them out. They'll soon disappear as your mind naturally shifts to thinking of something else.
These thoughts cannot harm you, although they can lead to panic or anxiety if you allow them to have free reign. They are just thoughts and even though some are violent, sexual, or otherwise evil in nature, they don't define you.
Resist becoming fearful or anxious, as they are not your reality. Accepting and labeling them as just thoughts you cannot control proves to be a more effective way to filter them out of your mind.
Step #2. Resist questioning your thoughts
As you recognize and label the thoughts for what they are, try not to engage with them. Remember these are random, uncontrollable thoughts that may go against your beliefs and morality. You may need to sit with them as they linger before fading away to the back of your mind.
It is natural to try and figure out why you're thinking this way. As they take up space in your head momentarily, try not to pick them apart. Catch yourself in the moment and let it go. There's a technique called mindfulness, which you can practice to dismiss unwanted thoughts and reduce stress or anxiety related to rumination and overthinking.
Step #3. Refrain from putting meaning to your thoughts
Another way to stop intrusive thoughts is to let go of the desire to add meaning to them. This might only create confusion and additional stress. It's human nature to try and look for meaning in events, dreams, and thoughts. Other times, we ruminate.
Honestly, this is thinking too much over things that usually have no bearing on your life. Overthinking and overanalyzing wear you down mentally and are linked to problems like anxiety and depression. On top of that, negative thoughts can lead to catastrophizing. This means thinking the worst will happen because something creepy wormed its way into your mind.
Step #4. Stay focused on the task at hand
Instead of engaging with thoughts that upset, anger, or scare you, turn your attention back to whatever it was you were doing. These thoughts are called “intrusive” because they weave their way in without permission.
You could be in the middle of an important job interview when they pop up. You might be at the altar saying, “I do,” and your thought shifts to your groom in an explicit scene with another man. Quite bizarre! Exactly.
Try not to suppress what's on your mind. This may cause you to fixate more on it. Breathe, realize what's happening, let the thoughts pass, and resume your activity. Chances are, that imagery will not occur again.
Step #5. Remind yourself that these thoughts don't define you
Random thoughts of violently attacking someone or a catastrophe, such as being in a horrible car crash, aren't usually easy to tolerate. You might even feel sensations such as fear or pain. However, disturbing those images are, tell yourself they're not real and don't represent your personality.
Avoid judging yourself for uncontrollable subconscious thoughts that surface. Instead of saying, “OMG! I'm such a terrible person,” you could say something like, “These are just thoughts, they don't define me.” You may add, “I am a kind, caring, and ethical human being.”
With regards to thoughts about being in an accident, severely ill, or dying, I usually say, “I am here. I am safe. No harm will come to me.” Think of these statements as positive thoughts to attract good karma.
Step #6. Try mental distraction methods
According to psychologists, mental distractions can help break the cycle of repetitive unwanted thoughts. Think quickly of something constructive to do. It could be a physical or mental activity. Call a friend and talk about anything else but the strange stuff that surfaced in your head.
Otherwise, get busy with a mental activity or something that involves paying attention to details. For example, drawing, reading, or painting. I like to immediately grab an object and focus intently on it. Next, I describe it out loud, loud enough for me to hear but not to disturb others. I name the object and describe its size, shape, color, and uses.
If you do this activity, notice that by the time you're done you've completely forgotten what was on your mind.
Step #7. Shift your thinking pattern
We all think negatively from time to time, but having a negative mindset means frequently engaging in negative or harmful thoughts. Rethink Mental Illness describes negative thinking as a pattern of thinking negatively about yourself and your surroundings.
Examples include self-doubt, blowing a problem or thought out of proportion (catastrophizing), and believing what you feel is true without any evidence (emotional reasoning). These thoughts can spiral out of control and lead to wild or intrusive thinking.
Activities such as mindful journaling for at least 30 days may help you shift from negative to more positive thought patterns.
Step #8. Journal to identify the triggers
Thoughts, feelings, and emotions from day-to-day events and interactions may enter your subconscious. You don't even know they exist until they rise to the conscious mind. If you're experiencing the phenomenon frequently and it has become bothersome, perhaps it's time to keep a daily journal.
Write down the days you experienced intrusive thoughts, where you were, with whom, what you were doing, etc. Give it at least four to six weeks before you analyze the information for patterns. Do you find these thoughts occurring after watching violent movies, around certain people, or when you feel bored, anxious, or depressed? These situations might be triggering unpleasant thought patterns.
Step #9. Speak with a mental health professional
Your doctor may refer you for a psychiatric evaluation if your thoughts are causing too much distress or affecting your daily life. Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, from a therapist, can help to desensitize you to these thoughts and reduce their frequency.
Your therapist can help you pinpoint the triggers, develop coping strategies, and change thinking patterns. Therapy is also useful for addressing diagnosed underlying mental conditions, such as anxiety, PTSD, or OCD.
Final Thoughts on How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are more or less “junk” thoughts that are spontaneous and difficult to prevent. While they might be disturbing, they do not mean you have multiple personalities, are crazy or weird, or have a secret desire to act them out.
Remind yourself these are involuntary thoughts that are random, harmless, and usually unconnected to things you have going on in your life. Although they never completely stop surfacing, there are ways to manage and prevent them from affecting your mental well-being.
Start healing today by checking out this article on 10 Tips for Mindful Writing and Meditative Journaling. It very well may help you narrow down what triggers your intrusive thinking.