They emerge out of nowhere. You’re idling through the motions of your day—starting your morning commute, folding laundry, or waiting in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s—and, suddenly, an unwanted thought pops into your mind. Maybe it’s an intense fear of losing your job, a harsh self-criticism, or even a sudden urge to swipe all the mints and assorted greeting cards off the shelf and yell, “What is it all for?!” before running out the automated doors. What once began as a nice day of checking things off the list suddenly becomes riddled with worry.
We all experience intrusive thoughts to varying degrees. Left unchecked, they have the capacity to control our decisions, our relationship with both ourselves and others, and our overall quality of life. The good news is that we can change how we engage with intrusive thoughts and learn how to manage them in more helpful ways.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are “thoughts, images, or memories” that “intrude into our conscious awareness” and take away from whatever we are currently doing (Beck & Clark, 2012). Some intrusive thoughts can be relatively harmless; we can easily ignore them with a simple, “That’s strange—why did I think that?” and go on with our day. Intrusive thoughts can become troublesome, however, when they involve things we cannot control, such as regrets from the past, fears about the future, or how we are perceived by others. While these thoughts come from the intent to keep us safe, they also hold the potential to lock our attention, pull us out of the present moment, and trap us in anxiety and/or depression.
Managing Intrusive Thought
1 . Slow down.
The first step to managing intrusive thoughts is recognizing them when they pop up. When you have an unwanted thought, take a breath and simply notice the thought without judgment. Taking a conscious breath can offer a moment of clarity and invite you back into the present moment before you’re swept away by the thought.
2. Name the thought.
Naming unwanted thoughts as intrusive allows some distance between you and the thought itself. Simply calling it what it is can act as a reminder that you are not your thoughts, and your thoughts do not define you. Once you have named the intrusive thought, you can have more space to choose how you would like to engage with it.
3. Get curious.
While some intrusive thoughts can be resolved simply through naming, others tend to stick around—especially if a thought is particularly familiar or impactful to us. For intrusive thoughts that require more attention, staying curious can help us move through the thought without allowing it to take over.
Questions for staying curious:
- Is this thought helpful or unhelpful for me right now?
- Is there something I’m being invited to pay attention to?
- What is the origin of this thought? Have I outgrown this thought?
- Where’s the proof? Is this thought based in reality, or is it based on fear?
- Where did I learn this thought? Is this thought my own, or did I inherit it from someone else?
Curiosity allows us to investigate the thought further and empowers us to decide how we would like to move forward.
4. Beware the shame spiral.
Intrusive thoughts can gain more power over us if we enter into a shame spiral. A shame spiral occurs when we judge ourselves for having an intrusive thought, prolonging the suffering that intrusive thoughts can bring. When an intrusive thought comes up, we can be gentle towards ourselves with self-compassion. Intrusive thoughts are a natural part of being human, and removing the added layer of self-judgment can help us move through them with more ease.
5. Reach out for support.
Working with intrusive thoughts can be difficult, and may require some extra support from your community or a trusted professional. If intrusive thoughts are interfering with your day-to-day life, working with a therapist may help you understand what might be causing those thoughts and learn techniques for managing them. Getting support can help reduce sensitivity to the thoughts and offer ways to react in more helpful ways if they occur.
It is possible to change your relationship to intrusive thoughts. If you are ready to explore how intrusive thoughts may be interfering with your connection to yourself and others, reach out and get started with a Humantold clinician today!
The Anxiety & Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution by D. Clark & A. Beck
Radical Compassion by Tara Brach
The Power of Breathwork by Jennifer Patterson