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What are Intrusive Thoughts and How Do I Manage Them?

Megan Mulroy, LPC 

Intrusive thoughts are characterized by unwanted thoughts that pop up, cause distress, and get stuck in your mind. Often times these thoughts can be violent, sexual, disturbing, or something deemed as unacceptable by society. These thoughts can be really scary and produce a lot of anxiety for people who experience them. Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts- it is so normal to have passing thoughts of rear ending the car in front of you or stealing something from the grocery store. When these thoughts become recurring, distressing, and overwhelming, they may be a sign of something else.   Intrusive thoughts can often times be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD also incorporate behaviors or rituals aimed at eliminating the anxiety associated with the obsessions known as compulsions. Additionally, people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience intrusive thoughts that are connected to a traumatic event and can trigger bodily reactions like increased heart rate. Here are some tips to better understand and manage your intrusive thoughts:

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts: It is helpful to remember that thoughts are simply thoughts! The thoughts that show up and cause distress are nothing more than words and images. A simple trick is to imagine typing your intrusive thought on a word document and spending some time mentally changing the font, color, and word size. This takes the power away from the thought and gives you a reminder that the thought is nothing more than that. It might sound counter intuitive but making space for the thought can actually help you not fear them so much.

‘Bad’ Thoughts Do Not Make You a ‘Bad’ Person: Thoughts have nothing to do with your character as a person. For example, having a violent thought does not make you a violent person. Your character and self-worth are based on how you live your life and what you value- not your thoughts. Take some time to identify what it is you value, what you love, and how you treat yourself and others. This will give you a lot of evidence to dispute the irrational belief that a bad thought makes you a bad person. These thoughts are happening to you, they are not you. 

Thinking Something Does Not Make It Happen: It is common for people struggling with intrusive thoughts to believe that thinking a certain thought can cause it to happen. For example, having the thought that you will crash your car on the highway might keep you from driving. In those moments, remind yourself that you are simply not that powerful. Being intuitive and sensitive is different from being psychic and our thoughts have no power to cause planes to crash, people to die or get hurt, or disasters to happen. 

Your Thoughts Are Out of Your Control: In most cases we can control our actions, but our thoughts are largely out of our control. Trying to make sense of intrusive thoughts can often be a control tactic for when we are feeling so out of control. In our minds, if we can make sense of something terrible that has happened by drawing connections from our thoughts, we can often foster a sense of control. Something that helps me is to focus on the small things I can control- what I eat for breakfast, when I choose to do my paperwork, and the outfits I wear. It’s so easy to feel like NOTHING is in our control when we’re suffering, when in reality nothing is so black and white

Suffering from intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming and can lead to poor sleep quality, depressed mood, anxiety, and a lot of fear. Working with a therapist is a great way to manage and make space for these thoughts.  Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our counselors in Chicago that can help you! 



Retrieved from . July 30 2021.

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