How to deal with intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are undesirable thoughts that can enter our heads at any time and without notice. They’re generally recurrent — the same type of idea appears repeatedly – and they can be unsettling or even distressing.

For me, intrusive thoughts tend to happen when I am in bed and am about to fall asleep. Thoughts of something awful happening to the boys enters my head from nowhere. I then worry about all the things that could happen to them when I’m not with them. I usually try to block these thoughts out of my head by thinking about something else, like putting together a shopping list or counting to 100 and back again. Sometimes it will only take a few minutes for this to ease, other times it will take longer.

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What causes intrusive thoughts?

To understand the causes of intrusive thoughts, it’s helpful to look at what happens when we have them.

When a person has an intrusive thought, their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls our thoughts, is overactive. This makes it difficult to stop a thought or distract ourselves from it, which can be distressing.

When we are ruminating, a common way we cope with these thoughts is to think about the same thoughts over and over. This habit could be a form of self-punishment. It can also make the thoughts go away temporarily, even if they never fully go away.

Intrusive thoughts are often triggered by a person’s situation or worries. Someone who is depressed might find their thoughts obsessing over negative things.

There are ways you can manage these thoughts, read on to find out some ways you can deal with them.

How to deal with intrusive thoughts

Put some distance between yourself and the trigger

The first step in dealing with intrusive thoughts is to put some distance between yourself and the trigger. If you experience intrusive thoughts from a traumatic event, it can be helpful to avoid any reminder of the event. For example, if you have an upsetting thought about your child who died or about your dead pet, avoid looking at photos of them as this may trigger more thoughts.

Develop a mantra

Developing a mantra can be an effective way to gain control over intrusive thoughts. If a thought is coming back, remind yourself of the mantra you developed. For instance, if you developed a mantra that says “I am safe,” say this to yourself when intrusive thoughts begin to come back. You may also want to repeat it as you go about your day and use it as a coping mechanism for any anxiety or stress you feel.

Talk to someone

If you find yourself struggling with intrusive thoughts, it can be helpful to talk about them with someone else. You may feel ashamed or guilty for the thoughts that you are having, but talking to someone who cares about you will help alleviate some of the pressure. It can also provide you with a safe space to share your feelings and not worry about being judged.

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Talk to a friend or family member, or mental health professional. If you’re not comfortable sharing these thoughts with your loved ones, consider joining a support group specifically for people who struggle with intrusive thoughts. You can also look into private psychiatry. Places like Psymplicity help you take control of your mental health. Talking to people in this type of setting may give you the sense of community and connection that is necessary when dealing with such difficult subjects.

Write it down

Another way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to write them down. When you are having a thought, write it down. This will help you process the thought and provide some relief. After writing the thought down, you can let it go and move on with your life.

The benefits of writing your thoughts down include:

  • Helps organise your thoughts
  • Provides more clarity
  • The act of writing gives you a sense of control
  • You will feel better after letting your thoughts go

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that can be used to find relief from intrusive thoughts. It’s a form of mental training that teaches you to focus on your current surroundings and moment as opposed to what you may be thinking about. This is also known as “paying attention in the present moment.”

Practising mindfulness can help with intrusive thoughts because it’s a way for you to train your mind to focus on the present instead of getting carried away by thoughts about the past or worries about the future. The key is to notice when your mind starts going down an intrusive thought path, such as dwelling on something upsetting, and then bring yourself back into the present.

If you have intrusive thoughts, you are not alone. You are not to blame for them, and you do not need to do anything differently.

Treating the intrusive thoughts with distraction, relaxation and bodywork may help to ease them, and gradually work towards getting them out of your head.

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