Intrusive thoughts can be any troubling thought that gets stuck in your mind. It may be something that feels very uncharacteristic for you and may feel difficult to control. They’re often distressing or upsetting and can include violent, sexual or disturbing imagery. As a result, they can often be challenging to talk about or even acknowledge.
It’s important to remember that they are just thoughts!
They’re automatic, they’re not your fault and we don’t have control over what thoughts pop into our heads at any moment. Experiencing thoughts that contain disturbing ideas or imagery does not mean we’re going to act on them or even that we want to act on them. They don’t represent some subconscious yearning or secret desires. They're nothing to feel ashamed of. They’re just thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can become harder to manage the more attention we pay to them. Looking for meaning behind them, feeling that they might signify something unpleasant about who we are, even spending time trying to push them out of mind or fight them, can all make those thoughts louder and more intense.
They’re also something that a lot of people experience. Because of the nature of them you might not see too many people comfortable enough to talk about them, but they’re more common that you may expect.
You may feel that your intrusive thoughts are significantly worse or more disturbing than what we’re talking about here. You may think that what we’re saying about intrusive thoughts relates to people with mildly unpleasant things on their mind every so often, but the things you think about are on a completely different level and mean something else. It’s not true! In fact, they often involve things that society finds extreme or taboo or unacceptable, and yes, that does include everything you might be worried it doesn’t!
There are a number of reasons people might experience intrusive thoughts. Experiencing trauma may result in thoughts relating back to those experiences (sometimes in the form of flashbacks) or distressing thoughts in general. People with PTSD, OCD or depression may experience them. Growing up or living in a particularly strict environment, especially one with intense standards about right and wrong can contribute to them and they are often brought on by stress or anxiety and sometimes periods of isolation. It might not always be clear why they exist, but we do know a few things that can help ease their impact on our lives.
What can help?
Be kind to yourself. Don’t blame yourself for these thoughts. Recognise them as intrusive and automatic and not something you’ve chosen to think.
Accept them for what they are. It’s OK to have them. You didn’t make them. Having them doesn't mean you're going to act on them. They don’t have any significance for who you are. They’re just thoughts.
Try not to engage with them. They’re often not worth exploring. They’re not worth fighting. They’re just there. It might help to picture yourself at a bus stop, watching buses go by and imagining these thoughts on them. You don’t have to get on the bus. The bus isn’t going to stop unless you wave it down. Just watch that bus go past with that thought and go back to whatever you were doing beforehand.
Try to resist the urge to analyse how “well” you’re doing in any effort to minimise them. We’re not trying to control them, just alter our reaction to them.
If you're finding the thoughts persistent or scary it might help to write them down as a way of getting them out of your head. You can even do this over on Mind's website in a safe environment where what you write won't be saved or sent anywhere.
Take a look at our article on grounding and soothing techniques. You may find something there that helps in not getting swept away by these thoughts.
If you’re finding it hard to manage these thoughts or they’re stopping you enjoy day to day activities, please speak to someone. Have a chat with your GP or one of the organisations here. Often things like CBT in particular can help with intrusive thoughts and OCD but simply telling a mental health professional about the thoughts can be a really helpful step in taking away their impact.
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