What Are Intrusive Thoughts & How Do You Keep Them Under Control

Ever have urges, images, or thoughts that get stuck in your mind?

Maybe they seem random, weird, or inappropriate? Or cause you to wonder if something is seriously wrong with you? 

If you are like the vast majority of humans, you know exactly what I am talking about. 

Hear this: Having intrusive thoughts is normal

Unwelcomed perhaps, but normal. Sort of like hiccups.

What are they?

Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and happen when your brain is doing what normal brains do.

And what is that? They generate unwanted content, material that is different from your other thoughts, feelings, and desires. 

Sometimes intrusive thoughts are contrary to your character. Like if you suddenly wonder what would happen if you ran through the grocery store naked. Or maybe the thoughts just seem weird. Like if at a restaurant you think about standing on a table and juggling silverware for other patrons. 

Regardless, you don’t want to have the thoughts, let alone continue to have them, and ESPECIALLY not on replay. 

How do you hit the ‘STOP’ button and make them go away?

The solution to taming the thoughts is counter intuitive.

And is one of the reasons for why the thoughts can be so annoying. 

The common response of fighting against intrusive thoughts only strengthens them.  Hence the saying ‘what you resist persists’.  

By focusing on them, trying to make them go away, you are actually fueling intrusive thoughts. You are inadvertently keeping them engaged in your mind. 

A good analogy is with pink elephants. Try this experiment:

First, do not think of pink elephants. 

Second, What are you thinking of right now? Whatever it is, don’t think of pink elephants.

Third, what is your immediate thought? 

(Probably pink elephants.)

The more you try NOT to think of pink elephants, guess what? The harder it is not to think of pink elephants.  

Trying not to have the thoughts energizes the thoughts, creating the equivalent of a tug of war.  The scientific name or this is ‘Ironic processes”, 

The secret to taming intrusive thoughts is to accept them. Allow them to pass through.  Because they will. 

Labelling thoughts as pathological, as a sure sign of a problem, only makes the thoughts worse- and creates a ton of additional anxiety.

Remind yourself that having intrusive thoughts in and of itself is not the problem. What causes your distress is your reaction.

Thoughts are just thoughts. They will not harm you. Just because you have intrusive thoughts does not mean you have to pay attention to them or chase them away. 

Of course, there are times when intrusive thoughts may be a sign of something more serious, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,

Depression, Eating Disorder, Anxiety, or other psychiatric condition. 

Consulting with a mental health professional or your primary care physician is important if intrusive thoughts interfere with quality of life, jeopardize your or others’

safety, and/or are associated with impulsivity. 

f you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in private practice in the Boston area. She has first hand knowledge of pink elephants and enjoys helping others learn ways to befriend them.

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