Do You Have Intrusive Thoughts? Here’s How To Keep These Disturbing Ideas Under Control

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Do You Have Intrusive Thoughts? Here’s How To Keep These Disturbing Ideas Under Control

If you've ever had a random thought pop into your head that left you shaken or questioning yourself, you may have experienced an "intrusive thought."

Learning how to stop intrusive thoughts is important, since many times, these thoughts can be disturbing, bleak, or upsetting, and leave you wondering what's really going on in your head.

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“What if I pushed that kid in front of the train?”

“Maybe I’m actually gay!”

“What if I don’t actually love my husband?”

For most people, thoughts like this come and go without much fanfare.

But if you suffer from anxiety, these thoughts can be deeply unsettling and send you off the deep end. It can seem like there's nothing more important than getting rid of them.

You might wonder what will help with this bedeviling problem. There are strategies that work — and they may be different than what you’d expect.

Intrusive thoughts are usually about a taboo topic.

Common topics include blasphemy, sexual themes, violence, racism, and pedophilia. The thoughts can also take the form of questions that are impossible to answer with certainty, like asking yourself if you really love your spouse.

These thoughts are disturbing when they come up, and you may typically respond by trying to get rid of them or by reassuring yourself that it isn’t true. Sometimes they're symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but not always.

Why do these unsettling thoughts happen?

Ironically, they happen because you don’t want them to! Intrusive thoughts occur because you believe that having the thought means something scary about you. Thus, you’re always hoping the thoughts don’t arise.

If someone tells you to not think about, say, a tomato for the next five seconds, it’s surprisingly difficult to not think about it. Trying to suppress your thoughts about something can actually make you think more about it!

What do intrusive thoughts say about you?

People often interpret their intrusive thoughts to mean they're some kind of moral degenerate. However, these thoughts don’t actually signify anything important. You can have a thought about committing murder without being a murderer.

The only thing intrusive thoughts say about you is that you’d really prefer not to have that particular thought!

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Sometimes, it can feel like you’re the only one to have these thoughts. Surprisingly, the main difference between someone with intrusive thoughts and someone without them isn’t whether they have the thoughts. It’s how they react to the thought.

People who don't struggle with intrusive thoughts still have the very same thoughts, but interpret them as unimportant and not indicative of anything profound about their character.

How should you deal with intrusive thoughts?

The first instinct for many people with intrusive thoughts is to try to get rid of them. This approach typically doesn’t work.

You cannot control which thoughts come into your head. Unfortunately, the more you try to get rid of the thoughts, the more likely you are to have them again.

A better strategy for dealing with intrusive thoughts is to try to tolerate them. Let them come and go as they please. Resist the urge to “figure out” whether the thoughts are true or false.

Try to become more of an impartial observer of the thoughts. Notice them come and notice them go. Accept that you don’t know whether they’re true or not.

Remember, you're not responsible for the thoughts that come up; you're responsible for what you do.

Successful therapy for intrusive thoughts often involves purposefully thinking things that feel objectionable or immoral. Doing this in the context of cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people develop a stronger tolerance for their thoughts. This helps you become less reactive over time.

If marijuana, alcohol, or other substances have become part of your solution to intrusive thoughts, try using the above strategies, instead. They will help you strengthen your natural abilities to cope with the thoughts without chemical help.

People with intrusive thoughts will often spend a lot of time Googling the topic in an effort to get reassurance. If you've developed this habit, try to limit the time you spend Googling. Internet research will likely hold you back from overcoming the thoughts.

These are some of the approaches that have helped many people overcome their problems with intrusive thoughts. They're strategies to help you maintain your emotional health by countering the habit of trying to control the thoughts.

If your efforts don’t help you as much as you’d like, consider a consultation with a mental health professional experienced in the treatment of intrusive thoughts and OCD.

RELATED: What It's Really Like To Live With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, According To People Who Have OCD

Paul Greene, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist. He is the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.