What are Intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are experienced by most of the population, many people don’t even realise they have them whilst others consciously battle with intrusive thoughts on a daily basis. This blog aims to explain the nature of intrusive thoughts and touch lightly on their origins, explore ways in which someone can ease the psychological distress caused by intrusive thoughts and advise when further action should be taken.
Much like a song stuck in your head, intrusive thinking is usually fleeting, easily distracted away from and most of the time hardly noticeable. However for some people, no matter how hard they try they can’t seem to get that ‘song’ out of their head. Whilst most people experience intrusive thoughts, acting on them is a rare occurrence, but the fear of acting on them can cause a great deal of psychological pain for some.
This fear can stem from the nature of such thoughts. Intrusive thinking usually contains wildly inappropriate content because the brain is reminding us what not to do in certain situations and many people describe these as ‘junk thoughts’. These junk thoughts are rather useless remnants of our thinking that the brain creates for our benefit, letting us know what is and isn’t socially unacceptable in certain instances. Luckily, these junk thoughts pass quickly as they are deemed unnecessary and are emptied out in the rubbish bin of the mind.
Intrusive thoughts can appear without warning and can be repetitive. They can come in the form of mental images, scenarios, words or sounds. The theme of such intrusions varies from person to person but can be characterised by phobias, anxieties, or paranoia as well as acts of aggression, sexual/inappropriate behaviour or self-narration. Some intrusive thoughts may contain illegal or immoral themes however this does not reflect the thinker’s inner most desires or behaviours in reality. Intrusive thoughts of this nature can however feel very scary and disturbing and in extreme cases, consume a person’s mind making it very difficult to live their day-to-day life.
The content of these thoughts can carry a lot of shame, embarrassment and secrecy which makes it a very difficult matter to talk about and for such a reason, intrusive thoughts can be seen as taboo and isolate an individual from their peers, especially when it is hard to admit such thoughts. It is important to remember that intrusive thoughts are outside our conscious control, if we could choose not to experience them, we wouldn’t. The cause of intrusive thoughts varies between individuals; Stress from school or work, past trauma, loss and change are just a few factors to consider, however there may also be no reason or factor for their intrusive thinking as it is such a common human phenomenon.
How to deal with intrusive thoughts
Much like its causation and contents, the best way to deal with intrusive thoughts varies from person to person. For some, paying more attention to the thoughts can worsen them, and so distraction techniques may be the best remedy. For others, allowing a space to let the thoughts in can help them to leave sooner and prevent their return. Developing any kind of coping strategy for intrusive thinking can improve a person’s quality of life and when practiced frequently, coping becomes more automatic, much like the intrusive thoughts themselves. Here are a few things to try when dealing with distressing intrusive thoughts:
- When an intrusive thought appears, pick a random alternate thought to associate it with e.g. pink circus animals. This teaches the brain to quickly divert attention away from the thought, essentially ‘nipping it in the bud.’
- Mental games can help with distraction from the intrusive thought until it passes, try thinking of a theme and then 5 items from each letter of the alphabet connecting to this theme, For example: Theme – Music A: ABBA, Audio, Arpeggio, Acoustic, Artic Monkeys. B: Beat, Bongos, Bluetooth, Bass, Band. C: Clarinet, Capo, Castanets, Cassette, Choir. Etc.
- Look around the area you are in, pick 5 items you can see and make a story out of them or repeat the name of each item over and over again. For example: Chair, Cat, Phone, Laptop, Bread – The cat sat on a chair eating some bread. I took a picture of it using my phone and then used it as my laptop screensaver.
- If you feel able to, allow the thought to inhabit your brain and give it space to develop as this may help satisfy the mind and help it to fully leave for good. In some cases, pushing intrusive thoughts away might make them feel more intense, so giving yourself a moment to think about them in more detail might help to ‘scratch the itch’.
- Self-care can also help a great deal with the severity and frequency of intrusive thoughts, especially if they have come from stress or trauma. Looking after your body and mind through physical and emotional care can improve mental health and subsequently improve intrusive thinking. Going for a walk, taking a relaxing bath, spending time with friends and family or taking yourself out on a coffee date are just a few examples of the type of self-care that may help.
Accepting that the intrusive thoughts will eventually leave and preparing for the return of such thoughts can help you to continue on with life. Fixating or supressing such thoughts will only worsen their effect. Also try to avoid questioning why you may be experiencing intrusive thoughts as this has the potential to generate a self-berating narrative and worsen your mental health. Just knowing that these intrusions are outside of your conscious control can make all the difference.
When to speak with a trusted adult/professional
Although Intrusive thoughts are nothing to worry about, there are some circumstances where telling a trusted adult or professional is advised:
- If you feel a strong compulsion or urge to act on intrusive thoughts which encourage harmful behaviour or you feel the need to harm yourself.
- If the intrusive thoughts last longer than a brief moment and cause major distress over a long period of time, or you feel like your life is being heavily impacted.
- If you feel the need to control your thoughts or you believe your mental health is deteriorating from the felt need to control the thoughts.
Intense and reoccurring intrusive thoughts may also be a sign of OCD, eating disorders or other mental disorders, however these diagnoses are treatable and it is possible to make a full recovery when combated with therapy. Sometimes intrusive thoughts can however be a by-product of suicidal ideation and so this needs to be treated with great seriousness.
Contacting a medical professional or a crisis helpline is the first port of call, to prevent immediate danger dialling 999 and asking for option 2 will allow you to speak with a mental health adviser for the next appropriate steps.
Intrusive thoughts can also come in the form of hearing voices, which may not necessarily be an experience shared by all however is still a fairly common occurrence. Many people learn to live with a loud internal voice and intrusive thoughts without the need for extreme psychiatric intervention although some people may experience periods of struggle at certain periods of their life because of this. Intrusive voices and thoughts are also not unusual or uncommon in younger children and adolescence and psychological intervention is not always required.
However, talking therapies or counselling may help with any distress caused by such experiences and usually, once talked about, the intrusive thoughts start to ease. It is important to recognise when to take more serious action if the intrusive thoughts/voices become more intense, and so talking about this openly within family and friend groups should be encouraged without judgment or critique.
Written By Holly Hawken, for (and edited by) Teenage Mental Health
Teenage Mental Health limited company registered in England and Wales.
Registered number: 11588207
BACP Organisational Membership Number: 00276237