What’s an intrusive thought? An intrusive thought is an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.*
We all have intrusive thoughts, although it’s something we don’t talk about because of embarrassment, shame, and well, guilt. They range from things like wanting to break everything when you’re walking by the dishes in Target, thinking you have a deadly disease because your stomach hurts, or replaying an event in your head over and over again.
There are darker intrusive thoughts too.
Thoughts like hurting the people you care about, even your kids, or going over a bridge and wanting to drive your car off of it – can you believe that those thoughts are normal and lots of people have them? Seriously!
Brains are weird.
Most people have those fleeting thoughts, and that’s all they are – fleeting. When they become something we attach to or obsess about – is where we have the issue.
If you constantly think about hurting yourself or someone else, it’s important to talk to someone and get help. Postpartum, PTSD, OCD, Depression – those are all things that happen in our brains and none of it makes us a bad person! If your intrusive thoughts are hard to handle – get help.
But let’s talk about every day intrusive thoughts and thought-loops.
So now we know what intrusive thoughts are and that everyone has them
Do you have thought-loops? You have one of those intrusive thoughts and then it makes you anxious or depressed and then it’s all you can think about. It’s constantly replaying in your head over and over again and you can’t turn it off.
It’s a crappy combination, let me tell you.
I like to think that there are different voices that live in my head. Anxiety – she means well but oh does she go overboard, on basically everything. “Did you lock the door, Dominee? If you didn’t just think of all of the horrible things that could happen – better get out of bed and check.”
“If you don’t save tons and tons of money something bad will happen and you won’t be able to take care of yourself.”
“Re-read that text message 18 times to make sure that you didn’t say anything that could be construed as wrong. Also, double check and make sure you sent it to the right
“Just stay quiet so you don’t say the wrong thing. You will say the wrong thing.”
Like I said, she means well. She’s just super cautious about… basically everything.
And then there’s Depression.
Depression likes to curl up in a blanket inside of my brain and she questions the effort that I put into everything.
“Life kinda sucks, you know? Like everything is just going wrong. It’s all really bad. W
“Nothing you do ever pans out how you want it to, why don’t you stop trying?”
And I’ve learned to just take Depression as what it is (most days). She’s that sad friend that never has everything positive to say and you don’t take it personally because that’s just how she is. She’s the Eeyore of my brain.
Anxiety and Depression have (for the most part) become harmless background figures in my life. I don’t listen anymore (and oh how I look back at the days when they called the shots in horror!) I toss a few reassurances their way and I move on with my life.
In the last few years, there have been other intrusive thoughts.
And they aren’t trying to be helpful like anxiety and they aren’t really the downer style of Depression. They’re… meaner.
“You are gross and disgusting and no one wants anything to do with you.”
“No one is ever going to care about your feelings.”
“Nothing you do, no matter how hard you try, will ever be good enough.”
“What you do is a scam. You are a scam.”
And I know that voice. Well, not the voice, the voice in my head is mine… but I know the words. Remember when I told you about my alcoholic ex? Those words are hers.
That relationship did a lot of damage on a lot of levels and one of them is that voice in my head. I spent three years being emotionally and financially abused. I felt like nothing I did was enough. That I would never be enough. I was cheated on and lied to and told that it was my fault.
That voice, those thoughts, really suck.
Months into my current relationship – out of nowhere I started to have intrusive thoughts that went in a loop during times of intimacy. They came from nowhere and it took me months to work through them.
I get an obsessive loop of things she said to
But I’ve been working on it, in the way that I’ve worked on the others and I wanted to share some handy dandy tips!
Find the source of the thought.
Some thoughts have a source. My anxiety and depression don’t. No one influenced my anxiety when I was younger, I just hit puberty and they arrived as gifts. The other intrusive thoughts, I know where they come from.
In the case of my ex, I really have to focus on the untruth of the things that she said. I can rationally understand that they are not true, but those words and actions wiggled their way into my heart and that takes a bit of healing.
Naming the source of the thoughts helps. Before I fully understood that Depression does what it does I felt like I was a lifeless, empty, person. I can now separate the two of us and 95% of the time I’m happy and realize what a great life I have.
Your source might be an ex, a parent figure, or someone else who was overly critical, abusive, or harmful to you. Or maybe it’s your mental illness talking.
Argue with the voice.
They say if you talk back to the voices in your head, that’s when you know you’ve lost it. I disagree, I argue with them frequently. I used to take everything that Anxiety and Depression said at face value.
Depression: Everything in your life sucks.
Me: Okay, yeah, you’re right, it does so I’m going to lay in bed and spend all day crying.
Anxiety: If you leave the house something terrible will happen. I can’t tell you what, but it’s going to be bad.
Me: Okay, I’ll stay inside and never go anywhere unless I have to.
That was not the way to live. I’ve since perfected my impression of Dwight from the Office. “False.”
When my brain tries to tell me that these things are
Positive self-talk is also a must.
Re-direct your thoughts.
I like to think that these thoughts are a radio station. We need to be able to change the station. We’re behind the wheel, we get to choose what we listen to. So I try to re-direct my thoughts by changing the station.
“Nope! We’re not listening to that. We’re listening to this.”
Sometimes I’ve identified the thought – named the thought – argued with the thought – and it’s still there lurking. So then I redirect my brain.
I listen to music or audiobooks. I distract myself with a task that requires brain power or I play on my phone. Hobbies and passions are essential so there’s always something fun to think about. Those things make me happy, so I try to let them take the wheel. I focus on thinking about my blog, or a game I want to play, or art I want to create, or a book I want to write.
Sometimes you’ve just got to let a thought be a thought. You had a thought, it was just a thought, it doesn’t mean anything or affect your present life in any meaningful way so you’re going to just be in the moment with this thought that is just a thought and…
Let it go.
Easier said than done, am I right? Yet necessary. When I’m in that thought loop sometimes I focus intently on the thought and then I let it go. And if it creeps back up, I let it go again.
If you’re spiritual or religious it’s also an exercise in letting it go to God/ess/HigherPower/Universe. “Goddess, (I’m into earth-based spirituality) I am giving this to you to take care of and I am letting it go.”
This one has been working great for me when it comes to small worries that I find myself obsessing about.
Reach out for support.
Therapy is amazing. Meds can also be amazing. Talking your thoughts out with a friend can take the wind out of them. I highly recommend therapy just because it’s a great outlet no matter what you’re going through. If your intrusive thoughts are really interrupting your daily life, medication might also be an option for you.
Brains are funny things and there’s nothing wrong with taking something to help them work in a better way!
Self-Soothing is a great way to cope.
When my stress is high, that’s when the intrusive thoughts and thought-loops come out to play. Managing my stress is one of the great tools I have to keep my sanity and self-soothing does that.
Find the things that soothe you, de-stress you, relax you, and make you feel better about life. Just doing things that make you happy, no matter how small, can have a huge long-term impact on your mental health especially if it’s something that you’re doing every day! #selfcare
How do you deal with intrusive thoughts?
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I had an “ah-ha!” moment when I read you describing Depression as “that sad friend that never has everything positive to say and you don’t take it personally because that’s just how she is.” What a great way to re-frame my own relationship with depression! Thank you for this insight.
It depends on the thought but I either make fun of the thought if it’s my inner critic being too mean. Or I tell myself, that’s just a thought no worries. It’s giving less power to it!