Everything You Need to Know About Intrusive Thoughts
We all have intrusive thoughts, but for some people they can be extremely distressing and might be a symptom of OCD or generalised anxiety disorder
CBT therapist Kelly Britton shares five tips to manage intrusive thoughts
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Many of the individuals that come to me to treatment mention intrusive thoughts. This is a really common experience which can be really distressing, but it is possible to reduce the impact of this.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Have you ever had a song get stuck in your head that you can’t get rid of? The more you try not to replay it, the more stuck it becomes. I guess we have all had this experience haven’t we? It’s something we all have in common.
Another thing we have in common is that we all have intrusive thoughts, just like that song that gets stuck. However for some people these thoughts become more distressing and important than for others. They are often associated with presentations such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), although they also occur in many others.
The mental health charity MIND suggest around 1 in 100 people in the UK have OCD, and around 6 in every 100 have GAD. They can lead to us worrying about what this means or says about us and make us feel frightened, anxious, ashamed and depressed.
These thoughts can be very broad but also have some common themes for example;
- Thoughts about hurting others – accidentally running someone over, losing control with knives, punching someone, pushing someone over.
- Thoughts around sexual behaviour – behaving inappropriately to someone, sexual deviancy, paedophilia.
- Thoughts about bad things happening to yourself or others– accidents, illness, death, disasters, crashes, terrorist attacks.
- Thoughts about what others think of you – being judged or people thinking bad things about you.
There are many variations of these, too many to list here but usually very common.
Why do we have intrusive thoughts?
Everyone has thoughts. In fact we have upwards of about 6000 thoughts a day. This may seem like a lot but this is our mind functioning normally. Intrusive thoughts are just a part of this process.
Thoughts can appear spontaneously and can be triggered by lots of different things in our environment. Some are pleasant and helpful, but others might feel more random, unpleasant or even dangerous. You can imagine how hard it would be to try to control all these thoughts but that is exactly what most of us try to do. Often people will develop mental or behavioural rituals to neutralise the thoughts.
This can be exhausting and is likely to make us feel even more tense and anxious.
How can we manage intrusive thoughts?
Such thoughts are so distressing to some people that they develop lots of strategies to manage them. Some things people do are to suppress thoughts, rationalise them, ignore them or distract themselves.
These strategies might work for a while, but many people find they are not long-term solutions and the thoughts keep coming back. Trying to manage thoughts this way and feeling like the strategies are failing can make them feel all the more uncontrollable and upsetting. These feeds our belief that the thoughts are powerful and important, and we are at their mercy. It’s just like that song stuck in our heads, the more we try to get rid of it the longer it stays!
So, are intrusive thoughts really so powerful or are we just looking at them in the wrong way? Can we look at thoughts in a different way and make them more manageable? Therapy can help you find ways to help, here are just a few to consider….
1. Thoughts are just thoughts
Just having a thought does not necessarily make it a fact. I can think about winning the Lottery, but that does not mean it will happen. In the same way having an intrusive thought that I am a paedophile does not mean I am one or would ever want to harm a child. In fact, in my experience, people with OCD or GAD are far more concerned with keeping everyone safe! Try not to make these thoughts so important and instead view them as a normal part of cognitive processing.
2. Try not to engage with intrusive thoughts
This is not the same as suppressing them. See them as one of many thoughts ebbing and flowing throughout the day, they do not have to have your attention. Try not to control them but let them simply pass by and get on with your day.
3. Reduce worry
If we aren’t worrying about intrusive thoughts or making them important, they will be easier to leave alone. Remember worry is a behaviour that we can change with the right support and guidance.
4. Get the basics right
Look after your wellbeing and be kind to yourself. These experiences do not make you a ‘bad’ person, remember everyone has intrusive thoughts. Look at ways to be self-compassionate. Find time to relax, connect with others, look at healthy eating, improving sleep and getting some exercise. Think about trying mindfulness techniques. Explore what works for you.
5. Consider therapy
There are lots of qualified therapists who may be able to help. You can look at Welldoing.org and organisations such as BABCP for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the MCT Institute for Metacognitive Therapy, among others. You can also contact your GP or local NHS Talking Therapies service for advice. Therapy is a commitment but often can provide a safe space to talk and explore ways of reducing anxiety and distress and improving your quality of life. If you do choose therapy, make sure you are comfortable with your therapist. We are always happy to provide evidence of qualifications and registration and to answer any questions you might have.