Intrusive Thoughts & Why We Have Them
From the moment you get up in the morning until your head hits the pillow, your mind produces an average of 70,000 thoughts. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, so that’s a lot of thoughts! Because we live in a stressful, fast-paced world, many of our daily thoughts tend to be negative. No matter how mindful we may try to be, no one is immune to negativity. Within the world of negative thoughts lives a specific category called intrusive thoughts. These are sneaky intruders that try to enter our homes or our minds. While we’re busy creating safe and cozy homes – healthy minds that sustain us for the rest of our lives – intrusive thoughts often show up unannounced. They don’t ring the doorbell, and they don’t even bother to bring homemade cookies. No, we’re not receiving housewarming gifts, just another batch of thoughts to add to the thousands we already have.
Intrusive thoughts can pose real problems while you’re doing your best to succeed in your adult life. Thankfully, there are tangible ways to shift your relationship with them. Between consciously identifying your thoughts and seeking professional help, you do not have to feel defeated.
Before we go deeper, please know this: Thinking intrusive thoughts is nothing to be ashamed of. You have thoughts, but you are not your thoughts. You are a powerful woman who is about to gain the skills to tell your intrusive thoughts, “this is not your home.”
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Have you ever taken a journey in your mind that leaves you cringing, tensing your shoulders, gritting your teeth, and wondering, “How did I get here?”. It’s like your mind takes control of you and leads you to a place that feels out of character.
When you come back to the present moment, you look around and think, “It’s a good thing people can’t read my mind,” and “I can’t believe I’d even think of such a thing.” If this sounds familiar, then you might be dealing with intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts show up in a way that feels unwanted and unprovoked. Your true feelings, desires, and character traits contrast with these intrusive thoughts. It’s like receiving unsolicited advice from someone whose opinion you don’t care for, except it’s not coming from an outside voice.
On top of that, intrusive thoughts don’t show up just once. They show up repeatedly as images, words, or impulses. These repeat offenders can cause confusion about what to believe and how to behave. They can drain your energy as you struggle to suppress them, ignore them, or make them disappear. They’re relentless.
Although intrusive thoughts seem to appear randomly, they do follow patterns. If you learn to recognize these patterns, you’ll be better prepared to manage your thoughts and the impact they have on your life.
Causes And Signs Of Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are considered negative because they cause overwhelm, obsession, and distress. But what causes intrusive thoughts? The short answer is you’re more likely to experience them when you’re physically and mentally stressed, fatigued, or tired.
Causes of Intrusive Thoughts
Your brain is like a computer, constantly processing images, sounds, events, and conversations. Over time, your brain holds onto memories without you noticing. These memories can be created at home, at work, or through the media you consume online. When stressful, scary, or overwhelming memories are triggered, your brain goes into defense mode.
All your brain wants to do is protect you and meet your basic needs of survival, love, safety, and freedom. Here’s the catch: Your brain doesn’t always use the most effective or logical methods. This is when intrusive thoughts pop up.
Examples of Intrusive Thoughts:
- Performing an act of violence against yourself or others to express anger or resentment
- Saying something that does not reflect your true feelings to escape conflict
- Neglecting to complete responsibilities because you doubt your abilities
- Sabotaging a positive opportunity or relationship because you feel you don’t deserve it
- Identifying yourself as something or someone you are not because of outside influences
Even if you’re not consciously stressed out, intrusive thoughts are caused by stress that you’re not used to handling. If you’re wondering about the signs of intrusive thoughts, they vary for each person.
- Absent-mindedness: forgetting about dates and events that are important to you
- Aloofness: emotionally pulling away from activities or conversations you would normally enjoy
- Indecision: taking a long time to make typically simple decisions
- Insomnia: restlessness and trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Irritability: anger, aggression, or heightened emotions when interacting with people
If you’re concerned about someone in your life having violent intrusive thoughts, watch out for bruises, scars, and other signs of injury. However, intrusive thoughts are not always violent.
When To Seek Help For Intrusive Thoughts
Although intrusive thoughts can be signs of serious mental health conditions, they can equally show up in people without diagnosed mental health conditions. They can be directed both internally and externally. It’s worth addressing any of these cases. When you remove the shame associated with intrusive thoughts, you remove their power.
Consider Talking to a Mental Health Professional When:
- Intrusive thoughts aren’t just odd but also interrupt your daily responsibilities
- Intrusive thoughts suggest dangerous or illegal behavior
- You’re afraid you won’t be able to resist intrusive thoughts
- You’re often anxious about the outcomes of intrusive thoughts
Licensed mental health professionals are highly trained in supporting people facing intrusive thoughts. A cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) might guide you through the processes of focused distraction and acceptance of these thoughts. These days, you even have the option of seeing a therapist virtually, if meeting in person is challenging.
If you’d like to make some lifestyle changes without a therapist, many activities can help you process your intrusive thoughts healthfully.
Healthy Ways to Cope:
- Meditation, journaling, and other mindfulness practices
- Connecting with trusted friends, family, and social groups
- Spending time in nature
- Hanging out with pets
- Working on a creative hobby
- Externalizing the thoughts by speaking or writing them down
You can also use the H.A.L.T. method. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?” Once you identify a physiological need in yourself, you can take logical steps to meet that need. Afterward, notice how your thoughts shift in a positive direction.
Final Thoughts About Intrusive Thoughts
Perhaps you’re wondering if your negative thoughts are considered intrusive or not. Maybe you’re concerned about what intrusive thoughts say about your mental health. You may even blame yourself, thinking your life is too good to be stressed in the first place.
It may help you to remember that intrusive thoughts are not:
- Mind wandering
- A mental health condition
- Your fault
If the idea of addressing your intrusive thoughts feels intimidating, remember this: We all experience a wide range of thoughts and emotions. You are a wonderfully complex human learning how to navigate your life. Admitting it’s time to make a change shows your strength and self-love.
Perhaps you were being flooded with intrusive thoughts right before you found this article. You have successfully interrupted the pattern and recentered your attention. We’d love for you to bookmark this article for future reference.
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