Intrusive thoughts can be distressing and overwhelming especially when you don’t understand what they are or how they got here. This may be leading you to question your mental well-being, maybe even your sanity. Let me put a pause in here for you to say, you’re going to be okay. You aren’t crazy or having a breakdown. In fact, intrusive thoughts are very common. As a mental health therapist, my goal is to normalize these thoughts and provide coping tools to manage their impact on our everyday lives. In this blog post, we'll explore the nature of intrusive thoughts and discuss five effective coping strategies. Most of these I use myself!
1. Understand the Nature of Intrusive Thoughts:
The first step in coping with intrusive thoughts is to gain a deeper understanding of them. Recognize that intrusive thoughts are unwanted and often disturbing mental narratives or images that appear out of nowhere. Understand that having such thoughts does not make you a bad or abnormal person. They are a common aspect of human cognition, and they do not define who you are. Most intrusive thoughts come from the depths of our scariest fears and are perpetuated by the desire of being the exact opposite of what these thoughts are telling or showing us. Here, it’s also important to learn what triggers our deepest fears. After watching a news story or listening to a murder podcast, we may notice an increase in these thoughts.
2. Practice Mindfulness and Thought Labeling:
I will forever be a mindfulness advocate, because it is so helpful in many aspects of our lives. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in managing intrusive thoughts. When an intrusive thought arises, intentionally bring your awareness to the present moment without judgment. Observe the thought from a distance, acknowledging it as just a thought, then gently label it as an "intrusive thought." By doing this, you create distance between yourself and the thought, reducing its impact on your emotions and allowing it to pass more easily. If we start to add shame or judgment to our experiences, it makes managing and processing these thoughts more difficult because we’re adding an obstacle to it. Think of guilt and shame like a display case in a museum and the intrusive thoughts are the artwork behind it. We’re shining a light on the thing we don’t want to focus on and we’re adding a layer of “protection” so we can’t even turn off the light. If we remove the display case, it’s so much easier to reach over and turn the light off.
3. Employ Grounding Techniques:
Here is another great opportunity for mindfulness! Mindful grounding techniques, such as body scans or noticing our five senses, can help divert your attention away from intrusive thoughts and bring you back to the present moment. Engage your senses by focusing on specific sensations in your environment. For example, notice the texture of an object, listen to the sounds around you, or engage in deep breathing exercises to regulate your emotions. By grounding yourself, you can prevent intrusive thoughts from taking over your mind. Note that grounding may not completely get rid of the thoughts, but intrusive thoughts are an emotional reaction to our fear respecters. So grounding yourself in a mindful moment calms our physical body down so that we can use logic to challenge our thoughts and give ourselves proof against the anxiety.
4. Challenge and Reframe Intrusive Thoughts:
Intrusive thoughts often result from cognitive distortions or irrational beliefs. Like I mentioned above, they can often stem from our deepest rooted fears and anxieties. Challenge the validity of these thoughts by examining the evidence supporting them. Are there alternative explanations or more balanced perspectives? Reframe the intrusive thoughts by replacing them with more realistic, grounded, and self-compassionate interpretations. This cognitive restructuring helps reduce the emotional distress associated with intrusive thoughts. Here is also a great opportunity to build self love and reduce shame and guilt. Challenging these thoughts and restructuring our beliefs is the best action step in loving yourself. Along with challenging our thoughts, we can also build trust and confidence in ourselves that prove the exact opposite of our intrusive thoughts.
5. Seek Support and Professional Help:
Remember that you don't have to face intrusive thoughts alone. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional for support. Talking about your experiences with someone who understands can provide valuable perspective, reassurance, and emotional comfort. A mental health therapist can offer specialized techniques and guide you through evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness-based interventions, to effectively manage intrusive thoughts. I want you to know that I understand what you are going through. I’ve been there and done that. Still do! If you’re looking for more personalized advice and guidance, please reach out. You don’t have to do this alone.
Intrusive thoughts can be distressing, but they do not define your character or mental well-being. By utilizing the coping strategies presented here, you can regain control over your thought patterns and minimize the impact of intrusive thoughts on your daily life. Remember, seeking support from others and professional help is essential in managing intrusive thoughts. With time, self-compassion, and practice, you can develop resilience and confidence to empower yourself to live a fulfilling life, free from the burdens of intrusive thoughts. Don’t forget, you are not alone.