Intrusive thoughts are a common yet often misunderstood form of anxiety. We all have them, but the difficulty of managing intrusive thoughts can be debilitating for some. This article will discuss the symptoms of intrusive thoughts and their associated anxieties, then provide suggestions for coping strategies and finding supportive resources. Above all, understanding that intrusive thoughts are normal and can be managed with intention and practice is key.
Becoming Awake to Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are common, whereas only some people are aware of them. Becoming conscious of intrusive thoughts is the first step of managing them. The following lack of control and increased anxiousness can accompany them make them feel like an undesirable part of the self. But by being mindful of these mental images and trained in managing them, one can learn to take back power and assert a sense of autonomy.
The Cycle of Anxiety
There is usually a cycle of anxiety associated with intrusive thoughts. Some examples of mental processes that can come with intrusive thoughts are:
- Obsession and endless rumination
- Worrying about the consequences of the intrusive thought
- Sense of dread, guilt, or shame
- Attempting to distract self with other thoughts and activities
- Increased avoidance of situations and tasks related to the intrusive thought
Obsessing Over Intrusions
It can be typical for individuals with intrusive thoughts to obsess over a particular image or fear. This process can increase anxiety and establish a cycle of obsession and avoidance. Obsessing over an intrusion can also lead to an increased sense of no control over their own mind. Furthermore, it can create additional thought patterns of self-doubt and fear.
Unpacking Intrusive Thought Symptoms
Intrusive thoughts can be difficult to identify and verbalize, but it can be helpful to unpack and recognize the different symptoms as each will require an individualized approach to manage.
Fear-based intrusive thoughts can be accompanied by a heightened sense of fear that takes on the form of a terrifying image or idea. This type of intrusive thought will require more cognitive-behavioral techniques to help manage the anxious cognitions that accompany the image.
Negative self-talk is a type of intrusive thought that can be critical and damaging to the self. Recurring phrases such as ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘I am unworthy of love’ can become intrusive to one’s sense of self. In this instance, one can try cognitive restructuring techniques such as actively reframing the thought or engaging in positive self-talk to assist in managing the associated feelings.
Moralization intrusions can manifest as guilt and shame toward something one may have done or view as wrong. These may also consist of extreme rumination on the morality one holds to themselves and a fear of disappointing others. Different techniques such as challenging distorted beliefs, self-forgiveness, or awareness of underlying thoughts can be helpful with managing the guilt and intensity of this thought pattern.
Calming the Anxiety Around Intrusions
Once the symptoms of intrusive thoughts have been identified, working to unsubscribe from the anxiety associated with them is the next step towards managing them.
Grounding techniques aim to anchor oneself to the present moment and de-escalate anxious arousal. Examples of grounding techniques include visualizing a soothing and safe area, focusing on physical stimuli, repeating a mantra or positive affirmations, deep breathing exercises, and so forth.
Cognitive restructuring is a technique in which one challenges the intrusive thought by questioning its validity. Questioning the logic of the thought and reframing it can put one back in control. This can be done by writing it out, talking to oneself or a trusted other, and engaging in a calming and non-judgmental perspective of the thought.
Gaining understanding of intrusive thoughts as normal and inconspicuous can be calming. Through this process, one can learn to identify their triggers, recognize the danger signs of an oncoming intrusive thought, and become more aware and accepting of them.
Stepping Away from Obsessing
Once one has identified the symptoms of an intrusive thought and worked to calm the associated anxiety, it can be helpful to take a step back to allow the thought to dissipate on its own, as ruminating and obsessing over the thought can lead to a cycle of anxiety.
It can be helpful to set boundaries with intrusive thoughts by recognizing the thoughts as intrusive and out of one’s control. This can be done through actively disassociating oneself from the thought and allowing for dissipating, rather than engaging in the fear and letting it take hold.
Distraction and Grounding
By focusing on activities and tasks, one can distract themselves from intrusive thoughts and immerse themselves in an experience that doesn’t cripple them with fear. Alternatively, grounding techniques can assist in bringing one’s attention and awareness back to the present moment.
Being Patient and Self-Compassion
On the other hand, impatience can lead to greater anxiety and a greater sense of helplessness. It is important for one to go easy on themselves and not just expect to “snap out of it”. It is a process, and one can give themselves space and forgiveness if it is taking time.
Seeking out Supportive Resources
One may find it beneficial to seek out supportive resources to guide the management of intrusive thoughts. Connecting with mental health professionals or joining therapeutic communities and support networks can be helpful in managing intrusive thoughts.
Talking to Healthcare Providers and Therapists
Communicating with healthcare providers and therapists can provide a space to gain insight into intrusive thoughts, while finding strategies and resources to manage them.
Joining Supportive Online Communities
Specific online communities exist to assist individuals with coping with intrusive thoughts and mental health struggles. Here, one can find solidarity, learn new skills and strategies, and gain access to resources.
Peer Support and Mental Health Education
Peer-to-peer support networks can provide solace and understanding of intrusive thoughts and mental illnesses. Alongside this, mental health education is key as understanding and insight into intrusive thoughts can create an empowering sense of control.
Practicing Intentional Coping Strategies
Now that one has identified their intrusive thought symptoms, identified and practiced coping strategies, and sought out supportive resources, it is important to practice the coping strategies to manage the thoughts effectively.
Mindfulness strategies help one become intentionally aware of intrusive thoughts and embrace them from an accepting perspective. This can be done through yoga, meditation, and journaling.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and effective therapies used to address intrusive thoughts. CBT uses evidence-based techniques to examine the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in order to challenge irrational cognitions.
Exposure-response prevention (ERP) is a therapy in which a person is exposed to their fear in a safe and controlled environment, then learns to practice coping strategies in order to appropriately challenge the fear. This therapy can help lessen fear and control it in the real world.
In conclusion, intrusive thoughts are common in many forms and can be difficult to manage. By understanding the form of intrusive thoughts one is experiencing, calming the anxiety around them, and seeking supportive resources, one can learn to manage the thoughts with intention and practice. Above all, through identifying and accepting the intrusive thoughts as part of their experience and learning to manage them mindfully, one can take back power and make space to fully reclaim their sense of autonomy.