What are intrusive thoughts? Why do we have them and what should we do about them?

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I want to talk about scary, or 'intrusive', thoughts. I want to talk about them as they are probably the thing I get asked about the most on social media. And I don't think we talk about them enough. 

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are the kind of thoughts that pop up, make you feel worried, guilty and/or ashamed. They usually stick around for a lot longer than you hope, leading to increased distress and fear. The thoughts are usually about something 'terrible' happening to yourself or to others. Or link to you doing something 'terrible' to yourself or another person. They are usually aggressive, sexual and/or religious in nature. 

If you have been experiencing these kinds of thoughts, they may have made you feel like you are not the same person any more. Made you feel like you are in danger or like you are no longer a good person (as you think a 'good' person wouldn't have thoughts like this). They may have even made you think you are unsafe to be around.

Well, I am here to tell you this... You have not changed, you are not suddenly bad or unsafe, you are not suddenly capable of doing things you find difficult to talk about. You are also not alone. These kinds of thoughts are really prevalent, people just don't talk about them. To illustrate the fact that these thoughts happen to lots of people... look at these illustrations by Natalie Dee (I love her for making these)...

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Can you relate to either of these drawings? I certainly can, and I have met many, many people who can too.

Why do we have intrusive thoughts?

Our brain has evolved to keep us safe. Therefore it constantly scans the environment for danger, running through all the possible perils that could befall you or others. While doing this, it generates thousands of thoughts that you are unaware of as they are occurring below the level of consciousness. 

On occasion, we have a thought that elicits an emotional response such as fear. When this occurs the thought is pushed into our conscious. The brain does this so that you are alerted to the potential threat and can then problem-solve your way out of it (it thinks it is helping you). However, this system has a downside... it doesn't know the difference between real life-or-death threats and imagined ones. This means it treats totally imagined threats in the same way as it does a tiger standing in your door way, activating the fight-or-flight response, filling you with dread and a strong urge to run or fight for your life. 

What happens next is the important bit. If a thought pops up and makes you feel afraid but you realise it is just that, a thought, a random piece of information that means nothing but was shown to you because it made you feel scared, then you will notice it and let it go. Unfortunately, that isn't usually what happens.

Instead, the thought happens and we interpret it as meaning something about us, and about reality. We feel guilt, fear and shame. We feel responsible for the thought. Worse than that, in the media (mainly film and television) people who have scary thoughts are usually depicted as dangerous, as 'mad' or 'bad'. As this is usually our only reference to these experiences we then give ourselves those labels, generating more fear. 

What keeps the thoughts going? What makes them so intrusive?

After we have had the thought and assigned ourselves responsible, we usually do one thing: PUSH THE THOUGHT A WAY. But the dreaded thing keeps coming back, over and over. Making us feel that this really must mean something. We really must want to do those things (or they must really be about to happen) otherwise why would we keep thinking about them... right? 

WRONG.

Want to know why the thought keeps coming back? Ever tried not thinking about something? How did that go? Let's try it now, together. Ready?

 

Whatever you do, do NOT think about PINK ELEPHANTS... Just don't. DO NOT THINK ABOUT PINK ELEPHANTS................................................................

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How did that go? I am pretty sure that you are now thinking about pink elephants. It's just a fact... try to avoid a thought and it will keep coming back over and over. One reason for this is that avoiding something makes the brain think that the thing is dangerous. The brain then focuses on it more, thinking it needs to keep fixating on the danger until you figure out a solution... so...  taking responsibility for the thought, feeling anxiety about it, and then avoiding it is actually what is making it come back! The random thought stuck around because of this, not because the thought is true.

What to do about it

To manage these thoughts we need to remove the responsibility and the fear (and other emotions) associated with the thought. Here are the steps you need to take to start doing just that:

1. Really learn what I have written here. Teach yourself that thoughts are nothing more than random activations in the brain, things that will pass if we know this. Things that will stick around if we give them meaning. You can ultimately have any thought you like, any body response you like but in the end you choose what thoughts you want to act on based on your value system. 

2. Do not avoid the thought. Do not push it away. Instead notice it and then:   

3. Learn positive coping statements. Learn phrases that you can say when the thought pops up. For example, "Hi there thought, I see you. You are just a thought. I know it feels tempting to believe you mean something about me but you don't. I am good. I am safe. I am exactly the way I have always been."

4. Learn to self-sooth. Learn breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and importantly a grounding exercise (click on the words for direct link to the skills). Use these anytime you feel the fear arising, after the coping statement. Make sure you practise these skills repeatedly when calm so that you can use them when worried. Over time, this will start to dissipate the anxious response. 

5. Immerse yourself in an activity. People argue that this could be considered avoidance. In a way that is true. However, allowing the thought to come up, telling yourself your coping statement and then immersing yourself back into a task is a form of coping. So, do a puzzle, garden, play a game, chat with a friend. 

6. Learn Mindfulness. This is a long-term goal we all need. Mindfulness teaches us to notice our physical feelings and our thoughts without getting involved or judging ourselves. It teaches us that all thoughts and feelings are temporary experiences that will pass. It creates a gap between the thought, the feeling and our response. Giving us time to decide how to react. I recommend putting in the time on this one. Click here for a mindfulness exercise. 

7. Seek support. Therapists are equipped to help you overcome scary and intrusive thoughts. They are excellent at normalising your experience and providing you with the skills you need to overcome. They will help you rebuild your confidence in yourself and restore your sense of calm. Please don't live in fear or silence... please reach out. 

That's it

If this feels useful to you don't just read it once and disregard it. Read it repeatedly. Read it until your heart believes it, not just your head. 

Most importantly, remember there are people you can talk to. People who can help. You are not your thoughts. You are you, the same as you were before the thought popped into your head and made a (very unwelcome) home there.

 

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online (over video link).

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Or... Contact me now for your free 20 minute consultation to see whether therapy with me is the right choice for you!

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Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider. 

Sophie Mort