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Unraveling the Mind: 10 Things That Will Help with Intrusive Thoughts

Dealing with intrusive thoughts can be challenging and leave you feeling confused and exhausted. Especially if you’re trying to manage them on your own, and not talk about them. A favorite house plant (it does equally as well as an outdoor plant!) is the Zebrina Pendula. It’s a plant that does best when you break off a little piece of the stem and put it right back in the soil. It grows without too much attention, and it gets full and gorgeous in a matter of weeks (especially with the right amount of light and water).

Intrusive thoughts can be just like this plant, without a lot of effort, they can grow and become unmanageable in a short amount of time. Intrusive thoughts can also leave you feeling helpless and hopeless. Here are several strategies that have proven to be effective in managing and reducing the impact of intrusive thoughts on your life:

1. Recognize that They’re Normal
The first step in dealing with intrusive thoughts is to understand that they are a common human experience. Almost everyone has strange or distressing thoughts from time to time. Realizing that you’re not alone can alleviate some of the anxiety these thoughts may cause.

2. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts without judgment. By observing your thoughts as they come and go, you can learn to detach from them emotionally. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for reducing the distress associated with intrusive thoughts. Try out a guided meditation to allow your thoughts to focus on something else. There are many free ones on YouTube, and some of our favorite apps that teach/guide you through mindfulness are:

  • Abide (daily meditations based on a passage from the Bible)
  • Headspace
  • Calm
  • Pause (it’s free and do try the 30 days to Resilience plan!)

3. Don’t Engage in Avoidance Behaviors
Sometimes, people with intrusive thoughts engage in avoidance behaviors to prevent the thoughts from occurring.

For example, if you have a fear of contamination, you might excessively wash your hands. However, this can reinforce the power of the thoughts, causing you to feel like you need to wash your hands more, thus increasing the frequency and need to engage in hand washing, and ensuring the behavior will continue with more and more intensity.

Instead, try to resist these behaviors and gradually expose yourself to the situations that trigger your thoughts to build tolerance. For example, when you feel a strong urge to wash your hands, set a timer for 5 minutes and do not allow yourself to wash your hands. Continue to increase that time until the hand washing stops interfering with your daily living.

4. Create a time of day called “Worry Time”
Allocate a specific time each day to address your intrusive thoughts. When these thoughts pop up at random times throughout your day, gently remind yourself that you’ll address them during your designated “worry time.” You may say something like, “I will deal with this thought and the feelings that come with it during worry time later today.” This activity provides creates a safe space for you to contain how much influence your worries have over your day-to-day life.

5. Practice Relaxation Techniques
Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can help reduce anxiety and stress, making intrusive thoughts less frequent and intense. You can read more about how you can calm down your brain in this blog here. It will take you through the steps to calm your racing thoughts, and help you understand why practicing relaxation techniques daily will help you manage your intrusive thoughts in the day to day. We call this brain training. Just like you have to train to go run a 5k, you have to train your brain to relax.

6. Talk About It
Sharing your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist can be incredibly therapeutic. They can provide support, perspective, and reassurance, helping you feel less isolated in your experience. Often times, the simple act of speaking these thoughts out loud can reduce their power. If you’re still not sure if you need help, reading this blog might help you decide.

7. Consider Medication
In some cases, medication can help manage intrusive thoughts, especially if they are a symptom of an underlying mental health condition like anxiety or depression. Medication should always be discussed with a healthcare provider and ideally your therapist. Research shows that medication plus talk therapy give people the best results long term.

8. Focus on Self-Care
A healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and stress reduction techniques can help reduce the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts. Many people feel like it’s selfish to focus on themselves, but not focusing on themselves leads to resentment which adds to the overall distress a person is experiencing.

9. Stay Informed
Learning more about intrusive thoughts, their origins, and their connection to various mental health conditions can help demystify them and reduce fear. There are many great podcasts, books, workbooks and even Facebook groups that can help people get educated and find support.

10. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a highly effective therapeutic approach for managing intrusive thoughts, especially when they are linked to conditions like OCD. A CBT therapist (like myself) can help you identify, and challenge irrational thought patterns and develop healthier responses to your thoughts.

Remember that managing intrusive thoughts is an ongoing process. It may take time and persistence and may at first feel like it’s not working. That’s okay. That might mean it’s time to seek professional help, especially if you find that these thoughts are significantly interfering with your daily life.

If you’re hesitant to share your thoughts, even with a trained therapist, please know we are rarely surprised by the intrusive thought itself. It may be shocking to you, because it goes against your values or morals, but we can help you handle it, and relieve the power associated with it. We understand that these thoughts usually attack what you care about the most and are not a reflection of who you are as a person. You don’t have to face these thoughts alone, and with the right strategies and support, you can regain control over your thoughts and emotions.

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