[Content warning: intrusive thoughts, anxious thoughts]
Have you ever driven a minivan full of your children across a bridge on a random Thursday, minding your own business, when all of a sudden, a vision of you driving off the side of the bridge interposes itself on your brain so vividly that for a second, you think you may have actually done so? Or while sleep training your baby and all you hear is their crying, all of a sudden, you imagine your entire family being murdered in their sleep and your baby turning into a serial killer like “Dexter” and you contemplate setting up an elaborate texting system with your mother so she can prevent such an occurrence?
Well, if any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. What you and I are experiencing is called intrusive thoughts, and more than 6 million people in the U.S. have reported having them. In fact, the true number is estimated to be much higher since many people do not report their intrusive thoughts to a doctor or mental health professional.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that overstay their welcome in your brain. In other words, they pop into your head and get stuck, usually causing distress because the thoughts themselves might be upsetting. They can repeat frequently, too, which exacerbates an already troubling situation or trigger panic attacks.
Intrusive thoughts can also be:
- Violent or disturbing
- Sexual (like fantasies)
- Envisioning behaviors you personally find disgusting or unacceptable
- Fears of the future
- Unwanted memories of trauma or the past
While the frequency and subject matter of these intrusive thoughts may cause you anxiety, you don’t need to worry that there is an underlying medical condition causing them. Most likely, you do not have a problem requiring medical intervention.
You are not your thoughts
Despite what evangelical Christianity might tell you, you are not your thoughts. You are not a bad person because of these intrusive thoughts — or any stray thought, actually — that flits through your mind. Though they may surprise you and induce anxiety, they have no portentous meaning. They are not omens or warnings of your imminent demise.
They’re just thoughts: random electrochemical firings of the 100 billion nerve cells in your brain.
As long as you keep the thoughts in the realm of the mind and don’t act to bring them to reality, intrusive thoughts in and of themselves are not harmful. It’s when we obsess and fixate on the thoughts, or feel intense shame and want to keep the intrusive thoughts secret that intrusive thoughts can start to affect our mental health and well-being.
Conditions that may cause intrusive thoughts
For some folks, however, invasive thoughts may be indicative of an underlying mental health condition such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and postpartum depression (PPD).
In OCD, these intrusive thoughts or obsessions can become uncontrollable and result in you repeating certain behaviors or compulsions in the hopes that your actions will end your thoughts and prevent them from happening in the future. For PTSD, you might experience intrusive thoughts connected to a traumatic event which may trigger a physical response such as elevated heart rate, sweating, flashbacks, or psychological distress.
People living with an eating disorder may have harmful intrusive thoughts about food’s impact on their body which may trigger certain behavior in an effort to stop the thoughts. And folks with postpartum depression may have intrusive thoughts about their baby being harmed — whether by themselves or by another person or circumstance.
Other times, they can be a symptom of a brain injury, dementia, or Parkinson’s disease. If you notice some of the early symptoms like changes in thought patterns, thoughts containing disturbing imagery, or obsessive thoughts, please seek help with a medical professional so you can be accurately diagnosed and treated.
How to treat your invasive thoughts
We want to reiterate that intrusive thoughts happen to everyone — and is totally normal. However, if you don’t enjoy them, get stuck on these thoughts, or they negatively affect your life, there are some ways you can manage or help mitigate these unruly thoughts.
1) Accept your intrusive thought
While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s logic akin to acknowledging a problem being the first step towards solving it. After all, if you deny there’s a problem, you can’t address it. Plus, have you ever tried to avoid thinking about something? It never works. You end up thinking about the very thing you’re trying to ignore even more.
So, next time, think the whole intrusive thought. Let it flow through you and then out of you.
2) Remind yourself that the thoughts are not real
After all, just because you think something doesn’t mean it will happen. (If that were the case, I would be married to every member of K-pop band BTS by now.) Tell yourself that your fear may come true, however the odds of it actually coming to pass are small. (I often find comfort in the mundanity of actuarial facts.)
3) Identify your triggers
Are there certain situations that may trigger your intrusive thoughts? Try to avoid those situations and pay attention to content warnings for media or content you consume. For myself, I avoid any stories where children are in peril, avoid mountains and snow (long story, don’t ask), and when possible, avoid driving over bridges.
4) Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Talking through your intrusive thoughts with a mental health professional can be very helpful. Just the act of not keeping the thoughts secret can be freeing and allow you to ask for help. CBT can help you discover what may be causing your intrusive thoughts as well as how to cope.
For many people, intrusive thoughts are triggered by anxiety or depression and no matter what life hacks or tips we implement, it doesn’t help. Drugs can be a lifesaving measure to treat anxiety or relax your nervous system to help address the underlying mental health conditions spurring your invasive thoughts.
Yes, yes. Self-care is still all the rage and buzziest of buzzwords. However, just because it’s in the cultural zeitgeist doesn’t mean it’s not true. Pay attention to if you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Make sure you are eating and sleeping enough, that your body and mind have ample time to rest, and that you are getting enough exercise and nutrition.
Remember, the reason intrusive thoughts can be so debilitating is that they sink their teeth into your mind and refuse to let you go. Because they’re so unexpected or disturbing, of course they cause you anxiety and stress. Just because you experience intrusive thoughts doesn’t automatically mean you have an underlying mental health condition, but if you find them interfering with your daily living, please talk to a healthcare provider.
If you find yourself considering self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889. All calls are confidential, free, and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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