Over It

How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts Because, Damn, The Anxiety Is Real

Reframing them can set you free.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Stocksy, Getty Images

Have you ever been in the shower, singing your fave Taylor Swift song, and then suddenly your mind jumps to you slipping and cracking your head open? Or maybe as you watched your kids peacefully play in the backyard, you suddenly envisioned your neighbor's giant, scary dog barreling toward them. If this sounds familiar, you most likely experienced an intrusive thought.

Intrusive thoughts are TikTok's latest mental health trend, with the phrase "intrusive thoughts win" having over 1 billion views. However, it's important to note that (not surprisingly) TikTok users are more often than not misusing the term. Namely, they're not extreme thoughts you act upon (which is highlighted on the social app, including getting a large tattoo or pressing the alarm button on an elevator).

Instead, "intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, involuntary thoughts, images, impulses, or ideas that come to mind repetitively and are difficult to control or dismiss," Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, tells Scary Mommy. "These thoughts can be disturbing, inappropriate, or violent and can cause significant distress, anxiety, guilt, or shame. It is important to note that having intrusive thoughts does not mean that a person will act on them, and treatment can greatly help in managing these thoughts."

According to Hafeez, intrusive thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety and other mental health conditions, including people with anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

If you experience intrusive thoughts, here's what you need to know about them, including how to get rid of intrusive thoughts.

Why do intrusive thoughts occur?

Intrusive thoughts can occur for a variety of reasons, says Hafeez, including stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, or underlying mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

"These thoughts are often unwanted and distressing and may center around themes related to harm, violence, or personal safety," she explains. "They can be triggered by certain situations or can seemingly come out of nowhere. The brain is constantly processing information, and sometimes it produces thoughts that don't align with a person's values or desires."

The good news is that intrusive thoughts are a common experience and can be managed with the help of a mental healthcare provider, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and mindfulness techniques.

How do you get rid of intrusive thoughts?

Below, Hafeez outlines how you can help rid yourself of intrusive thoughts.

Identify triggers. Try pinpointing when and where your intrusive thoughts occur and what triggers them.

Reframe the thought. Instead of trying to suppress the thought, Hafeez suggests trying to reframe it in a more positive or neutral way. For example, "I'm not good enough" could be reframed as "I am doing my best." Hafeez suggests asking yourself if the thought is "based in reality or if it aligns with your values and beliefs can help to put the thought in perspective."

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques like meditation and deep breathing can help reduce the power of intrusive thoughts. "This can help increase your awareness of when intrusive thoughts arise and allow you to redirect your attention to a more positive or productive focus," Hafeez says.

Seek professional help. "A mental health professional can help you learn coping strategies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, or medication, to manage intrusive thoughts," Hafeez says. "Remember that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at some point in their life, and they are not a reflection of your character or values. With persistence and patience, you can learn to manage intrusive thoughts and live a fulfilling life."

When should you be concerned about intrusive thoughts?

According to Hafeez, you should be concerned about intrusive thoughts when they cause significant distress, interfere with your daily functioning, or are accompanied by other mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression.

"In some cases, intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of a mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)," she explains. "It's important to talk to a mental health professional if you are experiencing intrusive thoughts that are causing problems in your life. They can help you identify the underlying cause and develop a treatment plan to manage the thoughts and their associated emotions."