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Intrusive Thoughts: Why They Happen and How to Stop Them
stressed young man
Mental Health

Intrusive Thoughts: Why They Happen and How to Stop Them

Taking steps to work through these thoughts on your own can help.

Have you ever had a disturbing thought enter your mind seemingly out of nowhere? If so, you're in good company. One study found that around 99% of people occasionally experience intrusive thoughts. 

Intrusive thoughts can cause distress since they're often upsetting. They may be violent or sexual in nature, or feature upsetting behaviors. The same study found that 13% of people experience these thoughts frequently – which can be unsettling and disruptive to a person's daily life.

This article will examine why intrusive thoughts happen, and how to help prevent them. 

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

It's important to understand that intrusive thoughts are normal. The average mind cycles through thousands of thoughts per day. If you were to keep track of every thought you had in a 24-hour period, it's likely that many of them would be insignificant, passing thoughts that aren't tied to any kind of meaning.

The trouble with intrusive thoughts is the way they make us feel. Because these thoughts are distressing and uncomfortable, it's natural that we want to focus on them to better understand why we have them. While what causes intrusive thoughts is still not widely known, there has been research to suggest that intrusive thoughts may be linked to a brain chemical called GABA, which works as an inhibitor to keep certain cells in the mind quiet.

RELATED: Open-Mindedness: 5 Practical Steps To Open Your Mind

Those who have more frequently occurring intrusive thoughts may have an imbalance of this chemical in the brain. However, intrusive thoughts tend to become most problematic when a person starts to focus and ruminate on them, trying to find meaning behind why they are thinking such things. 

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(Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash)

What Are Some Common Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts can be specific and personal to your situation; however, the intrusive thoughts people have most frequently tended to fall into the below categories.

The Fear of Doing Something Embarrassing

These thoughts can be about doing something embarrassing at work, in public, or in front of peers and family. They may happen when you're in a work environment or social setting, which can make them even harder to shake. 

Thinking You Have a Terrible or Deadly Disease

Thoughts about illness may come out of nowhere or can start to creep up if we're feeling under the weather or different than we normally do. These thoughts tend to get worse when entertained by searching symptoms of a disease and convincing ourselves that we'll do it. 

Flashbacks to Past Embarrassment or Hardship

Known as intrusive memory PTSD, memories from childhood, adolescence or any other period of time in our lives where something upsetting happen can often come back up – sometimes when we least expect it.

Inappropriate Sexual Thoughts

Sexual thoughts about a person you're not even attracted to, but that would be embarrassing or detrimental to your current life if they were to happen are commonly reported intrusive thoughts.

Acts of Violence or Criminal Activity

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(Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash)

Thoughts about committing a crime or hurting someone – even though these are things you would never do – are typical intrusive thoughts as well.

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Here are a few tactics to help manage intrusive thoughts when they arise.

1.  Allow the Thought to Happen - Then Move on

This may sound counterintuitive, especially since the natural reaction to an intrusive thought is to try and forget about it. However, the more we try to suppress intrusive thoughts, the more we end up thinking about them. 

RELATED: No Mud, No Lotus: Why Growth Can’t Happen Without Self-Acceptance First

Instead of trying to suppress it, engage yourself in an activity or diver your attention to something else to help shake it. Reading a book, playing a game or completing a task you've been putting off are all ways to keep yourself from focusing too heavily on the thought.

2. Identify Why The Thought Is Upsetting

Once you've put some space between yourself and the intrusive thought, it can be helpful to understand why these thoughts make you feel upset or afraid. This can work to prove that these thoughts are happening because of your strong values and good nature – not because you would ever commit a violent act or crime.

Are violent thoughts upsetting to you because you're a caring person? Are sexual thoughts upsetting because you're in a loving, committed relationship? Taking some time to understand why the thought upsets you can help you manage and move past it. 

3. Understand Potential Triggers

(Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash)

Intrusive thoughts feel like they come out of nowhere – and sometimes, this is the case. But if you're finding that your intrusive thoughts tend to repeat, it can be worthwhile to examine when they come up throughout your day. Keep a journal, and detail how you were feeling and what was happening before the intrusive thought occurred. Doing so may show that there are patterns that lead the intrusive thought to happen – which can help you stop it. 

4. Add Healthy Habits to Your Routine

Maintaining a positive, optimistic outlook all the time can be challenging. However, if intrusive thoughts continue to happen, adding practices into your daily routine that help cultivate a more positive mindset can help quell them.

RELATED: What Is Groupthink? How To Avoid This Common Bias

For example, if you're someone who has intrusive thoughts about health issues, adopting healthier eating habits may be one way to help curb them. Spending more time outside, practicing yoga and meditation and taking part in activities that are enjoyable to you can also make a big difference.

5. Consider Seeking Help

Intrusive thoughts are common and normal – but if they're interfering with your life, it may be necessary to get help from a professional. Group therapy sessions or working one on one with a mental health professional can help you identify intrusive thought patterns and work on coping mechanisms for when they arise. 

In the End, How Should You Handle Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts can be upsetting and hard to shake. Because these thoughts are so unusual and different from the common thoughts we have each day, they can feel paralyzing and cause confusion. When fixated on, they can become even more troubling. 

stressed young man
(Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 on Unsplash)

If you're having a hard time managing intrusive thoughts, taking steps to work through these thoughts on your own can help. Sometimes, intrusive thoughts are best dealt with by seeing a mental health professional who can work with you to help manage them.


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