The average person has more than 6,000 thoughts per day.1 Some thoughts are useful: What should I make for breakfast? Some thoughts are funny: What would my dog say if he could talk? And some thoughts are not funny at all. They’re unwanted, sometimes scary, and hard to escape. These are called intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can be distressing and may be associated with a mental health condition like OCD and anxiety (though not always). Find out what causes intrusive thoughts and how to quiet your mind when they show up.
Types of Intrusive Thoughts
There are so many types of intrusive thoughts, but these are the most common:
- Harming yourself or someone else: These are some of the most frightening types of intrusive thoughts. They may be accompanied by disturbing mental images of the harm being done, causing significant anxiety and stress. Postpartum mothers are often plagued by thoughts of harming their baby. In fact, one study shows at least 70 percent of new mothers report having unwanted, intrusive thoughts about infant harm, and 50 percent imagine themselves inflicting harm.2
- Public humiliation: Whether you have a public speaking event coming up or a simple trip to the grocery store, you may worry incessantly that you are going to do something humiliating. You might trip and fall, stumble over your words, or say something inappropriate, causing the room to erupt in laughter.
- Sexual thoughts: It’s natural to think about sex from time to time, but sometimes you can become fixated on these types of thoughts. At times, they may even be taboo, disturbing, or illegal, causing shame and distress, even if you know you’d never act on them.
- Germs and illness: Concerns about getting sick or catching germs can become intrusive thoughts. Even if you’ve washed your hands and you’ve taken necessary precautions to stay well, you may worry that germs are lurking everywhere. This can lead to behaviors like excessive hand-washing or self-isolation.
- Self-doubt: Did you forget to lock the door? Did you turn off the stove? Even if you just did something moments ago, intrusive thoughts of self-doubt can convince you that you’re wrong, leading to checking, double-checking, triple-checking, etc.
- Past trauma: Sometimes intrusive thoughts will include memories of past trauma. These thoughts are typically triggered by something that reminds you of the event, like a specific place, person, object, sound, etc.
Are Intrusive Thoughts Normal?
Intrusive thoughts can happen to anyone. One study of university students across six continents found that nearly 94 percent reported having at least one intrusive thought during the previous three months.3 The most common were of the “doubting” variety. In many cases, a person will let the thought pass instead of worrying about it. But, for others, these thoughts can persist and even become more intense, no matter how hard you try to push them out of your mind. If intrusive thoughts interfere with your daily life, they may be an indicator of an anxiety disorder.
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What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
Going through a period of stress can be enough to trigger intrusive thoughts in some individuals. Other times, they may be related to a mental health disorder or another health issue.
Common causes of intrusive thoughts include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Postpartum depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Hormonal fluctuations or imbalances
- Brain injury
- Parkinson’s disease
Tips to Calming the Mind from Intrusive Thoughts
From identifying your triggers to seeing a therapist, there are a number of things you can do to quiet intrusive thoughts. But a good place to start is knowing that a thought is just a thought; it doesn’t define who you are and it isn’t necessarily true.
Learn how to get rid of intrusive thoughts with the following tips.
Becoming Aware of Your Thought Patterns: Identify the Thought as Intrusive
One way to create distance from an intrusive thought is to call it out as intrusive. To determine if a thought is intrusive ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it causing distress?
- Does it continue popping up even when you try to think of something else?
- Does it make you feel like you have to control your brain?
- Do you feel like the thought is the opposite of what you value or believe?
As you become better at identifying your intrusive thoughts, it may be helpful to remind yourself that the thought is just one of thousands you're having each day. Why assign weight to one but not another? Can you watch them pass instead?
Don’t Fight the Thought, but Ground Yourself in the Present
The renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” One of the least effective things you can do about an intrusive thought is try to push it away. This only makes the thought stronger, louder, and harder to escape. Instead, practice non-judgemental acceptance of the thought and let it pass. You may want to then try a grounding practice to root you in the present such as taking a few mindful breaths, splashing water on your face, or sniffing an essential oil.
Identify the Triggers
Knowing your triggers can help you take action to ease intrusive thoughts. This doesn’t mean avoiding your triggers though. On the contrary, facing them on purpose and provoking intrusive thoughts is a powerful way to help desensitize you and lessen their power over you. As you become more conscious of your triggers, you will feel more empowered to react differently to them. You will also feel more equipped to prepare for them. For women, hormonal shifts around one’s menstrual period can trigger intrusive thoughts.4 Knowing this can help you practice more self-care around your cycle.
Implement Positive Changes in Daily Routines
Sometimes your triggers reflect opportunities for change in your day-to-day life. For instance, maybe you struggle with intrusive thoughts most when you’re tired; could prioritizing your sleep help? Maybe stress brings them on. If so, then it may be worth exploring how you can reduce stress in our life through lifestyle changes.
Tweaking your daily routine to include healthy lifestyle practices like eating well, getting enough sleep, controlling screen time, and practicing mindfulness are all important ways to help ease stress and anxiety which can lead to intrusive thoughts.
It may also be helpful to explore how you have been coping with intrusive thoughts. Many people will “take the edge off” with a daily glass of wine (or several glasses) or some other substance. While the effects may be initially comforting, when it becomes a habit, the intrusive thoughts can get significantly worse. Extensive research shows that heavy alcohol consumption can take a severe psychological and physiological toll on the mind and body and may actually exacerbate episodes of stress and anxiety, if not contribute to them entirely.
Meditation, Exercise, or Therapy
Meditating regularly has been shown to be as effective at reducing anxiety as prescription anti-anxiety drugs.5 The practice helps to ground you in the present moment, which can be helpful when your mind is too often carried away by intrusive thoughts. In fact, one study found that meditators had more stability in the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering.6
Exercise is another way to be grounded in your physical body and disrupt problematic thought processes. One study by Ana Abrantes, Ph.D., found that aerobic exercise and even certain forms of yoga can help ease symptoms of OCD, including intrusive thoughts, images, and compulsions.7
You can also work with a therapist to devise strategies for dealing with intrusive thoughts. A therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may even try the technique we mentioned above, which suggests provoking intrusive thoughts to learn healthier coping skills. This is a type of exposure therapy.
OTC Pills to Help with Intrusive Thoughts
If you still need more support, medication is worth exploring. But you don’t have to start with prescription medication, which carries side effects like drowsiness, upset stomach, dizziness, and dependency. While prescription medication is valuable and helpful for many individuals, we recommend seeing it as a last resort after gentler routes have been exhausted.
This is where Brillia can help. Free from harsh, synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia is a non-prescription medication clinically proven to reduce stress, anxiety, irritability, impulsivity, and restlessness. Brillia is available without an official diagnosis, but it has worked for people with a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD, PTSD, OCD, ODD, autism, or just anxiety. Our holistic approach combines antibody science with behavior modification for a long-term strategy that works. Unlike prescription drugs commonly used for anxiety disorders, Brillia will not cause drowsiness, upset stomach, or mask the personality in any way.
Find more tips and resources on managing anxiety at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.
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