How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts may be of a sexual nature, aggressive, religious, or anything that disturbs you. They can be a symptom of anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder OCD. We are going to look at what you can do to stop intrusive thoughts and images.
Intrusive thoughts also may be due to having an anxious brain - you can read more about this here.
Most of the thoughts that stream through your mind each day are not invited by you, they just happen, but they mean nothing and you do not pay much attention. With intrusive thoughts, it can feel like they have taken over your life. I’m a psychologist and specialize in anxiety disorders and am very familiar with the impact this can have on your life. I want to talk about intrusive thoughts in terms of how they can arise, the impact they have on you and what you can do.
What is an intrusive thought?
Sexual thoughts that are disturbing
These can include violent sexual acts, sex with inappropriate people or things, questioning your own sexual identity or anything thought of a sexual nature that you find disturbing. These type of thoughts can be extremely distressing as arousal is usually involved. Even though you have not carried out the act, the thought of it may cause you to feel aroused. This does not mean that it is true, it is a normal physiological response. However, most people with these types of thoughts, mistakenly believe that if they experience arousal that this must mean that the thoughts are true.
Aggressive thoughts that disturb
These may involve causing harm to yourself and/or others. Again, these thoughts are distressing as they may involve the fear that you may hurt someone, even though you have probably never hurt someone in your life. It can include an impulse to be aggressive to someone verbally or causing physical bodily harm.
Religious thoughts that disturb
These include, inappropriate sexual thoughts regarding religious people or figures. Swearing during prayer or worship. Strong urges to act inappropriately during services.
Most people that I work with find it difficult to see these as harmless thoughts. They are more than likely to see them as some sort of sign that something must be wrong with them to have such thoughts. Or even start to believe the thoughts – “Why would I be having them if I haven’t done ……..?”
They are just thoughts.
How do they start?
Take a moment and think about the different kinds of thoughts that can wander through your mind. If you find yourself in work, at a meeting and your mind wanders onto “Did I turn the dishwasher on….What will I have for dinner…?” you will not pay too much attention to this. However, if you are going about your daily business and a thought of a sexual nature that you consider disgusting or obscene pops into your head, you will pay this serious attention as it will not be just neutral. By not neutral I mean, it will probably make you feel something in your body. You might feel anxious, embarrassed, feel your face go red, screw your face up as if somehow you can shake the thought. You basically get a small stress response the first time it happens. So what does this do?
Stress Response and Intrusive Thoughts
Our brain stores potential dangerous situations for us, we want it to do this. For example, the first time you place your hand on the ring of your new stove and feel that burning pain shoot through your fingers, hand and all the nerve endings up your arm, your brain takes a note of this. In doing so, the next time you go to place your hand on the stove, your brain matches up the image of the stove with danger and pain and this hopefully stops you from repeating it.
What has this got to do with intrusive thoughts?
A lot really. When you first start having intrusive thoughts and it makes you feel something in your body, anxious, nervous, fear, shame, your brain matches the thought with the feeling. If you are a visual person, your intrusive thoughts may also be intrusive images. In this case, your brain can make a stronger link between the thought, image and feeling you get in your body – the stress response.
Neurons that fire together, wire together
You might have come across this saying before. What it means, in the context of this post, is that we can create (sort of like hard wiring) a path in our brain where the thoughts, images and how you feel in your body all connect. If they all become connected, almost anything can then act as a trigger. Whatever your disturbing intrusive thought is, everyday occurrences can cause a reaction. For example, if you keep thinking that you are going to cause harm to yourself or others, you might be cooking dinner as normal, and take a knife out of the block and the knife may act as a trigger for your thought. The vicious circle continues and expands. Now you become afraid of knives and what you might do.
None of these thoughts means that you have done or are going to do anything
Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts
In order to stop the thoughts, we need to break down associations and patterns. We need to calm down your anxiety levels and help you to accept the thoughts for what they are. They are just thoughts.
Mindfulness helps to calm down the anxiety associated with intrusive thoughts and helps to break down connections between the response you feel in your body and the thought.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, CBT will also help you to break this connection.