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  • Writer's pictureBritt

Managing Intrusive Thoughts

Updated: Apr 2

Do you or a loved one struggle with intrusive thoughts? You may be entitled to compensation...

Just kidding, sadly.


But, seriously, intrusive thoughts are such a struggle to live with. They make you feel insane and horrible most of the time. The dangerous part of intrusive thoughts is that most people mix them up with impulsive thoughts, which are something completely different. If the people who actually had intrusive thoughts spoke them out loud or did them (they are intrusive because we don't want to do them!), we would be looked at like we need to visit an insane asylum or even prison.

As someone who struggles daily with intrusive thoughts, I know just how tiring and upsetting they can be, and I understand how frustrating it is when someone mixes up intrusive and impulsive thoughts. So what is the difference? What causes them? And how can we learn to manage them?

Difference Between Impulsive and Intrusive

Impulsive thoughts are conceptions that enter into a person's mind without any prodding from what's happening around you. They can be inappropriate, such as slamming the plate you're holding onto the ground to watch it break. Impulsive thoughts are rather easy to dismiss, laugh off, and never think of again. They normally begin in childhood when impulse control is low. This is why children often have temper tantrums, bite or hit others, scream, etc. You might have the impulse to stick your face in a cake (I saw that on TikTok. I believe they even labeled it correctly as an impulsive thought). It's impulsive because normally you wouldn't do something like that, but it might be fun to do even if there are consequences later on—like a messed up cake, a dirty face or table, a sad family member, etc. It's a little inappropriate, depending on where you are. If you made it specifically for that reason, by all means, stick your face in it and have a blast! But if your mom made it for your little sister's birthday, hopefully, you will laugh at the thought but dismiss it before you make your sister sad (unless your sister blew your candles out last year, then maybe you want a little light revenge).


Intrusive thoughts are a lot less light-hearted and a lot more inappropriate. They can be dark, scary, gross, and everything bad that we don't want to think about. Intrusive thoughts are undesired images or ideas that enter our thoughts spontaneously or as a result of cues, whether they are internal or external. The biggest difference is that intrusive thoughts provoke emotional distress; they cause pain and agony, guilt and disgust; they make the person think they are bad. The more you try to dismiss them and get them to go away, the more they linger and the stronger they get. It's a cycle of shame and embarrassment as they keep coming up no matter how often you tell them to leave. Most individuals hesitate to discuss them because of how concerning the intrusive thoughts are.

Some examples would be causing an accident by swerving off the road, stabbing a loved one as you're holding a knife to cut a piece of dessert, and having sexual thoughts that are far inappropriate or even illegal even though you would never, ever want to do that in real life. The list goes on. And sadly, the more you tell them to stop, the stronger they appear. Ignoring them doesn't help. Intrusive thoughts are reoccurring and will come and go as they please. Thankfully, there are ways you can learn how to manage them and lessen the emotional distress you feel when they pop up.


Driving down a dark road with the intrusive thought to swerve
Driving Down a Dark Road

Causes

Some intrusive thoughts might not have a cause. They can show up at random. However, most of the time, they are triggered by internal or external cues. For example, if you are struggling with doubt, an intrusive thought might be, "I suck, no one likes me, I can't do anything right," etc. That would be internal. An external example would be if you got a bad grade on a paper, the intrusive thought could lead you right to "I'm going to be homeless and die alone on the streets."

Everyone can get intrusive thoughts every once in a while; it's quite normal. It becomes a little more serious if they start interfering with daily life. If someone feels guilty about them or even fears them or feels like they need to start controlling their thoughts, then it would be a good idea to talk to a doctor because there might be an underlying mental health cause.

There are a few conditions that include intrusive thoughts as one of their symptoms: OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and Eating Disorders (bulimia, anorexia, etc.). You might not have one of these if you struggle with intrusive thoughts. Other mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc, may lead you to struggle with intrusive thoughts. Research has even said that an overactive imagination can lead to intrusive thoughts.

So, basically, anything and everything can lead to intrusive thoughts (and it is normal occasionally!!). When it becomes daily, and you struggle with guilt, fear, or control, it's time to talk to someone.

Managing those Pesky, Intrusive Thoughts

So, yes, we've learned that intrusive thoughts come and go as they please - like a stray cat (but I like those or a spider that I keep finding in random places in my house).

You might try to put on protective gear by telling yourself to ignore those thoughts (and that spider). You might even try thinking, "Don't think about it, don't think about it..." but it always comes back no matter how hard you try, which gets frustrating.

I have some good news for you! There are ways we can start managing intrusive thoughts.

The best way is to reduce your sensitivity to those thoughts and their contents. There is medication you can take—not specifically for intrusive thoughts—but if you have an underlying cause like anxiety, ADHD, or OCD, you can take medication prescribed by a doctor. That medication won't take intrusive thoughts away completely, but it will lessen them and help reduce the impact on you.

CBT or Cognitive-Behavorial Therapy can have a helpful impact on your intrusive thoughts. Any therapy is good—get talking about your feelings—but CBT is specifically used to target your way of thinking and change it to a healthier way. You'll learn ways of thinking that can lessen your sensitivity to those thoughts, and if you have any triggers, those may get exposed, and you can learn how to react to them differently in a way that doesn't cause intrusive thoughts.

Self-care is probably the biggest step in learning how to manage your intrusive thoughts. Instead of trying (and failing) to ignore them, you are going to acknowledge that they are there. You will start by purposefully recognizing that they are thoughts. You will learn to label them for what they truly are and recognize that they are not the same as intent or behavior. Just because that thought is in your head does not mean you want or intend to do that, nor do you want to think that thought. It's just there, and it holds no importance. This may help reduce the frequency and intensity of those thoughts.

Self-care, self-care, self-care! So, so important, even if you don't struggle with intrusive thoughts. Self-care can mean the difference between thriving and burning out. Self-care specific for intrusive thoughts was mentioned above (recap: telling your thoughts to bugger off — actually, it's to recognize them as thoughts and that they are not the same as intent or behavior).

There are many other types of self-care, too. I'll probably write a blog post detailing more of them, but I'll list some here in case you want to do some research to find what helps you best. Take a walk, sit in the sun, read a book or watch a movie, eat a healthy meal, drink water (hydration is key to a healthy life!), get lots of sleep, take a relaxing shower or bath, exercise (for those of you like me — uuuugh — but it is healthy and really does make your mental health, well, healthier), have a cuppa tea (or coffee because as much as I want to, I just cannot get myself to like tea *sigh*), etc.

Whatever you do—whether you take my advice or not—I want you to stop blaming yourself for those thoughts. They are not your fault. They are not reflections of your true desires. Stop feeling guilty and stop beating yourself up over them (I know, I know, it's easier said than done, believe me). Give yourself some love and a break. Remember: they are just thoughts; they are not the same as intent, behavior, or desire.











For the suicide and crisis lifeline, dial 988.


— Live well and laugh often, Ravens. Signing off for now, Hyperactive Raven <3



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