What are Intrusive Thoughts

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Whether it’s the voice that creeps into your head right before a job interview telling you that you’re not good enough, or the uneasy feeling that your friends don’t really like you, intrusive thoughts can be upsetting and very damaging.

While intrusive thoughts are often more intense for those struggling with anxiety and depression, they can and do happen to anyone. They can have a hugely detrimental effect on our mental health and quality of life.

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Different Types of Intrusive Thoughts

Examples of intrusive thoughts include upsetting thoughts of family and friends getting hurt, and negative self-talk.

It’s important to remember that intrusive thoughts are very common, but they do still need addressing if they are causing you distress and upset. 

The most common type of intrusive thought is probably the most distressing. These thoughts include imagining family and friends coming to harm, often picturing ourselves doing something to hurt our loved ones.These thoughts vary in their intensity, and often make us feel like awful people!

Negative self talk is another type of intrusive thought. Many people deal with negative self talk on a daily basis. Your mind may tell you that no one likes you, that you’re not good enough at your job, or that you’re a terrible mother or father.

These thoughts feel very real, and we’ll often end up looking for corroboration in our own experience.

If a friend is slightly more aloof than usual, we may tell ourselves it’s because they don’t like our personality. It’s unlikely that we’ll even consider they are simply having a bad day!

Intrusive Thoughts - different types
Intrusive thoughts can vary from person to person.

Intrusive Thoughts are Normal

We cannot stress enough that intrusive thoughts are completely normal, and they even have a function. Thoughts of being responsible for harming someone else can make us adjust our behaviour.

We may drive a little slower, or be extra careful to turn the oven off after making dinner. While slight behaviour adjustments are helpful, intrusive thoughts need dealing with if they begin to negatively impact your life and mental health. 

The catch-22 is that as many people are ashamed of their intrusive thoughts, they won’t admit they have them to anyone else. This leads to us thinking that no one else feels the same way.

But surprisingly enough, intrusive thoughts have an evolutionary purpose and they can help keep us and others safe. Thoughts of running over a pedestrian can often be eased if you watch your speed behind the wheel. Thoughts of leaving the oven on and burning down your house and all its contents may encourage you to double check the oven is switched off before going to bed!

Negative self talk also has a purpose, and these thoughts can help us avoid harm or embarrassment. Telling ourselves we’re not good enough for the job we’re interviewing for will make us reconsider our decision to even interview. By not even attending the interview, we’ve saved ourselves the pain of rejection.

While these slight behaviour adjustments are helpful, they can eventually become damaging. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often develops as a result of thoughts of harming yourself or those around you, while a total lack of confidence and anxiety is the sad result of negative self talk.

Intrusive Thoughts - Normal
Intrusive thoughts are completely normal and happen to everybody

How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts

The first step is to recognise your thoughts as just normal, unwanted thoughts. They have no meaning in the real world.

A regular mindfulness practice can help you develop the self-awareness needed to recognise when an intrusive thought appears.

For those struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or anxiety as a result of intrusive thoughts, speaking to a professional is highly recommended. 

Understand that they are Only Thoughts

Understanding intrusive thoughts is the best way to deal with them. Intrusive thoughts are damaging because we believe them – and they can be very convincing. No one knows your mind better than, well, your mind! We know exactly what to say to ourselves to make ourselves believe and feel a certain way.

A regular mindfulness practice can help us recognise intrusive thoughts for what they are – simply thoughts. Once you understand that intrusive thoughts are stories created by your own mind, with absolutely no validity in the real world, you’ll put yourself in a far better position to deal with them. Even if you don’t necessarily believe the thought to start with, the niggling feeling is hard to shake off, and you’ll soon start looking for evidence to corroborate a specific thought. 

In most cases, pushing a thought away isn’t effective. In fact, this tends to make them worse. Trying to ignore the thought can make it stronger, leading to more stress and anxiety. 

Acknowledge them 

Instead, the best way to handle intrusive thoughts is to acknowledge them. Mindfulness is a fantastic tool and can help you develop the self awareness needed to recognise when an intrusive thought enters your mind – before it has time to take hold. 

A regular meditation practice is a great way to take control of intrusive thoughts. Meditation isn’t about controlling the thoughts that enter your mind. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the thought and moving on. This skill can help you hugely when it comes to dealing with distressing thoughts. You’ll soon find it easier to separate your real experiences from what your mind is telling you. 

While acknowledging your intrusive thoughts can be difficult and distressing, mindfulness is extremely helpful. You’ll learn to both notice the thought, and any behaviour adjustments you make to accommodate it. 

While a daily mindfulness practice is invaluable when it comes to dealing with intrusive thoughts, if you are struggling to live a normal life, professional help is highly recommended. 

Key Facts

  1. Even the most confident and self-assured people will experience damaging intrusive thoughts. They are extremely common and happen to everyone.

  2. Intrusive thoughts consist of random thoughts of harming yourself and others, as well as negative self talk.

  3. These thoughts have a purpose, helping to keep us and others free from harm.

  4. However, they can also be very damaging, leading to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety, depression and a lack of self-belief.

  5. The first step towards dealing with intrusive thoughts is to understand them for what they are – simple thoughts with no validity in the real world.

  6. A daily mindfulness practice can help to heighten your awareness, allowing you to separate your true experiences from what your mind is telling you.

  7. There’s a number of resources on offer for those who struggle with intrusive thoughts, so please talk to a professional if you start to feel overwhelmed.

Griff Williams

MindEasy founder & meditation teacher

Griff Williams is an accredited meditation teacher and founder of MindEasy. He spent 12 years working as a London firefighter before changing paths to pursue building MindEasy. He received his diploma in meditation teaching from The British School of Meditation.