Managing intrusive thoughts

Dealing with overwhelming and distressing thoughts can be difficult, but knowing how to handle them can make a big difference to how you feel. Learn why you might be experiencing intrusive thoughts and strategies that can help you manage them.

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13 min read
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What are intrusive thoughts?

You know those random thoughts that sometimes pop into your head? They can be really weird, like imagining something bad happening or picturing yourself doing something you'd never do. Most of us will experience these thoughts, think ‘that was odd’, shrug it off, and continue with our day.

Unlike these passing or fleeting thoughts, intrusive thoughts tend to stick around. They can often repeat themselves, even when you try to push them away. Such thoughts can disrupt our thinking, affect our daily life, and cause us a lot of distress.

Imagine you're trying to focus on something important, like preparing for a job interview, but these intrusive thoughts keep barging in. They might say things like, "you’re going to say something offensive" or "you're never going to succeed." These thoughts can be quite unsettling. They can make you feel anxious or upset. They can even make it feel impossible to continue with tasks you’re trying to complete.

Intrusive thoughts can often be about things that are considered taboo or inappropriate. For example, you might have thoughts of hurting someone you love, although you would never actually want to do that. Even though they come out of nowhere, and you have no control over them, they might make you feel guilty or ashamed.

How common are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are quite common. Research has shown that most people experience them at some point. In fact, 9 out of 10 people experience intrusive thoughts at least once in their life. So, if you’ve ever found yourself dealing with these strange, unwanted or even unsettling thoughts, remember that you are not alone.

Intrusive thoughts can range from passing thoughts that come and go to persistent thoughts that hang around longer.

The specific content of these thoughts can be different from person to person. But there are some common themes people report, such as:

  • Thoughts about germs, infection, bacteria or other types of contamination
  • Thoughts about health, medical conditions, or illness in general
  • Thoughts about self-harm, violent acts, or harming others
  • Thoughts about doing or saying something embarrassing in front of others
  • Doubting thoughts, such as worrying about making mistakes, missing deadlines, and being judged
  • Thoughts that are sexual, religious, or immoral in nature
  • Getting stuck on thoughts and memories from past painful experiences.

What do intrusive thoughts feel like?

Experiencing intrusive thoughts can be a deeply personal and emotional experience. They might cause different feelings in different people. So how can we distinguish if we are experiencing a normal thought compared to an intrusive one?

Everyone might experience intrusive thoughts differently. They may vary in content, intensity and frequency. But some common feelings that people have reported when experiencing intrusive thoughts include:

  • Feeling like the thoughts are very hard or impossible to control, and you can’t stop them even though you want to
  • Feeling as though the thoughts are ‘on a constant loop’ in your mind, repetitively coming and going
  • Feeling like the thoughts go against your ‘normal’ ways of thinking. Feeling like a bad person for even having them
  • Feeling like the thoughts are controlling you rather than you controlling them.

As intrusive thoughts intensify, they can focus on distressing concepts or behaviours that may trouble you. When these thoughts start to dominate your mind, they can negatively affect your daily life and wellbeing.

  • Natural brain activity

    Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of the human thought process. They can occur because our brains are constantly active, generating many thoughts throughout the day.

  • Unresolved emotions or stress

    Intrusive thoughts can arise when we have unresolved emotions or are under significant stress. They might signal we have underlying feelings or worries that need our attention. But you don't have to face distressing emotions alone. With the right support and resources, you can find relief and start to feel better.

  • Traumatic experiences

    Past traumatic experiences can also contribute to intrusive thoughts. They can show up as a way to understand and make sense of the traumatic events we experienced. Remember, healing is possible, and with the help of qualified professionals, you can work through past traumas and find ways to cope with intrusive thoughts effectively.

  • Fatigue or lack of sleep

    Lack of sleep or fatigue can affect our brain’s functioning. When we're tired, our minds may struggle to filter out unwanted thoughts. This is why we are more likely to experience intrusive thoughts.

  • Hormonal shifts

    At least 50% of women have experienced increased intrusive thoughts during pregnancy and after childbirth. One reason might be the significant hormonal changes the body goes through during this intense experience. It might also be caused by the life changes that happen with a newborn in the home, lack of sleep being a big one.

  • Loneliness and isolation

    Spending a lot of time alone could lead to intrusive thoughts, especially following the pandemic. For example, you might experience intrusive thoughts as you socialise with others because you’re worried about what they might think of you.

Intrusive thoughts can also be a symptom of some mental health conditions, such as:

Experiencing intrusive thoughts doesn't necessarily mean that you have a mental health condition. But if you notice other symptoms along with your intrusive thoughts, it’s important to reach out to someone who can support you, such as your GP. Here are some things to look out for which might help you make up your mind about whether you want to seek support:

  • Repetitive behaviours: If you find yourself repeating behaviours or rituals as a response to your intrusive thoughts.
  • Low mood: If you’re constantly feeling sad, hopeless, or finding yourself less interested in activities you used to love.
  • Social withdrawal: If you avoid social interactions or are struggling with relationships due to your intrusive thoughts.
  • Acting on thoughts: If you start acting on your intrusive thoughts or having thoughts of harming yourself or others, seek immediate help from a healthcare professional or emergency services.

If you've noticed that any of these are true for you, it might be a good idea to seek support. A good place to start is having a conversation with your GP.

How do I stop intrusive thoughts?

You might have noticed that trying to stop or ignore intrusive thoughts can actually make them stronger. It's like when someone tells you not to think about a pink elephant, and suddenly, that's all you can think about!

Instead of trying to stop these thoughts, it's more helpful to focus on making them less overwhelming and managing how we react to them.

Managing intrusive thoughts is about taking control back from them so they don't control us. Just knowing that these thoughts are more common than we think can make a big difference in how we handle them.

This knowledge can help us realise that these thoughts don't define us or reflect our true selves.

To better manage intrusive thoughts, we can try different techniques, such as mindfulness or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Or we can try reframing them in a more positive light. Seeking support from mental health professionals can also provide valuable guidance.

Remember, changing our relationship with these thoughts is a process. With practice, we can learn to respond to intrusive thoughts in a way that reduces their impact on our daily lives and our wellbeing.

What can I do right now?

Dealing with overwhelming and distressing intrusive thoughts can be difficult. Here are some practical suggestions you can try right away to help manage your intrusive thoughts:

  • Acknowledge and accept the thoughts

    When intrusive thoughts arise, remind yourself that they are just thoughts and not an accurate reflection of who you are.

    By acknowledging and accepting them as passing thoughts, you can reduce their power over you. Remind yourself that the thoughts are just thoughts - you don’t need to fear them or act on them.

    For example, say to yourself, "These are just passing thoughts. They don't define me, and I control whether or not I act on them."

You can read more about Acceptance Commitment Therapy here:

  • Practice thought labelling
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Engage in activities
  • Practice self-care

What can I do in the future?

Managing intrusive thoughts long-term is about understanding the strategies that work best for you and building on these strategies.

The same things don’t always work for everyone. It’s worth spending time trialling different techniques, keeping a record of how well they help, and returning to them when needed.

If you feel like intrusive thoughts are taking over your life or worsening, there are other long-term strategies you can try:

  • Speak with a psychologist

    Speaking with a psychologist is a great step to get some extra long-term support for managing intrusive thoughts.

    A psychologist can:

    • Provide you with expert guidance and support tailored to your own individual experience with intrusive thoughts
    • Teach you techniques to manage your intrusive thoughts. This may include introducing you to strategies such as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which have been proven to be effective in the management of intrusive thoughts
    • Help you to understand why you may be experiencing intrusive thoughts. They can work with you to explore any underlying causes, such as past trauma or anxiety.

    By working alongside a psychologist, you can gain valuable support, learn effective techniques, and understand the causes of your intrusive thoughts.

  • Speak with someone you trust
  • Connect with others

Remember that everyone's journey is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It may take time to find the strategies that resonate with you. Be patient with yourself, and don't hesitate to explore different approaches until you find what works best for you.

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