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  • Writer's pictureSinéad Nolan

How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

There is great popular interest in neuroscience and the workings of the human brain, but the thoughts we have and why we have them remains, largely, a mystery. What we do all know is that our thoughts can range from humdrum to downright weird. With our brain moving so fast they can change in the blink of an eye. For instance, you can be standing on a train platform thinking about what to eat for dinner when suddenly the thought pops in, ‘What if I push the stranger beside me out in front of the train?’ You can be working on a quarterly report for work when you suddenly, out of nowhere, picture your brother-in-law naked wearing a Santa hat! You may even find yourself carrying your baby and wondering, ‘What if I throw her down the stairs?’

These thoughts we find weird, surprising or deeply uncomfortable, especially when they don’t follow our usual patterns of thinking, are deemed ‘intrusive’ thoughts. These thoughts can take many forms and often pop up when we least expect it. Often ideas of a violent or sexual nature, these thoughts have no relation to intention or ever meaning to do them.

Yet intrusive thoughts are surprisingly common. Statistics from show that 4 out of 5 people have intrusive thoughts on a regular basis. For one in fifty, these thoughts get stuck on a loop and won’t go away so the person will often compulsively try to make them stop. Common compulsions to try to control the thoughts include: washing hands, turning on and off a light switch or avoiding certain situations. Long term sufferers of intrusive thoughts will often try to keep the socially unacceptable thoughts a secret for fear of judgement or reprisal. So how can you cope if you have intrusive thoughts that won’t go away?

Here are five ways to better understand intrusive thoughts

1. Think of Your Brain as a Roulette Wheel

Think of the brain as an ideas generator or a roulette wheel that could stop anywhere. Sometimes the ideas it generates may be unpleasant. How your brain focuses on these ideas is what makes the difference. Avoiding situations and following compulsions to ‘check’ things can lead to life-limiting behaviours, which is detrimental to your long-term freedom and happiness. Try not to give in to the temptation to check things or avoid certain situations surrounding the thought. When your brain lands on a thought, reflect for a moment that it was a strange thought, then move on.

2. Reduce Embarrassment

‘What if someone finds out about my thought? What does this mean about me as a person?’ These are common worries for a person who has experienced intrusive thoughts. After all, intrusive thoughts can be downright embarrassing! The thoughts that get stuck are usually in conflict with our true beliefs and can feature ideas of harming someone weaker than ourselves. Usually, people do not obsess about thoughts of being too nice to people or of giving their money away to charity. Understanding intrusive thoughts and speaking about them with others can reduce this embarrassment.

3. Allow Yourself a Break

Are you the type of person who always does the right thing? Do your friends often refer to your diligent or perfectionist nature? If so you might be a prime candidate for having intrusive thoughts. While it is thought that the cause of intrusive thoughts is the result of a combination of factors, shared characteristics between sufferers are that they tend to have a heightened sense of responsibility and interpret these thoughts as being very important and significant.

4. Practice Mindfulness

As the old adage goes: try to not think about a polar bear in the corner, and a polar bear is all you can think of. Similarly, with intrusive thoughts, as soon as you put effort into trying to forget them, they will likely come into your head more often. Try to see your thoughts as cars driving past on a road and don’t focus on any one of them in particular. Breathing, meditation, yoga and mindfulness can all help with reducing intrusive or stressful thoughts.

5. Speak with a Therapist

When intrusive thoughts become a recurring problem, they may need treatment from a therapist or doctor. They can be treated with medication which acts by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They can also be defused by talking therapies which can work on the shame and on the behaviours which result from intrusive thoughts. Research has shown that 75% of people with OCD are significantly helped by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which can focus on challenging core beliefs, changing how ideas are processed and on changing behaviours.

Top Tips for Coping with Intrusive Thoughts:

* Practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga or dance.

* See a therapist – talking can help alleviate the shame around the thoughts and bring the worst thoughts and fears out into the daylight, and help you to feel less alone with them.

* Chat with a trusted friend about the thoughts – you may find you’re not the only one to have them. * Read up on the subject. Knowing and being educated on what causes them can help you feel more in control. * Try to go into situations you might usually avoid. * Keep in mind, at the end of the day, a thought is just a thought, not an action.

Prior to qualifying as a counsellor, Sinéad Nolan obtained a degree in Creative Writing and a Masters in Newspaper Journalism. She holds an Advanced Diploma in Humanistic Integrative Counselling from CPPD Counselling School in London. To book an appointment, please go to Contact me.

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