How To Actually Deal With Intrusive Thoughts, According To Experts
Ever lie awake at night and surprise yourself with a thought that you just can't shake? Dealing with stressful thoughts can feel super isolating, but it turns out, it's really common. It's something that almost everyone has to go through, and there are lots of techniques to make it easier.
"Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that come into our consciousness or awareness that we don’t want, don’t, like, or cause us distress," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Web Radio show, tells Bustle. "They are thoughts that 'break' into our experience without our desire for them to be there." It's upsetting in and of itself to have a thought you feel that you can't control, but it can be particularly distressing due to the nature of these thoughts.
"Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts," Dr. Klapow says. "From the thought of an exam paper that is due, to the thought of an argument you had with your partner, to the thought of a car crash you witnessed — they can be irritating to horrific [and] they represent something — an experience that is having an impact on you." But while they can't be prevented completely, there are techniques you can use to help them happen less and to make them less distressing when they do happen.
Here are eight ways to actually deal with intrusive thoughts, according to experts.
1. Let It Flow By
Intrusive thoughts are the most upsetting when you give them power over how they make you feel. But there are ways to control how you experience your reaction to these thoughts, like letting them flow by.
"Intrusive thoughts become more distressing the more we try to make them stop," Dr. Klapow says. "The act of trying to stop them actually makes them more readily available in our brains and thus they are likely to return. Allowing the thought to happen allows it to run its course and as distressing as it may be it will come and it will go. Using self-talk to coach your way through the process is key. 'Here is the thought — I’m not going to focus on it, I’m going to let it pass.'" Knowing this can help that upsetting thought carry less weight in your mind.
"There is a Zen saying, your thoughts may visit but don't serve them tea ... As we stop trying to grasp at our thoughts and fondling them by getting preoccupied, they get less frequent," Perpetua Neo, executive coach and clinical psychologist tells Bustle. There's strength in not giving these thoughts power.
2. Focus On Something Else
There's a big difference between distraction and refocusing your energy. And the latter can be really helpful when you want a break from intrusive thoughts.
First, try to forgive yourself. "Stop beating yourself up for having intrusive thoughts," Neo says. "If anything, that fuels fear and anxiety, and makes everything worse. The sooner we can accept that that's how your brain is wired for now, the faster you can work on building another muscle of grounded wisdom." Then, find an activity (coloring, maybe?) that can bring your mental energy to a different, less stressful, place.
"[Try to engage] mentally in something else," Dr. Klapow says. "Intrusive thoughts often come to us when our brains are quiet, or when they are over-taxed and stressed. When there is nothing going on or too much going on the intrusive thoughts are triggered. By finding an activity that fully engulfs our concentration, the thoughts often move to the background. Music, movies, a conversation with someone, a sport, hobby, or activity can engage our brain in something else." Refocusing can be quite calming and even potentially healing.
3. Know What Triggers The Thoughts
Learning what triggers your thoughts is more of a prevention tactic, but it can also work to make you feel safer as the thoughts are happening and you learn to take note of them. "Intrusive thoughts are not completely random," Dr. Klapow says. "Often they are triggered by either the environmental situation or our internal state. Learn what situations bring up the thoughts (are you in doors or outdoors, do you have deadlines at work, are you driving at night) and what state you are in that trigger them (tired, hungry, sad, stressed)." This is another way to avoid the stress of trying to stop the thoughts.
Instead, you can say, "I feel stressed today, and there's loud music next door." Take note, either mentally or on paper, and you'll feel more prepared for next time.
4. Talk To The Thought
Actually talking to your thoughts is a way of acknowledging their presence and putting yourself back in control.
"Trying to push a thought away only adds fuel to the fire," Kevin Hyde, licensed psychologist tells Bustle. "When we tell ourselves not to think of something, it leads to a rebound effect, making the thought even stronger." So, to let that thought free, acknowledge it up front.
"Talk to the thoughts: Say, 'I see you thought, you are OK, I love you, but I'm not listening to you,'" Jasmin Terrany, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) tells Bustle. This technique shows both self-love and compassion for the way your brain works. And love and compassion can be critical to mitigating tough feelings of distress and discomfort.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is great stuff all around. But it can be particularly useful when you're trying to regain mental control after you've experienced unwanted thoughts. "[Try] mindfulness practices to observe where your mind goes, which can often quiet these intrusive thoughts" Terrany says. These practices are an active way to refocus and repair.
"If you allow it, the intrusive thought could carry you away on an hour-long emotional journey," Hyde says. "After acknowledging the thought's presence, spend 5 minutes noticing things in the room. By exploring things around the room like you've never seen them before, describing their color, texture, shadows, [etcetera], you are keeping your mind in the present moment and making it more difficult to get carried away by the intrusive thought. Anytime you notice the thought has taken you away, simply acknowledge it again and return to noticing the room." When you become fully engaged in the moment, it may become more clear to you that your thoughts are not your reality. Plus, we can all use a little bit of mindfulness these days.
6. Remind Yourself That It's Just A Thought
Another way to reclaim your power over an unwanted thought is to remind yourself that it's just that — a thought. "A thought in and of itself has no power. It's ephemeral," Hyde says. "You have thousands of thoughts every day that you don't even notice because they come and go so quickly. Intrusive thoughts have power because they raise emotions that we dislike, so we try to push them away. By remembering that a thought itself cannot hurt you, you are more likely to let the thought exist without altering your behavior." Knowing that you have the ability to prevent some of the distress can be super empowering.
"Intrusive thoughts are distressing because you believe them. Remember, just because you think it, doesn't mean it's true," Terrany says. It's totally natural to have these kinds of thoughts, but remember that these thoughts don't represent reality.
7. Reach Out To A Friend
Because these thoughts are unwanted and sometimes taboo, it can be hard to bring up your experience with them to someone you're friends with. Hopefully, knowing that they happen to everyone can be a helpful first step. After that, reaching out to a friend is a really good option.
"If you're noticing a certain thought is regularly making it difficult to function, it may be helpful to find someone you trust to speak with," Hyde says. "Being able to open up and share what you're going through can help you feel validated, and it's also a way to face the difficult thought while maintaining control. You are able to decide how to describe it, but you're not avoiding it. Avoidance is the main thing that maintains the power contained by an intrusive thought." Plus, there's can be some humor and major catharsis in sharing your most out-there thoughts with a friend who's experienced it too.
8. Check In With A Professional
Most importantly, it's always valid to go check in with a professional if need be. Of course, you can seek help any time it feels right, but if your intrusive thoughts are negatively affecting your daily life, professional assistance is your best bet.
"If it gets to the point where the intrusive thought is effecting your ability to work, go to school, manage your day to day activities it has crossed over from being an irritant to a significant life problem," Dr. Klapow says. "At this point it is important to get help with the management of the thought. It is very hard to when an intrusive thought is impacting your life to manage it alone. The severity of the impact means that something is going on. It may be an unresolved trauma response, it may be an anxiety disorder, and it may be a grief response that has not processed. If you can’t manage it yourself get help from a mental health professional." A good professional will be judgement-free and totally equipped to handle your symptoms. Plus, there are way more kinds of therapy out there than you might think.
While there's nothing out of the ordinary about having intrusive thoughts, it's completely rational to be upset by them and to want to get help. Whether that means practicing more mindfulness, some therapy, or both, it's largely about forgiving yourself for the thoughts and finding ways for them to take up less space in your mind. "Remind yourself that having intrusive thoughts is a normal human experience," Hyde says. "When you give yourself permission to experience a thought without being captured by it, you take away much of the power that thought contains." Knowing that you're in control, or that you can, eventually, regain control, is vital.