October 28, 2022

Navigating Intrusive Thoughts

By Amanda Brandimore

Mental Health & Wellbeing

We all have thoughts that pop into our head from time to time that seem to come from nowhere. You’re in the middle of something stressful at work, and you think, “What if I dropped everything right now and hopped on a plane to Hawaii?” Or, you’re stuck in traffic, and you think, “What if, instead of driving cars, the way everybody got around was by hovercraft?” These thoughts are pretty harmless and may even give us a moment of relief from the drudgery of whatever we’re doing. We call these intrusive thoughts. They usually float into our minds and just as easily float out when someone or something grabs our attention. 

But what about when the thoughts that float in aren’t so harmless? Sometimes they are about something horrible happening to ourselves or someone we love. Sometimes they are thoughts that we ourselves might do something unthinkable to a pet or to a loved one. Sometimes they are thoughts that we might do something gross like lick the pavement or stick our hand in the toilet. They can come in many forms, but these thoughts feel different. They feel embarrassing, or gross, or terrifying, and we try to push them away. We may even start to wonder if there is something wrong with us because of these thoughts, so we fight even harder to push them away. Or we may wonder, “What if I lose control and actually do these things that pop into my head?” Pretty soon, these thoughts get stuck and no matter what we do, we can’t seem to get rid of them. These are what we call unwanted intrusive thoughts.

Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts

There are several things that make these thoughts sticky, but they stick in large part because we fight them. When we are afraid of what the thoughts mean, or of what they might make us do, we fight them. Fear can give us incredible ability to resist and fight back. The journey of dealing with unwanted intrusive thoughts is hard work and doesn’t happen overnight. An important first step is understanding what we are up against. Here are some important truths that are talked about in greater depth and with more skill in the book, Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts by Winston and Seif. 

Thoughts are just thoughts

Just because they pop into your head, doesn’t make them important, or worth paying attention to. Some thoughts are important and deserve time and energy. Other thoughts aren’t that important and deserve to be observed as they float on by. The trick is discerning which category a thought falls into.

The content of your thoughts doesn’t mean something terrible about you

You have no more control over what thought pops into your head than what the weather will be like today. You have control over what you do with those thoughts once they come, but the fact that they come doesn’t mean anything worrying or terrible about you. In fact, the fact that they worry you means they probably aren’t compatible with the type of person you are and the values you hold.

If you struggle with sticky thoughts, it can be overwhelming and exhausting. You might even feel that you have no one you can talk to who will understand. Know that you are not alone. Many people go through the same thing and there is hope. Talk to your therapist about it, and if you don’t have one yet, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Optimum Joy for the support you may be looking for!

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