Unfortunately, our minds don't always focus on pleasant things. Do you ever struggle with intrusive thoughts when you're trying to relax or focus?
Perhaps your brain throws up unpleasant and strange images, for example, or maybe it reminds you of some of the most disturbing stories you’ve ever heard.
In some cases, negative and unwanted thoughts can cause significant emotional distress and interfere with your ability to fully engage with life. But what can do you do about them?
We'll look at intrusive thoughts in considerable depth, beginning by defining what they actually are. We'll differentiate between obsessive and intrusive thoughts, explore whether it's normal to experience either, and look at what they might be trying to tell you.
From there, we'll move on to look at some of the most common forms of intrusive thoughts. We'll then focus on outlining four techniques that will help you beat unwanted negative thoughts once and for all.
Intrusive thoughts can be defined as any unwanted thoughts. They are sometimes automatic negative thoughts that crop up in response to specific triggers, but many also seem to come out of nowhere.
Such thoughts can take many different forms. Often, they'll be strange, embarrassing, and disturbing. The sort of thoughts that you might struggle to share with anyone except your therapist.
In the most severe cases, they can make you feel ashamed, or concerned about your own mental stability.
The main themes that crop up in intensive thoughts relate to flouting widely agreed norms of decency in some way (though we’ll come back to examples of intrusive thinking in more depth shortly).
Now, where do these sorts of thoughts come from? One popular psychological explanation refers to what is called the “shadow self”. Which is the darker half of your personality?
This part of us is typically reposed and rejected and largely exists within our unconscious mind. However, this doesn't mean that dark thoughts are especially meaningful.
They can sometimes clue you into issues from the past that you've not yet dealt with, but often they mean nothing at all. As distressing they are, they're simply fleeting ideas that cross a more base, animal part of your mind.
With all that said, you might still be wondering: are unwanted intrusive thoughts normal? Does everyone have them, or is there something defective about some part of your mind?
The good news is that you are absolutely normal. The majority of the population experiences dark intrusive thoughts from time to time and is yet nonetheless perfectly mentally healthy.
While you might experience guilt, panic, and fear when these types of thoughts pop up, don't let this persuade you that you're abnormal or deviant.
However, it's helpful to understand the major differences between intrusive thoughts and obsessive thoughts. Unlike intrusive thoughts, obsessive thoughts are more of a warning sign about under-explored, underlying distress in your psyche,
Let's clarify this crucial distinction between obsessive thoughts and intrusive thoughts, then. Intrusive or invasive thoughts, as just discussed, generally pop up out of nowhere and have some kind of inappropriate or disturbing content.
Intrusive thoughts are normal and are rarely associated with a mental health issue unless they become extremely repetitive and intense.
In contrast, obsessive thoughts stop you from functioning properly. For example, suppose you fixate so much on the idea of getting into a car wreck that you refuse to drive for just 5 minutes.
Similarly, imagine you think so vividly about your partner cheating that you become convinced they must be doing so. These are both cases of obsessive thinking.
You become utterly fixated on one idea of possibility, and it takes center stage in your mind's eye. If your experiences are more akin to obsessive thoughts than mere intrusive thoughts, it's worth discussing them with a doctor.
There are effective treatments that can help you feel better, ranging from talking therapies to appropriate medication.
There are lots of different types of intrusive thoughts. However, many of the most common intrusive thoughts revolve around one or more of the following themes:
If you reflect on your own experiences of intrusive thoughts examples, you'll likely notice that they all evoke discomfort and often come alongside guilt and shame.
Remember, the shadow self is a repressed part, so it stands to reason that it would focus on things that are taboo. Often, intrusive thoughts will be extremely brief, coming in the form of brief flashes of images or fleeting ideas.
As well as relating to our shadow selves, there's some evidence that such thoughts can be triggered by a brain chemical imbalance. In particular, a chemical called GABA seems to inhibit cell activity in a way that changes how you think.
So, if you find yourself “Why do I always think negative?” or begin to question why negative thoughts come in mind. You must try to remember that some of the underlying reasons may relate more to biology than psychology.
Excessive negative thinking of all forms, however, can indicate an underlying dissatisfaction with life. If you find yourself not only struggling with intrusive thoughts but also with low-self esteem and a particularly harsh inner critic, try to reflect on where this negative self-image comes from.
Can you trace it back to difficult experiences in your earlier life, for example?
Some of the strategies we’ll suggest for dealing with intrusive thoughts can also help you tackle this kind of negative thinking more broadly.
As stressed above, intrusive thoughts are very alarming but they are seldom anything to worry about. They enter your mind, make you feel deeply uncomfortable, and then drift off while your attention turns to something else.
However, perhaps you're worried about long-term anxiety. Intrusive thoughts can elicit panic, and you might think they're the first stage of a more pervasive anxiety disorder.
Similarly, when images of hurting yourself take the form of intrusive thoughts, depression can cross your mind. So, can intrusive thoughts cause depression or anxiety?
The important thing to note here is that there is no necessary connection between intrusive thoughts and mental health issues. In other words, most people who have intrusive thoughts don't go on to experience any significant emotional instability related to those thoughts.
That said, in a minority of cases, intrusive thoughts graduate to obsessive thoughts of the form discussed above. In such cases, instead of having a fleeting thought, you will fixate on an idea or an image and it will severely inhibit you in your daily life.
While it is wise to seek help in such cases, the intrusive thoughts have not caused depression or anxiety. Rather, the severity of intrusive thoughts is a symptom of depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
At this stage, hopefully, you feel like intrusive thoughts have been demystified somewhat. You have a sense of where they came from, the kind of form they're likely to take, and how you should look out for more severe obsessive thoughts.
Most importantly, you know that most of them are entirely normal and not associated with any lasting damage to your mental well-being. However, perhaps you just want to know how to get rid of intrusive thoughts forever.
Maybe even though they don't crop up that frequently, they bother you so much that you'd like to know you've banished them for good.
With that goal in mind, here are four approaches you can take in order to work on overcoming intrusive thoughts.
Firstly, it's important to give more critical thought to why you're so troubled by your intrusive thoughts. What do you worry about that they say about you?
What doubts, fears and insecurities get triggered by these unwanted ideas or images?
It may help you to make a list, or to write a stream-of-consciousness journal entry detailing why you're so worried.
Once you have a proper grasp of why you're so troubled, it's vital to work towards calm yourself and reconnecting with reality. One of the best techniques you can then use to let go of your worries is a kind of thought-awareness meditation practice.
You'll sometimes see this described an insight mediation, and its goal is to help you get a clear image of what's real. During this exercise, you'll fully engage with the present moment by focusing on something current.
This might be your breathing, the movement of water, or the flame of a candle. It doesn't matter what you pick – it just needs to be in the present and in front of you.
Find somewhere comfortable, breathe deeply for a few minutes, and attend to your focal point (e.g., the flame of a candle).
Notice everything about it. See how it moves, feel the heat it emits, smell the candle's scent. Whenever you feel your mind drifting away, don't judge yourself harshly.
You just gently return the mind to your chosen object of focus. This exercise will eventually bring you to a place where you are a detached observer. You can see and notice your thoughts, but not be swept up in them.
With time, practicing this technique (ideally each day) helps you truly understand that you don't control the things that cross your mind. In addition, those thoughts and feelings don't define you. It's in your power to reject or accept them as you see fit.
There is nothing to fear.
Every part of you deserves love and compassion. This applies to your shadow self just as much as the rest of you.
Many psychologists believe the intrusive thoughts of the shadow self are linked to repressed difficulties in your past, and so healing the wounds of the past can help to quiet the shadow self.
Try to think of this part of you as a child who is acting out, wanting and attention, and love. You can offer that part of your kindness and curiosity, and try to understand what it might be telling you.
One way to do this is by keeping a shadow self journal, where you log your engagement with this part of you. You can also opt to engage with it in a much more creative way.
Some people find it easier to express the thoughts and feelings of their shadow side in abstract art rather than words. You could also write music, sculpt clay, or make a collage of some sort.
The medium doesn't matter nearly so much as giving a voice to this ignored and neglected aspect of yourself. The part that may be hurting you to some degree.
However, there are also many other daily practices that help you extend love and compassion to all aspects of your self, including your shadow.
For example, you might recite daily affirmations, such as “I love, affirm, and accept all parts of me.” Say these affirmations into the mirror, looking into your own eyes.
This process helps to rewrite an outdated image of yourself that denies your value and doubts your worth. Practicing consistent self-care is another way to offer yourself compassion and to reaffirm your worth.
Self-care looks a little different for everyone, but a key part is taking time for yourself and your passions, and knowing when to say “no” to those who try to drain your energy.
If you're like most people, the feelings of guilt and shame that crop up when you have intrusive thoughts are tied to deep, entrenched negative beliefs about your own worth.
We sometimes call these “limiting beliefs”. They are the sort expressed by your inner critic, who tells you that you can't succeed or are not valuable.
If you have core beliefs that tell you that you are unworthy, damaged, or “bad”, your subconscious mind will be drawn to reaffirm these beliefs by fixating on negative and distressing thoughts.
This might seem strange – the idea that your subconscious would hold so tightly to beliefs that actively hurt you. The reason it does this is actually to protect itself.
In a sense, this part of your mind believes that it can keep itself safe by holding you back from chances to get hurt. That is why it's so tough to identify and reject outdated, limiting beliefs. You may have many different defenses that distract your attention and lead you away from challenging these beliefs.
However, with focus and determination, you can be who you want to be. And you can learn new, affirming beliefs that take the place of toxic, limiting beliefs.
One way to help this process is to write down some of your most commonly arising negative beliefs.
These might include claims like “I am boring”, “I don't deserve love”, “Everyone will leave me”, and “I am ugly.” After you write these down, challenge yourself to write down the new beliefs you want to have. These might include beliefs like “I am interesting”, “I am worthy of love”, “I attract the people I need”, and “I am beautiful.”
Try turning these affirming new beliefs into affirmations, and recite them in the way we discussed in the previous section.
Intrusive thoughts don't represent reality but notice that we tend to believe them. Even if it's only for a moment. If we have an intrusive thought about harming someone in some way, for example, we might feel the urge to apologize to that person.
However, emotional responses like this only serve to keep the image or idea alive. It's vital that you learn how to see such thoughts as disconnected from the person you are.
Far more important to the person you are is how you behave. For example the kindness and respect you show others.
If you think about neutral or even boring thoughts you have, you'll see you have no problem rejecting them. You do so throughout the day, as you deem them irrelevant to who you are and what you plan to do.
So, why should intrusive thoughts be any different? Why do they deserve more time, focus, and feeling? The short answer is that they don't!
Of course, you might know all of this on an intellectual or cognitive level and still struggle not to take intrusive thought personality. If that's the case, you can use techniques to reason with yourself.
Design a phrase that you say when you get stuck on an intrusive thought, and repeatedly come back to it. For example, you might use “It's unlikely that this thought will even become a reality. I don't need to be anxious about it.
Everything is fine just now.” Feel free to find your own words. The key is just to look for a phrase that talks you down from the panic and guilt you might feel when faced with intrusive thoughts, and that refocuses your attention on the difference between fantasy and reality.
There are all kinds of different ways in which people struggle with overthinking, so if this is a problem for you then you're certainly not alone.
And it can be exhausting, making you feel increasingly anxious and obsessive. Perhaps you are bothered by intrusive thoughts, maybe you can't switch your mind off when you're trying to fall asleep. Maybe you just find your mind gets stuck in repetitive loops sometimes.
Whatever your overthinking looks like, self-hypnosis can help you slow your thoughts and relax your mind.
As well as offering you calmness at the moment, self-hypnosis can train you to think differently over time, becoming more relaxed and clear-headed.
This overthinking hypnosis will alleviate anxiety and help you control obsessive behavior.