Where do intrusive thoughts come from?
Our brains generate thoughts constantly, bringing them up into consciousness for the mind to inspect. Some estimates go as high as 6,000 non-repetitive thoughts a day. Yet the majority of these thoughts are entirely random, some brought up by chance, some by association. The association often goes unnoticed, as for example when something seen on television a few hours before leads to a memory of something that happened long ago, and then to a worry about the same thing that might happen tomorrow.
Daytime intrusive thoughts are similar in origin to nightmares. It is important to realise that the brain has no conscious purpose in generating these thoughts and nightmares. It is rather like a computer that has been left on overnight that continues to process data; some of the generated results are useful, but most are not.
For all these reasons thoughts are not ‘intrusive’ at all. It is just that the conscious mind reacts to some thoughts as if they were unwanted and disturbing. This is more likely to happen if the person is burdened, anxious or depressed. If the thought comes with unpleasant feelings (e.g. anxiety) the person is more likely still to find it ‘intrusive’.
Common intrusive thoughts
Thoughts are labelled ‘intrusive’ by the conscious mind, which views them as a threat. Such thoughts can also be labelled in different ways by mental health professionals and their clients. Thoughts can be spoken (worded) thoughts, imagistic thoughts, or memories. This article focuses on worded thoughts. For material on painful memories see this article here.
- Anxious thoughts are most commonly catastrophic thoughts focusing on the worst possible outcomes,
- Depressing thoughts are usually hopeless, despairing judgments about oneself, or about life.
- Obsessive thoughts. These are repetitive thoughts about counting, checking and other compulsive acts.
- Thoughts of contamination. These are similar to obsessive thoughts, except the worry is that one has caught some dreadful disease.
- Sexual thoughts. Inappropriate thoughts about engaging in sexual activity with strangers or people known to you.
- Thoughts of self-harm. These may be suicidal thoughts, or they may just be thoughts about jumping from a bridge, or going under a train, etc.
- Thoughts of harming others. Self-explanatory.
In relation to the last four: it is important to realise that having thoughts about harmful activities does not imply that the person will act on them. Yet people often react to thoughts of this type as if they are so implying. Thereby creating anxiety, fear and disgust.
Intrusive thoughts and compulsions
In some cases, intrusive thoughts can lead to the development of compulsions or rituals as a way to alleviate the anxiety they cause. For instance, someone with intrusive thoughts about people entering the house may resort to compulsively checking locks, doors and windows in the hope that doing so may ward off the threat posed by the thoughts. However, doing this only reinforces the power those thoughts have over you.
Dealing with intrusive thoughts
The most effective, long-term solution to unwanted thoughts is through acceptance and the use of defusion techniques. This implies changing one’s relationship with the mind. Recognising that the majority of thoughts bear only a passing relationship with reality, we learn to exercise care and selectivity in choosing which thoughts to go with, and which to leave behind. Daily mindfulness exercises can help you learn to look at your thoughts rather than through them. More on Acceptance and Commitment therapy here.
Cognitive-behaviour therapy is another tried and tested approach that works at undermining unhelpful thoughts by examining and criticising them. For example, intrusive thoughts around anxiety can be challenged by noticing that they are simplistic exaggerations rather than reasonable conjectures.
A simple four-step technique that teaches you how to separate yourself from intrusive thoughts is described in this article here.
Finally, hypnosis can be an effective treatment for thought intrusion, especially anxious thoughts. It works by using imagery, soothing voices, and relaxation to neutralise any upsetting thoughts.
Psychotherapy for intrusive thoughts
If the techniques given above don’t work for you, and you have persistent, alarming intrusive thoughts then you are advised to consult a psychotherapist who can assist you in more depth. This especially applies if the thoughts in question relate to unresolved trauma.