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Intrusive thoughts: What they are and how to manage them

mental wellnessmental healthanxietydepressionbehavioral health • 3 min read • Jul 20, 2023 1:18:39 PM • Written by: Sam Giebelhausen

When our minds are left to wander, sometimes they can go to some strange places. In some cases, our minds may manifest intrusive thoughts that arouse feelings of guilt, worry, or shame. Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome, troubling thoughts that seem to pop up without your control. They may be a sign of a mental health issue, or they may simply exist due to major life changes like getting married or having a child. Occasional intrusive thoughts are not abnormal and may not be much of a disturbance in your life. However, experiencing frequent, unwelcome thoughts that feel out of your control can be a problem. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at where intrusive thoughts come from and how to reduce their impact on your daily life.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are disturbing, involuntary thoughts that might be sexual or violent in nature, such as fantasizing about hurting others or worrying about one’s sexual orientation. Alternatively, they may be negative thoughts about personal relationships, such as unfounded fears that a partner is cheating or going to leave the relationship. These thoughts are not rooted in reality, and they often seem shocking or unacceptable. However, due to the taboo nature of the content of intrusive thoughts, people are often wary to discuss them, even in the private setting of a therapist’s office.

Are intrusive thoughts a sign of a mental health disorder?

Intrusive thoughts are associated with disorders like anxiety, PTSD, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. However, having intrusive thoughts is not necessarily indicative of a mental health issue. Significant stress, major life changes, or hormonal fluctuations may trigger intrusive thoughts.

How can you manage intrusive thoughts?

With intrusive thoughts, it is important to remember that these thoughts do not represent your true self or your actual desires. They do not have hidden meanings or represent secret desires. Nonetheless, they can be upsetting and disturb your daily life. To manage unwelcome thoughts and reduce their frequency, take the following steps.

  • Avoid over-engaging. It is important not to dwell on intrusive thoughts or try to engage with these thoughts and uncover their meaning. Conversely, some people will try to push the thoughts away, which may only lead to them occurring more frequently. Instead of repressing intrusive thoughts or engaging with them, recognize that the thought is involuntary and irrelevant to daily life. Acknowledge that the thoughts may return, but then continue to carry on with your day. Practicing mindfulness meditation may help you recognize thoughts as they come and allow them to pass—simply observe them and then move on.
  • Seek out cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy that involves retraining your brain to adopt different thought patterns. CBT helps to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more productive behaviors, often leveraging one’s problem solving skills to cope with difficult, stressful situations. By adjusting the default pattern of your daily thoughts, CBT can help to mute or reduce intrusive thoughts.
  • Address underlying issues. In some cases, intrusive thoughts are the result of mental health issues like depression or exposure to trauma. Addressing those issues directly through therapy, medication management, and other treatment modalities, you can reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts in your life.

Discussing intrusive thoughts with a therapist may feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it is important to remember that therapy is a judgment-free practice where you can open up. Attending therapy in a virtual setting from the comfort and privacy of your own home may help you feel more comfortable discussing disturbing thoughts and confronting stress in your life. With Walmart Health Virtual Care, you can access a licensed therapist from anywhere, so you can get the care you need in an environment where you feel the most comfortable.

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Sam Giebelhausen