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How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts

Do you know those thoughts that randomly pop into your head and drag you down a rabbit hole? Or those images that flash in your mind? They seem to come automatically and can fill you up with anxiety. Even now as I write about this experience I feel almost overwhelmed. In the therapy world, we refer to these unwanted and distressing thoughts and images as intrusive thoughts.

You can think of intrusive thoughts as random scraps of paper that don’t really have a place to go but your brain tries to file them away. These random scraps have no meaning but your brain tries to stick them somewhere. What makes them distressing is the sense we try to make of them, the meanings we attach, and the fact that these thoughts (and images) tend to stick in our minds. They stick because they’re often fantasies or thoughts about things we find unacceptable and fear we might act on.

Here are some quick tips to cope with these intrusive thoughts:

  1. Allow yourself to have them. Remind yourself that they’re thoughts, not facts. If you think or see an image in your head, but don’t really plan to act on it, that’s completely normal. It’s not harmful, and not something to worry about. Remember that these are automatic thoughts, so it’s outside of your control whether they happen or not. It might be helpful to try to label the thought as intrusive and then carry on with your day.
  2. Check the facts. Ask yourself how likely it is you will act on this thought. (Disclaimer: If you think you might harm yourself or someone else, it’s important to check in with a medical professional for support. You can access a distress helpline or the local emergency room for that immediate support).
  3. Start a mindfulness practice. This will help you notice and let go of intrusive thoughts.
  4. Keep going! Try to continue whatever activity you were previously doing and allow yourself to move on from the thought.

Intrusive thoughts are common. If they start to feel unmanageable, then it could be an indication of an underlying mental health concern, such as anxiety, OCD, and PTSD, to name a few. It’s important to check with your doctor if you’re feeling highly distressed by these thoughts and images.

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