Mental Health

Why you shouldn’t suppress intrusive thoughts (and what to do instead!)

Beth Rush offers practical tips on getting your head in order.

Intrusive thoughts can be a nuisance, especially if you experience them often. While the causes of  such thoughts might vary between people, everyone who experiences them wants to know one thing: how to stop these unwelcome visitors!

Now, while it’s impossible to magically make the thoughts go away, you can take steps to mitigate them and the damage they cause to your mind.

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are exactly what they sound like: thoughts you don’t want in your brain because they cause you discomfort. These thoughts might refer to a whole range of possibilities: self-harm or low self-esteem, nurturing resentment, an immoral or illegal deed, religious blasphemy, or thinking that if you don’t do something, something bad will happen. Or a mixture of the above or something else entirely. 

As such thoughts can cause distress, many people just try to ignore them. But, in the end, suppressing intrusive thoughts may only create a cycle of negative thinking. Indeed, they might even come back stronger than before and foster a sense of hopelessness in a person.

Surveys show around 94% of people have experienced intrusive thoughts at some point in their lives. While these thoughts are fleeting for many people, they’re trickier for someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), who might fixate on them or play them on a loop within their head. 

While searching for how to stop repetitive intrusive thoughts, you should know that simply repressing them is never a good idea.

The best thing you can do is learn how to deal with them effectively and tailor your response to them.

Possible causes of intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can seemingly come out of nowhere and for no reason at all. While sometimes you may find underlying causes for them, many people seem to get these thoughts out of the blue. But here are a few possible causes you might identify with.

1. Stress or anxiety

Periods of high stress and anxiety can make your brain suffer all sorts of abnormalities. When you feel very stressed out, your brain may be more open to intrusive thoughts. People with anxiety might find it challenging to control their thoughts, which can send them into a panic attack or a spiral of worry. Try lowering your stress levels to see if your intrusive thoughts lessen too.

2. Hormone shifts

A sudden shift in your hormones might also cause an imbalance that can trigger unwanted thoughts. Likely because of hormone shifts, many pregnant women have intrusive thoughts. These thoughts might be a symptom of postpartum depression, or they could manifest on their own. You might experience major hormone shifts during events like pregnancy and menopause. Forewarned is forearmed, so simply being aware of this possibility can help you deal with the thoughts better and not give them such importance. 

3. Mental health issues

Unfortunately, intrusive thoughts tend to tag along with mental health conditions. OCD is one where intrusive thoughts are common, but people with OCD would never act on those thoughts or think them of their own volition. People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are likely to have intrusive thoughts regarding their trauma, though this doesn’t always have to be the case. Consider your mental health to find out if intrusive thoughts are common in people who have similar mental health issues.

How to stop repetitive intrusive thoughts

Knowing how to stop repetitive intrusive thoughts can help you manage them better in the future. Once you know the triggers that pertain to you, you can take steps to lessen your likelihood of experiencing such thoughts. Even if you can’t get rid of them completely, it can help to know what to do when those troublesome thoughts rear their heads.

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to relieve intrusive thoughts. While it might not work in every situation, mindfulness can bring you back to the present and get you focusing on what’s around you. It allows you to sit with your thoughts in a non-judgmental way, so you’re not suppressing them, but you’re not entertaining them, either.

Mindfulness activities can help you stay present and prevent overthinking a situation. You may choose to take a walk and clear your head, or you could do something as simple as pull out a coloring book or practice yoga to focus more on your body than your mind. Practicing mindfulness can also help decrease stress, which might be the underlying cause of your intrusive thoughts.

2. Work on your stress

Stress is one of the major causes of intrusive thoughts, so to deal with them, you first need to address your stress levels. Take some time for yourself and have a self-care day. Move some responsibilities onto someone else or start working out. Adults who exercise more are often happier than their counterparts who don’t make movement an intentional part of their lifestyles. By making small changes to your life, you can effectively decrease your stress.

3. Get enough sleep

When you lose sleep, your body stresses out and will make you lose more sleep by triggering cortisol production. So it becomes a vicious cycle. A lack of sleep translates to high stress, and it might be more difficult for you to respond to intrusive thoughts constructively. Start a bedtime routine to help ease you into sleep, which might also involve reducing activity as bedtime approaches. Like cars we need to brake gradually. Consider also altering your surroundings, such as adding a white noise machine or using blackout curtains, to help you get better quality sleep.

4. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a great way to challenge intrusive thoughts and other unwanted behaviors, often as a result of a disorder. CBT is a rather new practice, but it has been effective in changing the thought patterns and behaviors of many people with several different disorders. Try finding a therapist who specializes in CBT to help you deal with your intrusive thoughts.

Regarding intrusive thoughts, you might learn to accept your thoughts rather than trying to avoid them, which can help you realize they’re just intrusive thoughts – they don’t reflect who you are as a person. You might also find safe ways to expose yourself to triggers (like a vaccine) to desensitize yourself and hopefully help you control your responses to intrusive thoughts.

It can also be helpful to realize that all sorts of things can pop into your head (particularly when you are tired or in a painful or trying moment) but those thoughts might simply be the response of your troubled emotions. They don’t necessarily reflect the real you.

There’s a big difference between the stormy waves and the deep calm in the ocean depths. 

When such thoughts calm, take time out to consider: what is the real me, the person I am trying to be? What are my real values? Do these thoughts reflect them? You will often find they do not. You can then almost view them, like an observer watching a child have a tantrum. The tantrum will pass and the child returns to his or her games. Listen to the deeper you, not just the choppy, surface waves.

Learn how to stop repetitive intrusive thoughts

Knowing how to stop repetitive intrusive thoughts is only half the battle. You must commit to changing things about your life to better challenge unwanted thoughts. No matter which measures you take to help you challenge your thoughts, you must stick to them. Practice can help the treatment be more effective, especially in something like CBT or working on an exercise regimen to lower stress. Consult a professional on how best to tackle repetitive intrusive thoughts, and you should find something that works well with your lifestyle.

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