Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive Thoughts. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Intrusive Thoughts. Psychology Fanatic
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Thoughts are funny things. They pop into our head, demand attention and motivate action. We insist that these meandering demons are facts. After all, they seem important, recruiting emotions. We are so intimately connected with these mind bugs that an intrusive thought stirs emotions without any supporting facts—just our wild imagination. Thoughts compel behavior; but many thoughts are ill conceived and not relevant to reality. The intrusive thoughts interrupt healthy work, demanding compliance without smartly engaging further investigation. We must scrutinize intrusive thoughts, correcting when necessary.

Intrusive thoughts are more than a bothersome interruption. They are also a symptom of many psychological disorders such as, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Berry et al., 2010). The difference between a clinical case of intrusive thoughts and nonclinical is just in a manner of degree. “Clinical thoughts are described as more frequent and more distressing, highly meaningful to the subject, and causing heightened concern and attempted control” (2010).

What are Thoughts?

​Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, or bits of language. They might be true but often not—only a perception of truth. Stemming from insecurities, thoughts are generated from unsubstantiated fears. We reconfigure reality with narratives to account for internal imbalances; our thoughts then rally to justify the unsubstantiated fears.

Ashley Butterfield of the OCD and Anxiety center defines an intrusive thought as “unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli” (2019).

How Do You Limit Intrusive Thoughts?

We can’t permanently stop the streams of thoughts. However, there are techniques—meditation, prayer, yoga and engagement—that provide temporary relief from disrupting thoughts; but eventually the thoughts return. Our mental health doesn’t require extinguishing unnecessary thought; only to see thoughts for what they are—a string of words, passing fantasies, or disturbing worries.

When we see thoughts for what they are, they lose power.

When you catch troublesome thoughts haunting your mind, ask:

  • “Is this thought helpful?”
  • “Does it create the life I want?”

Events Linked to Intrusive Thoughts

Often a significant event, or at least and event we perceive as significant, can cause a barrage of intrusive thoughts. Mardi Horowitz M.D. advises that “if a particular memory or event has resulted in intrusive thoughts or unbidden images, your instincts may tell you that you need to look at what’s happening in your mind first.” We tag events that arouse emotions as problems that need solving. Our dutiful mind keeps returning to the incident and rehashing it piece by pieces in search of resolution. Horowitz teaches that these “conflicting thoughts and emotions need to be explored in order to claim inner peacefulness again” (2008).

We investigate not because their is a problem to solve but because we want to know why the event is so disturbing to our peace. Horowitz advises that during these investigations you must “be patient and gentle with yourself. Strive for a calm detachment. Try to observe your mental work objectively, without self-criticism, expectations, or consideration of other’s opinions” (2008).

As we label our emotion as “just a thought” stepping back to explore the possible reasons for such an event to excite a barrage of intrusive thoughts we may find new insights into our own being. These self-enlightenments often encourage growth.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

We can act with direction, in constructive ways, rather than suffer from shackles to maladaptive thoughts that provide no benefit. Freedom from pesky thoughts gives us power to act in ways that transform futures into the richness of our well-designed intentions—the life we want to live.​

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Berry, L., May, J., Andrade, J., & Kavanagh, D. (2010). Emotional and Behavioral Reaction to Intrusive Thoughts. Assessment, 17(1), 126-137.

Butterfield, Ashley (2019). INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS. The OCD and the Anxiety Center. Published 9-16-2019. Accessed 6-7-2023.

Horowitz, Mardi (2008). A Course in Happiness: Mastering the 3 Levels of Self-Understanding That Lead to True and Lasting Contentment. Tarcher; 1st edition.

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