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Coping with negative self-talk and intrusive thoughts

March 25, 2024
Dan Small

Negative self-talk and intrusive thoughts are two different issues, but they have something in common. Both can change how we feel about ourselves and shape our experiences, while taking a significant toll on our mental health. The two can also be connected; in some instances, negative self-talk can lead to intrusive thoughts, and vice versa.

What is negative self-talk?

We all have an inner-voice that provides a running commentary in our heads. While our inner-voice can be kind and motivating, some people experience more critical thoughts. For example, have you ever ‘said’ any of these to yourself before?  

  • “I can never do anything right”  
  • “Nobody wants me here.”
  • “I don’t have any friends”  
  • “I got that question wrong. I’m so stupid”  
  • “I’m not good enough”  
  • “I always fail”
  • “I don’t like anything about myself”
  • “I’ll make a fool of myself if I talk to that person”  
  • “I’m not capable of doing that”

If another person criticised us like this, we might feel upset and angry, and we’d probably want to stick up for ourselves. However, when we say hurtful things to ourselves, often the opposite happens; instead of arguing with the insults, we simply accept them as the truth. The more that we do this, the more ingrained these thoughts become.  

Our relationship with ourselves is arguably the most important relationship we will have, so how we speak to ourselves matters. The story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re worthy of has a direct impact on our mental health and the way we live. When we’re stuck in a negative headspace, this can:

  • Worsen an existing mental health issue, such as anxiety and depression.  
  • Hurt your relationship with others. You may get into a situation where you need constant reassurance which can be draining for the people around you.
  • Damage your self-esteem. If you believe the negative thoughts about yourself, you may become less confident and struggle to like yourself.
  • Lead to rumination, where you are struck dwelling on negative thoughts.

How to manage negative self-talk

1. Recognise your inner-critic

Take note when your inner-voice is becoming overly critical. Ask yourself what it’s saying and if something’s triggering it. It can be helpful to analyse when and why negative self-talk happens to see if you can spot any patterns. The more that we understand about why we’re putting ourselves down, the better that we can manage the situation.  

2. Challenge your inner-critic

When you have self-critical thoughts, don’t just accept them as facts. Remind yourself that you don’t have to listen to your inner-critic and it’s probably not giving you a balanced view. To practise challenging negative thoughts, you could try writing them down and then countering them. For example, ‘I am a failure’ might turn into ‘I am only human and I’m bound to make mistakes’.  

3. Imagine you're talking to your younger self

To develop a kinder inner-voice, it can be helpful to imagine that you’re talking to your younger self. Would you talk to a child how you’re talking to yourself? Would you put them down and criticise them, or would you show them compassion and try to uplift them? If you prefer, you could try the same technique but imagine you’re talking to a loved one.  

4. Reframe the thought

When we feel particularly bothered by negative thoughts, we can fall into a thinking trap. This is a common pattern of thinking, where thoughts turn into a vicious cycle that is difficult to break away from. When we’re stuck in a thinking trap, it can help to reframe our thoughts, which means looking at new ways of thinking about the thing that’s bothering us. Some ways to reframe a thought include:

  • Examine the thought from another person’s perspective, such as a friend or family member - would they agree with the thought? What would they say?
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Guessing what other people are thinking can lead you to taking things personally or catastrophizing when you needn’t.
  • Ask yourself whether this is something that will bother you a year from now - if not, how much do you need to worry about it?
  • Avoid black and white thinking. Rather than thinking in extremes, look for the shades of grey, AKA all of the other possibilities that you may not have considered.  

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are thoughts, images, sounds or doubts that pop into our heads, seemingly out of nowhere. They can be uncomfortable, shocking and distressing. They’re often repetitive which means that you may experience the same thought over and over. This can lead you to wonder whether the thoughts must reflect your true feelings because you keep having them.

However, intrusive thoughts tend to be ‘ego-dystonic’, which means that they’re the opposite of what we actually want and intend to do. Just because you’ve had a dark thought, doesn’t mean you’re capable of acting on it. Often, people will feel shameful and guilty about their intrusive thoughts but they don’t make you a bad person or a criminal.  

The most common kind of intrusive thoughts relate to safety or risk. For example, a person might worry when they’re driving that they will swerve into oncoming traffic and kill someone, or a new mother may think they’re going to harm their baby in some way. Other examples of intrusive thoughts could be to do with:

  • Harming another person or yourself
  • Sexual acts or situations
  • Being an ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’ person
  • Religion and blasphemy  
  • Germs and contamination
  • Making a serious mistake
  • Reliving a traumatic situation as a result of PTSD

Intrusive thoughts serve a practical purpose; they try to keep us safe by helping us to anticipate danger. Our brains are always trying to solve problems, often coming up with lots of ideas that feel relevant, no matter how out-of-the-box or unrealistic they are! It’s important to know these thoughts are normal and everyone has them from time to time, however some people find them harder to deal with than others. People with OCD are more likely to hold onto the thought and question the meaning behind it. They might begin to obsess over the thought, which causes them to go to great lengths to stop the thought from happening - this is called a compulsion.  

‍How to manage intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can trigger mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. They can also affect your relationship with yourself which can lead to negative self-talk. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to manage intrusive thoughts to stop them from interfering with your life.  

Although it may feel like the natural response, pushing the thoughts away or blocking them out isn’t actually helpful. We all know that if someone tells us not to think about something, the first thing we do is think about it.  

Another way that someone may try to cope with intrusive thoughts is through compulsive behaviour. For example, repeatedly checking the stove is off to reassure yourself that the house won’t burn down. However, this action is counterproduce as it keeps your focus on the intrusive thought.

The first step to dealing with intrusive thoughts is to acknowledge that they are just thoughts. Thinking and doing aren't the same thing and experiencing intrusive thoughts isn’t a reflection of who you are as a person. Instead of dwelling on the thought, remind yourself that it’s normal and there’s no need to give it any attention.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective way to treat intrusive thoughts and mental health issues that you may experience as a result of them, like anxiety, depression and OCD.  CBT encourages you to challenge intrusive thoughts and equips you with methods to manage them. At ieso, we offer typed CBT, which is a text-based service that can be accessed online. Our service is flexible, confidential and free for some NHS patients. Sign up to see if you’re eligible.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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