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Those ‘intrusive thoughts’ – and what to do about them

August 2, 2021

We’ve looked at intrusive thoughts – what they are and why we might have them – in a couple of earlier blogs. This time we’re going to dive a little bit deeper into the reasons people have these kinds of thoughts, share some examples, and look at what we can do about them if they need to be addressed.

Trying to explain intrusive thoughts is a bit like trying to explain daydreams, or our imaginations. Did you ever have a great idea just ‘pop’ into your head? Perhaps you suddenly thought about a place you’d like to visit that you’d not been to for a while. Or you came up with a solution for a problem, such as how to fix a leaky tap in the kitchen or resolve a tricky work issue. If you’re a creative sort, you might have visualised a design out of nowhere while you were doing something else.

These are all examples of intrusive thoughts because they occurred randomly. In these cases, the thoughts were potentially helpful and useful: if you’d chosen to act on them they would have led you to an enjoyable day out, or enabled you to fix something or start a fulfilling new project. When we have thoughts that we consider to be unhelpful, on the other hand, these can feel inappropriate, worrying and even disturbing.

We actually have thousands of intrusive thoughts every day, but we only tend to really pay attention to a few of them. Whether we consider them to be ‘useful’ or ‘unhelpful’ can change depending on the situation we’re in – even when the thought is exactly the same.

Imagine that you’re a vet, and you have an intrusive thought – in this case a memory of a silly cat video you saw online the night before. Your feelings around the thought are likely to be very different if the memory pops into your head while you’re telling someone their cat needs major surgery, or when you’re with some colleagues having lunch.

If the thought ‘butted in’ while you were delivering some bad news, how might you react? Some people would probably not even notice that they’d had it. Some people might think “oh, well that’s a bit odd” and carry on with what they’re doing.

However an individual who feels troubled or distressed by their intrusive thoughts might fret about it: “Why have I had this thought? Why now? Does it mean I’m a terrible vet? It must do – I’m a bad person.” That individual might turn away from and try to avoid that situation in the future, or experience ongoing worry, anxiety and rumination about having such thoughts.

What makes the difference between those three outcomes is how each individual views their thought, and what they do about it afterwards.

Acknowledge the thought.

Trying to push it away or bury it won’t work! Recognise that you’ve had the thought, and remind yourself that intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life. Thinking about something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, or that you want it to happen. Nor is it a sign that there’s something wrong with you! Tell yourself “I’ve had this thought – and that’s all it is, a thought”.

Move on from the thought.

Step back, examine it, and challenge it. Would you really behave like that? Have you ever acted on one of these thoughts before? Do you have any evidence to support the concern that you’re a bad person? Our imaginations can be vivid, and they’re good at conjuring up scenarios that seem to go against our true character, beliefs, morals and values. There’s no reason to feel any shame or guilt.

If intrusive thoughts are making you particularly anxious, or causing you to feel down, online CBT could help you change the way you perceive and respond to them. Get started here.

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