Many people have experienced horrifying thoughts, such as scenarios of something terrible happening to them or someone they love. It’s common to experience anxiety when going to a new place for the first time or when someone you care about is sick. Change or unpleasant circumstances warrant negative emotions, especially if you’re unsure of the outcome, but harmful thoughts tend to fade once the situation subsides.
However, if the intrusive thoughts grow more violent and intense instead of fading, there may be a larger problem. Learn how to stop intrusive thoughts from controlling your life and ease your mind.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, urges or impulses that tend to come out of nowhere and create distress and anxiety for the person experiencing them. The content of these thoughts can be violent, sexual or socially unacceptable and often conflict with the person’s values. Sometimes, the thoughts can be so intense the individual becomes afraid they may actually commit these acts. It’s estimated that more than 6 million people in the United States experience some form of intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can range widely and consist of doubts or fears regarding a certain situation a person experienced. Stressful or anxiety-inducing events can often trigger them. Examples of these events include:
- Sexual orientation or identity
- Big decisions
- Unanswered questions
Sometimes, intrusive thoughts don’t even need a concrete idea to latch onto and may just be weird images that don’t make sense. The thoughts can still be vivid and explicit, causing worry or shame and leading to the person keeping them a secret.
Common Intrusive Thoughts
As unpleasant and shocking as intrusive thoughts can be, it’s important to remember they’re completely involuntary and don’t reflect on an individual’s personality. People tend to feel repulsed by these mental images. Take a look at some examples of common intrusive thoughts people experience.
People may worry about important personal relationships and fear that something damaging will happen. These intrusive thoughts can eventually strain the relationship. Examples include:
- Questioning someone’s loyalty
- Finding fault in their partner
- Wondering if their feelings are real
- Seeking constant reassurance from their partner
A person may imagine committing acts of violence against themselves or others, even though the thought of violence upsets them. Examples include:
- Using a sharp object to hurt themselves
- Harming their loved ones or pets
- Killing another person
- Poisoning food they’re preparing for someone else
These violent intrusive thoughts can result in paranoid behavior, such as locking away all sharp objects in the house or avoiding cooking.
Sexual intrusive thoughts may focus on a person’s own sexuality or harming others sexually. Examples include:
- Being sexually attracted to family members
- Feeling uncertain about their sexual orientation
- Imagining sexual encounters they consider obscene
What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can occur for no reason and may not be linked to a mental disorder or health condition at all. They’ve been studied extensively, with some experts claiming intrusive thoughts reveal underlying issues regarding relationships or stability. Other experts believe intrusive thoughts are a manifestation of rebellion against things we would never actually do. Intrusive thoughts have also been documented from brain trauma, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
The harder people try to suppress their intrusive thoughts, the more intense they can become. It’s possible a mental disorder could be at work if these thoughts are recurring and affecting daily life.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted or recurring thoughts that lead to developing repetitive behaviors. Symptoms of OCD are persistent and cause deep distress that can interfere with day-to-day activities. Everyone feels as if they’re forgetting something at times, but with OCD, individuals routinely double-check they locked the door or grabbed their wallet after leaving the house to achieve temporary relief.
Intrusive thoughts OCD can cause include:
- Fear of losing, misplacing or forgetting something
- Unwanted or forbidden thoughts regarding sex or violence
- Fearful thoughts of losing control over one’s behavior
- Worrying about being contaminated by germs
- Fixating on situations beyond control
If you’re unsure whether an intrusive thought may be linked to OCD, how long do intrusive thoughts last? Experiencing thoughts that are all-consuming and interfering with daily life can be an indicator of OCD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Persistent intrusive thoughts are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These thoughts are usually connected to a traumatic event and involve a person re-experiencing what happened or developing new fears. For example, a person who nearly drowned may avoid water and experience intrusive or excessive thoughts when near it.
How To Stop Intrusive Thoughts
If you’re wondering how to get rid of intrusive thoughts that are disrupting your life, you can try a few techniques. Avoiding them may seem like the best option, but this can actually make intrusive thoughts stronger. Instead of worrying about unwanted intrusive thoughts and trying to fight them, here are things you can do:
- Identify these thoughts as “intrusive” and allow them into your mind instead of pushing them away
- Concentrate on other things, practice deep breathing and let these thoughts pass on their own
- Remind yourself these thoughts are not reflective of you and acknowledge that they’ll return
- Engage with the activity that originally triggered the thought and work past it
- Find a calming method, such as meditation, yoga or a massage, that alleviates the anxiety until it fades naturally
How long do intrusive thoughts last? That depends on how persistent the thought is and whether there’s an underlying health condition at play. If you’re diagnosed with OCD, PTSD or another mental health disorder, a doctor may prescribe medication to help with intrusive thoughts. Seeking therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can teach effective strategies for processing intrusive thoughts and becoming less sensitive to them.
Seek Treatment To Help Get Back on Your Feet
If you’re unsure how to stop intrusive thoughts from invading your life, seeking professional treatment can help you work past them. Restore Mental Health offers treatment options tailored to each individual. Contact us today by calling (877) 594-3566 to speak to a counselor and get the information you need to start recovery and experience life with less worry.