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Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

The things we intentionally think about have personal meaning. While some of our thoughts are meaningful when we examine our behaviors of what we did, what happened, and what we plan to do differently. Some of our other thoughts are unwanted. These unwanted thoughts can be distressing, interrupt our functioning, are fear-inducing, and upsetting.

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and spontaneously pop into our head without warning. They are akin to the uninvited guest who shows up at your door unannounced. The intrusive thoughts are distressing because they can replay on a loop in our minds. For example, the thoughts on the loop can be violent, make you feel doubtful, or be triggered by a flashback to previous trauma. When the thoughts are stuck in our minds, it's difficult to just think of them as thoughts and nothing more.

Unwanted thoughts differ from our mind-wandering from one topic to another when participating in activities that don't fully attract our attention or require uninterrupted attention. In addition, inattention that's associated with absent-mindedness and the tendency to be preoccupied with one's own thoughts and not what is happening around us.

Intrusive thoughts are often associated with mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Of import, you do not have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to experience intrusive thoughts. Minor intrusions are typical, and anyone can have them at any time.

When does intrusive thoughts become a problem?

Intrusive thoughts become a problem when they interfere with your functioning in productive activities, maintaining healthy relationships, and adapting to and coping with changes. For example, you repeatedly relive a traumatic experience without warning. However, the more you attempt to rid your mind of the thoughts, the more they persist, causing significant distress. Should the intrusive thoughts continue, it may be beneficial to consult with a mental health professional to ascertain if your intrusive thoughts result from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Managing Intrusive Thoughts

The repetitive nature of these intrusions can result in strong emotions. Consequently, our inclination is to avoid them out of concern; we may act out the thought.

  • Accept the intrusive thought as another thought instead of allocating your mental resources to avoidance.

  • When you have intrusive thoughts, label them as such rather than overthinking the reasons for the thought.

  • Focus on what you can control and not what is outside your control. You are still responsible for self-regulating and making rational decisions.

  • Embrace the intrusive thought and create a new self-script that supports you taking conscious self-control.

  • Recognize that intrusive thoughts are likely to return, and if they do, it's likely something in the environment triggered them.

  • Show yourself some non-judgmental grace. First, the unwanted intrusive thoughts can be disturbing; it's not an indication that something is wrong with you.

  • Some intrusive thoughts can have you feeling inadequate. Still, positively reframing the thought is one of many ways to acknowledge you have this unwanted thought.

Although you may experience intrusive thoughts and the thoughts are concerning, they may not last forever. Things can and will get better. The thoughts are typically fleeting; eventually, learning to accept that you have intrusive thoughts may prove helpful rather than trying to avoid them altogether.

Stay Naturally Curious


Wilding, C. (2012). Cognitive behavioural therapy. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Trenton, N. (n.d). Stop overthinking: 23 techniques to relieve stress, stop negative spirals, declutter your mind, and focus on the present.

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