How to Stop Obsessive and Intrusive ThoughtsReading Time: 7 minutes
It happens to all of us at one time or another. We might be standing on a bridge and imagine jumping off. Perhaps we’re driving and suddenly think about crashing into the car ahead. We may even have a sudden mental flash of harming someone we love.
Since we have about 6,000 thoughts per day, we can’t control them all. When intrusive thoughts appear over and over, however, the distress and anxiety they produce can turn daily life into a daily challenge. Fortunately, it’s possible to stop obsessive thought patterns so they don’t take over your life. Here our experts explain how to deal with intrusive thoughts.
- Intrusive thoughts are upsetting and unwanted thoughts that occur repeatedly and involuntarily.
- Common obsessive thoughts include jumping off a bridge, driving into oncoming traffic, stabbing a loved one, catching a contagious disease, having an inappropriate sexual encounter, or simply leaving the stove on.
- Stress, lack of sleep, and mental health issues like anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression can cause intrusive thoughts.
- Exercise, mindfulness meditation, and spending time in nature or with an animal can keep intrusive thoughts from arising again and again.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are disturbing and involuntary thoughts that seem to appear out of nowhere and reoccur again and again. They’re often violent, sexual, or sacrilegious in nature. Because they’re in sharp contrast with a person’s values or beliefs, they can produce feelings of guilt, embarrassment, fear, shame, and disgust.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 6 million Americans have intrusive thoughts. Not everyone who has them suffers from a mental health condition, but the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts can point to underlying mental health issues.
Examples of Intrusive Thoughts
While experiencing intrusive thoughts is common, what people ruminate about differs. Common themes include self-harm, violence toward others, sexuality, blasphemy, contamination, self-doubt, or committing potentially dangerous mistakes.
Specific examples include:
- Slitting your wrist or throat
- Leaping off a building, cliff, or bridge
- Jumping in front of a car or train
- Pushing a stranger in front of a car or train
- Driving into oncoming traffic
- Stabbing a loved one
- Dropping a baby on the ground
- Exposing yourself in public
- Having sex in public
- Engaging in a repugnant sexual act
- Vandalizing a place of worship
- Burning a religious symbol or text
- Transmitting a fatal disease to a stranger
- Contracting a sexually transmitted disease or other contagious illness
- Worrying about germs on doors, phones, or public toilets
- Second-guessing yourself around the way you ended a conversation or relationship
- Leaving the stove on
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What Causes Intrusive Thoughts in Young Adults?
In some cases, stress, lack of sleep, or short-term hormonal changes can cause young adults to experience unwanted intrusive thoughts. In other cases, a mental health issue may be catalyzing obsessive thinking. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various anxiety disorders, and depression can cause young adults to suffer from a constant stream of intrusive thoughts.
In some cases, mental health issues make typical thoughts worse. Young people with mental health issues can experience intrusive thoughts more acutely because they’re more apt to fixate on them. They’re also more likely to judge disturbing thoughts as bad and to worry about their deeper meanings, which gives the negative thoughts more power. Young people with clinical anxiety, for example, might take concrete steps to ensure their fears don’t materialize even though the probability of experiencing what they dread is quite low.
A study in the journal Nature Communications suggests why this may be the case. Researchers found that even within a sample of healthy young adults, people with less hippocampal GABA (a chemical in the brain that allows messages to pass between nerve cells) find it more difficult to stop intrusive thoughts. The hippocampus is located deep within the brain. Elevated activity there is associated with conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and chronic depression, all of which can involve excessive worry or rumination.
How to Deal with Intrusive Thoughts
By themselves, anxious thoughts—even violent thoughts—are not harmful. Simply put, they’re neutral in nature, byproducts of a wandering mind. It’s only when young people react negatively to intrusive thoughts and/or feel the need to act on them that they become problematic.
Various evidence-based techniques can help young adults cope with or eliminate unwanted, negative thoughts, including the following strategies and approaches.
Rather than push intrusive thoughts away (which can actually cause them to intensify), try to notice these thoughts and label them as “intrusive.” One way to do that is to practice mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation helps you observe your thoughts from a detached place without becoming emotional about them or judging them.
Sit comfortably in a quiet place, breathe deeply, and imagine you’re looking out the window of a moving train. As the scenery passes by, notice it without judgment. Then do the same with your thoughts. Notice them in the present moment, but don’t attach yourself to them. When your mind wanders in a negative direction, bring your attention back to your breath. Notice how intrusive thoughts arise and fade.
The more distance you can create between you and your thoughts, the less distressing they will be. Studies show that practicing mindfulness enhances psychological health, reduces emotional reactivity, and improves behavioral regulation.
Another way to gain power over obsessive, intrusive thoughts is to write them down. By typing your thoughts out (or writing them on paper the old-fashioned way), you become aware of disturbing thought patterns. After you’ve written your thoughts down, reflect on what you think triggered them. Write down the triggers, too.
People with OCD may notice that stress triggers their intrusive thoughts, for example. Clearly recognizing and understanding what brings on your obsessive thinking can help you more effectively address the source of the problem.
An excellent way to dissipate anxious thoughts is to spend time with animals. Because they live in the present moment and have no understanding of troubling thoughts, animals help humans reduce stress. In fact, a 2019 study showed that undergraduate students who participated in 10 minutes of hands-on interaction with cats and dogs from a local shelter had significantly lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva compared to those who didn’t.
Moreover, another study of university students found that therapy dogs may be beneficial for individuals directly after a traumatic event because they help reduce the symptoms of acute stress and anxiety. So play fetch with a dog. Cuddle with a cat. Even watch the squirrels outside your window. Time in the presence of animals can soothe an obsessive mind.
If you can’t stop intrusive thoughts, distract yourself. Call a close friend, go to the gym, turn on your favorite show, read a book, listen to music, or take a walk. Whether you change your location or engage in a new activity, distracting yourself can break up disturbing thought loops before they spiral out of control.
Likewise, avoid activities that remind you of your obsessive thoughts. Don’t watch violent movies, for example, if you wrestle with recurring violent thoughts.
Time in Nature
There’s nothing like nature to boost mood and reduce stress. The sight of a sunset, the sound of birds chirping in the trees, the feel of the wind against your skin, the smell of the ocean—even the taste of raindrops on your tongue—can ground you in the present moment. When you’re focusing on the five senses, you’re not focusing on distressing thoughts.
One study found that spending just 20 minutes in nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol. Stroll in the woods, dip your feet in a pond, or just relax under a tree. Time in nature can help break the cycle of rumination because it engages your senses, taking your mind off intrusive thoughts.
Physical exercise is an excellent way to minimize unwanted thoughts. When you exercise, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, feel-good chemicals that are helpful in relieving stress. One study found that people with ADHD who engage in frequent aerobic exercise report significantly less behavioral impulsivity and experience significantly fewer worrisome and intrusive thoughts.
You don’t need to participate in a triathlon to reap the benefits of exercise, either. Any form of movement—yoga, dance, even a walk around your neighborhood—can help you keep intrusive thoughts at bay, or react less negatively to them when they arise.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Sometimes, the guidance and expertise of a mental health professional is required to eliminate intrusive thoughts. One of the most effective ways to identify, process, and reframe unwanted thoughts is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A well-established form of talk therapy, CBT is based on the idea that we can change our thought patterns. A CBT therapist can help put distance between you and your thoughts. Therapy can also help you understand how your thoughts, emotions, and repetitive behaviors are connected.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, a type of CBT, involves confronting intrusive thoughts and allowing them to occur without trying to ward them off with compulsive behavior. In time, working with a CBT or ERP therapist can help young adults reduce the intensity and frequency of intrusive thoughts.
When to Seek Treatment for Intrusive Thoughts
If intrusive thoughts are unrelenting, cause pronounced distress, or interfere with daily life, seek professional help. Unproductive, obsessive thinking can be a symptom of issues that require treatment.
Mental health professionals are skilled at working with intrusive thoughts that stem from anxiety disorders, a history of trauma, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. They can provide expert guidance and support, offering approaches and techniques that can help you manage intrusive thoughts more effectively.
How Newport Institute Supports Young Adults to Heal Underlying Causes of Obsessive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts can cause significant disruption to a young adult’s life, including their educational goals, relationships, and/or career. Whether intrusive thoughts arise from anxiety, depression, trauma, or OCD, we can identify the root cause and guide young adults to healing and recovery.
Newport Institute’s specialized OCD treatment for young adults includes medication management and a wide range evidence-based modalities designed by a team of clinical and medical experts. Our integrated treatment for OCD includes Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy—the gold standard of care for OCD.
In addition, our young adult treatment addresses issues such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, body dysmorphia, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior. Each client’s tailored treatment plan includes clinical, somatic (body-based), and experiential therapies, ranging from CBT, ERP, and EMDR to yoga, mindfulness, and creative expression. Many of these modalities activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the anxiety and obsessive thinking associated with OCD.
Family therapy is another central component of our treatment. Working with our expert clinicians, family members learn communication skills and other techniques that help repair fractures in the family system. As parents and young adult children come to understand each other better, young adults realize they can turn to parents for support if they’re struggling. To learn more about our industry-leading young adult treatment, contact us today.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most common intrusive thoughts?
Common intrusive thoughts include harming a baby, catching a serious illness, swerving into traffic, jumping from a high place, and having an inappropriate sexual encounter.
What causes unwanted intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts can be caused by stress and lack of sleep. They can also be caused by mental health issues like clinical anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
How do you stop intrusive thoughts?
Mindfulness meditation, exercise, writing, time in nature or with animals, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help eliminate intrusive thoughts.
Can exercise help with intrusive thoughts?
Yes, the feel-good chemicals your brain releases after exercise can help reduce stress and calm the mind, thereby reducing intrusive thoughts.
What exercises get rid of intrusive thoughts?
You don’t need to do high-intensity exercise to get rid of intrusive thoughts. Dancing, bike-riding, swimming, practicing yoga, or simply taking a walk can help reduce obsessive thinking.