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What are Intrusive Thoughts, & How Do I Stop Them?

You’re standing on the ledge of a scenic lookout point, safely protected by guardrails when—suddenly—the thought of tumbling over the rail pops into your mind with morbid detail. You’re driving down the highway on a nice, sunny day when—out of nowhere—you picture yourself snapping your steering wheel to the left and hurtling into oncoming traffic. You’re at a party with a group of friends, having a good time when—for no discernable reason—you imagine voicing your most embarrassing secret aloud to the shock and disgust of everyone around you. 

If you’ve ever had unprovoked, unsettling and outright unwelcome thoughts like these, you’ve experienced what psychologists call intrusive thoughts. You are not alone! Here are three facts you may not know about this bizarre—and surprisingly common—mental phenomenon, including how to help manage its impact on your life

Fact #1 – Most people experience intrusive thoughts on a regular basis

Although certain mental health conditions and disorders are associated with more frequent and extreme intrusive thoughts, one study showed that 94% of participants reported having at least one intrusive thought in the previous three months.

Even highly disturbing intrusive thoughts are frequently experienced by individuals with neurotypical brains and no known mental health conditions. In one study analyzing new parents, for example, nearly half the participants admitted to experiencing intrusive thoughts about purposefully harming their newborns. Across numerous studies, however, such thoughts have never shown to result in greater rates of parents actually harming their children.

Fact #2 – Some intrusive thoughts can be managed with mindfulness techniques

Experts have conducted lots of research on managing intrusive thoughts. A recent study determined that a proactive approach can help individuals “shake off” intrusive thoughts. Participants in the study were asked to prepare themselves ahead of time by reflecting on the reoccurring thoughts they’ve experienced in the past. When the same intrusive thoughts eventually arose throughout the day, these subjects were able to return their focus to the present moment more quickly than subjects who had not proactively prepared themselves.

This practice bears similarities to the concept of mindfulness, which you can learn more about in our article dedicated to the subject.

Fact #3 – Intrusive thoughts are sometimes caused by underlying conditions

While almost everybody experiences the odd intrusive thought now and then, certain conditions may result in more extreme or frequent occurrences. 

Some conditions commonly associated with intrusive thoughts include: 

  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar Disorder 
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Postpartum Depression

Intrusive thoughts may manifest differently for each of these conditions. For example, a person living with postpartum depression is more likely to experience intrusive thoughts concerning children, whereas a person living with PTSD is more likely to have intrusive thoughts related to their past trauma. The main factor that identifies these intrusive thoughts as severe or abnormal is moreso the frequency and intensity of the thought than the subject matter itself. 

If you feel like your intrusive thoughts are present to the point of negatively impacting your life, you may be suffering from an undiagnosed mental health condition. Valley Oaks Health offers a variety of services from clinical experts to diagnose and treat conditions that may be causing severe intrusive thoughts.

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