How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts


Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and unwelcome thoughts or images that are upsetting or distressing to the person experiencing them. They may become an obsession, and are generally difficult to manage or eliminate. They may be a symptom of an underlying disorder including: obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, body dysmorphic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, psychosis, or attention-deficit disorder, but may occur without these disorders. Intrusive thoughts, urges, and images are generally of inappropriate things at inappropriate times, and are typically of an aggressive or sexual nature.

Tip 1: Identify

The first step is to begin to identify intrusive thoughts and label them as such. It is one thing to be beset by a problem, which leads to confusion and fear by what is happening, and another to put a problem into a context or framework to better help you understand it.

The three main categories of intrusive thoughts are aggressive, sexual or blasphemous. Some people may experience one, some may experience two, and some may experience all three categories. You could begin to explore why you think you may experience those certain types of thoughts. Were you raised in an environment that encouraged or heavily shamed aggression, sexuality or religious ideas?

Tip 2: Self-care

Self-care is an important practice for maintaining good mental health, and this also applies to reducing the frequency and severity of intrusive thoughts. Below are a few ideas you can add to your self-care routine to help manage this problem.

1) Exercise – Do you get enough exercise? Do you exercise on a regular basis?

2) Sleep – Are you getting enough sleep? Most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep to function optimally. Children and teens may need even more.

3) Social support – Do you gave a support group? Friends or family you can talk to about your problems?

4) Therapy – Have you considered getting therapy before? Some find it helpful to talk to a counsellor, or therapist who may be able to offer support and advice.

5) Educate – Continue to learn more about mental health, psychology, stress and anxiety. There are many websites and books on these subjects.

Tip 3: Treat Underlying Condition

It can help to identify any underlying disorder(s) that may be causing or exacerbating the intrusive thoughts. Some of the most common are anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Below are some tips for each disorder:

Anxiety – Square breathing is a simple technique which involves taking slow, deep breaths. It is good for stress reduction, and can increase performance and concentration.

To start, visualise a square, then follow the instructions going clockwise:

  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds picturing one side of the square.
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds visualising the second side of the square.
  3. Breathe out over 4 seconds visualising the third side of the square.
  4. Hold your breath for 4 seconds visualising the fourth side of the square.

This exercise should be completed as many times as required for the breathing to become calm and regular.

(For more anxiety tips, check out this post)

2) Depression – Regular exercise has been shown to help lower the effects of depression. This is due to several reasons including:

  1. Taking our mind off worries – Rather than ruminating about problems, being proactive can help to distract us from negative cycles of thinking.
  2. Releasing endorphins – feel good chemicals in the brain which can enhance our sense of well-being.
  3. Confidence – you are actively trying to improve yourself, and becoming fitter at the same time, so you are naturally going to feel better about yourself.
  4. Social interaction – joining the gym, going for a run in the park, or joining a sports team may introduce you to other like minded people.

(For more depression tips, check out this post)

3) PTSD – Triggers are any stimulus that causes your mind or body to recall a previous traumatic experience, which can feel like you are re-experiencing the event that originally caused the trauma. The stimulus may not be frightening or exactly the same as the original cause of trauma. Triggers can come in a variety of forms including: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, people, thoughts, emotions, places, news reports, movies, situations, anniversaries, and words. Traumatic coupling is the process of connecting a traumatic experience to a trauma trigger.

To better understand and manage your triggers, ask reflect on the following questions:

– What trauma(s) have I experienced?

– What are my trigger(s)?

– How do I normally react?

– What are some better ways of coping/reacting in these situations?

(For more PTSD tips, check out this post)


“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.” ~ Pema Chodron

“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.” ~ Dan Millman

“Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.” ~ John Green

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn


For additional help with anxiety and stress management:

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