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Intrusive Thoughts: What are they and how do you manage them?

I’m driving around town on a normal day, with nothing going wrong. I bump over a small pothole. I know the street is empty but I immediately panic.

“What if I just hit someone with my car?”

“Should I turn back around and check?”

This is just one example of the many thoughts that pop into my head on a daily basis.

Before being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive disorder, I had no idea what the term “intrusive thoughts” meant. At the time, I was having thoughts that I was far too scared to share with others. I felt that if I admitted my thoughts to the people around me that they would think I am crazy, so I made sure not to tell anyone what I was thinking. Locking up my thoughts resulted in anxiety that was unbearable to manage, which ultimately led me to attend therapy.

So what exactly are intrusive thoughts? According to Ashley Butterfield from the OCD and Anxiety center, “Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli. Typically, these thoughts are distressing (hence “intrusive”) and tend to recur” (Butterfield, 2019). As humans we are all prone to intrusive thoughts, but for some these thoughts cause intense feelings of distress and guilt.

Intrusive thoughts can occur on their own without an underlying condition, and they can also be associated with various mental disorders. These disorders may include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I have obsessive compulsive disorder, which is what makes my intrusive thoughts so out of control. OCD is a complex disorder with varying themes, and within these themes are the presence of intrusive thoughts. According to the Mayo Clinic, common OCD themes may include, “Fear of contamination or dirt, doubting and having difficulty tolerating uncertainty, needing things orderly and symmetrical, aggressive or horrific thoughts about losing control and harming yourself or others, unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects” (Mayo Clinic, 2021). Symptom severity varies from person to person, and not every person that has OCD experiences the themes.

Before I share the following information I want to mention that I am in no way a therapist, nor am I able to confirm that the tips I provide will help you with your intrusive thoughts. The tips that I share are from personal experience, and what may have helped me may not help you.

The first thing my therapist and I began working on to help combat my intrusive thoughts was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. According to Kendra Cherry from the Very Well Mind, “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions” (Cherry, 2021). By learning CBT, and more specifically about cognitive distortions, I was able to recognize that I can't force myself not to have a thought, but I can choose how I react to the thought. CBT has helped me in so many ways, I now am able to understand when a thought I am having is a specific cognitive distortion. By being able to do this, I find myself having a more rational thought process.

Another method that has continued helping me is mindfulness. By using the mindfulness technique I am able to view the thought judgement free and move on. I try to use the five senses technique as well. When I do this I find five things around me that I can see, four things that I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste. By doing this technique I am able to regain focus and bring myself back to reality. I would also like to note that I do take medication which helps with my symptoms of OCD and anxiety. Medication has been a tremendous help for me. It has helped alleviate some of my anxiety, and slow down my intrusive thoughts.

It is important to understand that you are not your thoughts. What thoughts you have are not in your control, but you can control how you view them. You are not crazy for your intrusive thoughts, you are human.

If you are interested in finding a therapist who can introduce you to CBT and/or mindfulness techniques you can get matched to a therapist here.

Kaylee O’Connell, is an Unmute Therabuddy. Therabuddies are everyday people, many with lived experience in muted or marginalized communities who have experienced the challenges of finding the right therapist and want to help make it easier for you!

For more information:

Butterfield, A. P. (2020, June 1). Intrusive Thoughts. The OCD & Anxiety Center.

Cherry, K. (2021, May 7). How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Works. Verywell Mind.

Mayo Clinic. (2020, March 11). Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic.

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