How to help myself with intrusive thoughts

In this article, I will outline some strategies for dealing with intrusive thoughts. I won’t go into details about the nature of the thoughts, as I have already covered this in depth in this article.

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Understanding Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.) They are the obsessions part of OCD, and these thoughts can be about anything, but at their core, they are hard to stop thinking about and make you feel very upset, uncomfortable, ashamed or distressed.

It’s important to note that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts to some degree. I get them, and I’m a Chartered Psychologist who has been working with people with OCD therapeutically for two decades.

Here are some common examples of intrusive thoughts:

  • Fear of harming yourself or others
  • Doubts about your morality or character
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts
  • Thoughts about behaving inappropriately or embarrassingly
  • Persistent worries about health or safety

If you are ready to help yourself with intrusive thoughts; understanding what is happening is the first step.

Understanding intrusive thoughts is the first step towards managing them. By recognizing their nature and commonality, we can begin to demystify and destigmatize the experience. This understanding lays the foundation for effective coping strategies and relief.

How to help yourself

There are many claims on the internet and many people offering help, but I want you to be able to critique everything you read. The best way to do this is to think about what the person or services offered would be like if they were a brick-and-mortar service. Would they be part of a well-recognised organisation that you would trust when you walk through the door?

Your mental health is a big deal, and for people like myself, psychologists, and indeed all mental health and health professionals, there are guidelines, and codes of ethics, and many different ways that we are held accountable, and this is what you want to put your faith in; professional licenced mental health professionals who are offering what we call empirically validated models of therapy. Research shows that how to model claims to help you is based on scientific rigour, it has been shown to be effective and shown to do what it claims to do. For intrusive thoughts, you are looking at cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)and exposure-response prevention (ERP.)

Things you can try at home

Exposure Response Prevention

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is particularly effective for managing intrusive thoughts, especially those associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The principle behind ERP is to gradually expose oneself to the thoughts, images, or situations that trigger anxiety. Over time, this exposure helps to reduce the fear and discomfort associated with these triggers.

While ERP can be challenging, it is often highly effective. With the guidance of a trained professional, individuals can learn to face their fears and reduce the power of intrusive thoughts.

Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) is a well-researched model of therapy shown to help people with OCD. At its simplest, it is where you are exposed to your obsessions without ritualising (carrying out compulsions.) If you are at the very start of your OCD journey, I appreciate the thought of not ritualising, it can not only be scary but seem nigh on impossible. I can assure you that after working as a psychologist helping people just like you, people can and do manage this.

Start by reading as much as possible on the subject. I shall list a few resources.

how to help yourself with intrusive thoughts

In those listed resources, you have enough information to try ERP at home.

Cognitive Restructuring Techniques

Cognitive restructuring is a key technique within CBT. It involves identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts. The aim is to replace them with more balanced and realistic ones.

This technique can be particularly effective for intrusive thoughts. It helps us to recognize that these thoughts are not facts. They are merely thoughts, and they do not define us or our reality.

Practicing cognitive restructuring can be challenging. It requires patience and persistence. But with time, it can lead to significant improvements in managing intrusive thoughts.

Mindfulness

In my experience working as a psychologist I appreciate that when you start to help yourself, even if you are working with a professional, it is difficult to cope with the emotions experienced by the thoughts, especially when you start to reduce your compulsions. This is where mindfulness can help with stress.

I’ve already written an article that shows how mindfulness can help and I recommend that you also read about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy with CBT, as this really helps with the initial extra discomfort.

Lifestyle Choices

If you drink alcohol, try not to use this to help cope with the thoughts, as not only will this affect your sleep, which makes the thoughts worse, it only works as a short-term crutch and hinders the long term.

Diet, exercise, and Sleep

People can read about sleep and exercise and pay lip service to it, but as I explained in yesterday’s article, lack of sleep is considered a vulnerability factor and makes it harder to cope with thoughts, so take sleep seriously in your quest to overcome intrusive thoughts.

Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can also improve sleep quality, another crucial factor in managing intrusive thoughts.

Poor sleep can exacerbate intrusive thoughts, while quality sleep can help regulate mood and improve cognitive function. Therefore, maintaining good sleep hygiene can be a valuable part of a comprehensive approach to managing intrusive thoughts.

Immediate Relief Techniques for Intrusive Thoughts

If you find that you are having troubling with intrusive thoughts right now, focus on your breathe. That’s it. How?

  • Notice you are breathing in
  • breathing out
  • breathing in

In doing so, you are taking your attention away from your thoughts and choosing to focus on something else; your breath. Choosing is the key word. Getting caught up in your thoughts is not a choice; take control back and exercise choice by focusing on your breath.

You can also try grounding exercises. I have already spoken about grounding techniques in this article, so I won’t repeat it here.

These exercises involve focusing on the physical sensations of the present moment, which can help to anchor the mind and prevent it from being swept up in intrusive thoughts.

The Importance of a Support System

Having a strong support system can be invaluable in managing intrusive thoughts. Friends, family, and mental health professionals can provide emotional support, practical advice, and a safe space to express feelings.

Support groups, both in-person and online, can also be beneficial. They offer a sense of community and shared experiences, which can help to reduce feelings of isolation and stigma.

Remember, it’s okay to lean on others for support. You don’t have to face intrusive thoughts alone.

When to Seek Professional Help

Trying techniques at home and other self-help strategies are your first port of call to get over intrusive thoughts, but you also need to know when you get professional help from a licenced mental health professional.

How to know when to get help

If you have tried to help yourself and are still troubled with your thoughts, then it is time to get professional help.

If your OCD is moderate or severe, it is time to make a face to face appointment with a professional.

Mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, can provide effective treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP). They can also prescribe medication in severe cases.

Ensure the therapist you choose in not only qualified but experience in the treatment of intrusive thoughts and OCD.

Conclusion

Remember, it’s okay to have bad days. What’s important is to keep moving forward, even if it’s just a small step. Every effort you make towards managing your intrusive thoughts is a victory.

In the end, the goal is not to eliminate intrusive thoughts completely, but to change your relationship with them. With time, patience, and the right strategies, you can find relief and regain control over your mental health.

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