The impact of intrusive thoughts can be both emotionally and physically draining. People may avoid seeking help due to fear of judgement or shame. I wrote this article to explain what will help should you seek professional help and highlight things you can try at home.
This article shows you how to manage your intrusive thoughts, and I shall talk to you about short and long-term strategies.
I won’t be going into great depth explaining intrusive thoughts in this article, but if you want more detail, please refer to my guide, which gives an extensive overview of intrusive thoughts.
Before I discuss coping with your thoughts, I want to highlight that intrusive thoughts, no matter how scary, are just thoughts.
Two people can have the same disturbing thought, but one can let it go, and the other may wrestle with it for months or years. The reason for the difference has nothing to do with the thought itself but rather rests with the particular thinking style of the person.
If you think the thought must mean something about you as a person, you are more likely to analyse it and feel more distress than the first person who saw it as a thought, granted, a bit bizarre, but a thought non the less.
As I go through various strategies, keep that fact in mind, no matter how disturbing the thought is; it is just a thought.
Structured self-help course for Intrusive Thoughts from the privacy of your home
Dr Ryan: Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith
Short term strategies
I shall start with short-term ways to manage intrusive thoughts if they are happening right now. Try these for yourself, and if you are still struggling, the next section will discuss long-term strategies usually implemented with a therapist’s help.
When intrusive thoughts are active, they grab all your attention; they take up all your headspace and wreak havoc with your emotions. These short-term strategies will help to divert your attention away from your thought processes, as once you stop thinking about your thinking, you start to relax. I will begin by telling you how to ground yourself.
5-4-3-2-1 method. This is a great tool to get you to focus on what is happening in the real world right now, which is primarily uneventful, as opposed to focusing on the thoughts in your head (1).
- Name five things you can see. For example, I see a computer, a screen, dogs, a keyboard, a coffee cup and grass.
- Name four things that you can feel. I can feel the chair I am sitting on, the keyboard as I type this article, and my feet on the floor (my toes were touching the floor, and I switched positions to put my feet firmly on the floor.) The computer mouse. A coffee cup. Really feel the things around you; rather than just grabbing the coffee cup, I felt the warmth of the cup, the smoothness of the porcelain and the ridges in the design. My leg, I just reached out to scratch my leg.
- Three things you can hear. I can hear the click of the keyboard as I type this article. Wind rustling through trees, as my garden is outside the window, and it is a windy day. My dogs barking as they are currently playing in the garden.
- Two things you can smell. Coffee, I can smell coffee. I couldn’t smell anything else around me as I wrote this article, so I opened the door to the garden and could smell grass as my neighbours were mowing their lawns.
- One thing you can taste. Coffee.
How does this help?
This helps you right now as it forces you to focus on what is really happening. The thoughts in your head are not an accurate representation of what is happening right now; the things around you are. Doing this helps you to refocus and allow your nervous system to reset.
Focusing on your breath is a continuation of what you were doing above; they are all mindfulness, where you focus on the present moment without judgement. Most of these techniques were what I used as the skills training part of DBT, but they are beneficial with intrusive thoughts.
How to do this.
You can close your eyes if you want. Pay attention to your breathing. Try not to interact and judge it; for example, don’t tell yourself you are breathing too fast or too slow; just be aware of it.
If you are feeling really anxious, you can take a long deep breath in for a count of four, hold for four and breathe out slowly for a count of six or seven, whatever feels comfortable for you.
Paying attention to your breathing, like the 5-4-3-2-1 techniques, forces you out of your head and into what is really happening right now.
Progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. It would help if you tried it when you next have an intrusive thought.
Why this helps
Your thoughts and feelings are connected. Just think of your favourite food, and you’ll notice saliva in your mouth because your body reacts to your thoughts.
When you get a thought that alarms you, your body can tense up, and progressive muscle relaxation helps it relax.
How to do this
Start by focusing on each muscle group. For example, bring all your attention to your feet. Tense your muscles for a count of five and then relax for a count of five. Then bring your attention to your calf muscle and tense for a count of five before releasing for a count of five.
Continue doing this through all your muscles, paying particular attention to your jaw, head and tiny muscles around your eyes.
Similar to the techniques already mentioned, this gets you to focus on what is real and what is happening right now.
If you get distressing images with your intrusive thoughts, use your power of visualisation to your advantage. See yourself in your mind in a more peaceful place; this could in on a beach, a forest or anywhere in nature.
Benefits and pitfalls of short-term methods to help with intrusive thoughts.
All the methods mentioned above are excellent tools to employ when you are in the middle of intrusive thoughts, but they are only one tool amongst many available to a therapist.
If you struggle with your thoughts, long-term methods may be more useful as they help you address the core of the problem. Long-term methods include talking therapies such as CBT and ERP.
I have written several articles that explain these models and what happens should you meet a psychologist for therapy. You can start by reading the ones outlined below.
- Psychological assessment of intrusive thoughts
- ERP for intrusive thoughts
- CBT for intrusive thoughts
- Talking therapy and intrusive thoughts
- Shukla, A. (2019). A 5-Step Mindfulness Grounding Technique To Ease Anxiety & Why Mindfulness Works. Cognition Today, 1–14. Retrieved from https://cognitiontoday.com/5-step-mindfulness-grounding-technique-to-ease-anxiety-why-it-works/