Overcoming intrusive thoughts

Living with intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming. This article will explain things that you can try right now to help stop your unwelcome thoughts as well as discussing therapy options.
how to stop intrusive thoughts, pic shows girl with thoughts
Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

This page will discuss how to stop intrusive thoughts by focusing on the following options.

  • Things you can try now and
  • therapy options.

Table of Contents

Know the difference between thought and reality.

There is a stark contrast between I will stand up and shout something obscene in Church right now, and I am worried I might say something blasphemous. 

 The first thought contains action, something you will do now, whereas the second thought is a worry, a doubt. Reality-based action thought. I am going to punch that person. Doubt, I am worried I might hurt someone.

Understanding the difference between doubt and reality is crucial in overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts. Once you can see the difference, it becomes easier to accept that you need to work with doubt instead of the content of the thought.

Being worried that you might do something or have done something in the past and cannot remember it is not the same as actually doing it.

People with intrusive thoughts go out of their way, carrying out elaborate compulsions to ensure that they never act on the thought.

How to work with compulsions.

People with obsessive thoughts or Pure O may not be aware that they carry out compulsions. The following examples will highlight some of the compulsions you may do and need to work on to end intrusive thoughts. 

People with HOCD may check themselves to ensure their sexual preference has not changed. This checking is carried out to ease the distress caused by internal thought and is a compulsion.

Someone with Harm OCD may remove objects they fear might hurt someone. This compulsive act is carried out to prevent a feared consequence.

Learning to trust your senses

I shall start with a more classic OCD example to explain how to start trusting your judgment.

A person with OCD may lock their front door, repeatedly pull the handle, unlock and relock and stare at the door for a long time before feeling able to walk away.

The doubt that characterizes OCD makes locking up very difficult for the person; they cannot trust their actions and sight.

In non-OCD tasks, they rely on their senses; for example, if a person has just put a plate in the cupboard and walked away and I ask where is the plate, they will answer in the closet as they can trust their actions and their sight that they saw the plate in the cupboard.

If I ask two people about their romantic preference, one may state; that they are, for example, heterosexual, and if I inquire how they know, they can trust their judgment to answer the question.

However, if the person has Sexual orientation themed OCD, they will not be able to trust their decision as they are plagued with doubt caused by OCD.

The person with HOCD may no longer trust their judgement and check to see if they are attracted to members of the same sex or opposite sex if they are lesbian or gay.

If you have been heterosexual or in a same-sex relationship, your sexual identity should be a given; it is a fact based on reality.

The doubt caused by intrusive thoughts conflicts with reality.

Do not overuse your senses.

In the example above, where the person repeatedly locks the door and stares at it, to overcome the obsessive thought that the door might not be locked they have to relearn to trust their senses, and they do that by using the following.

Lock the door and look at the action of turning the key and walk away. It can be challenging to begin with, as doubt will create high anxiety levels.

Resist walking back to check the door, as this will reinforce the pattern that checking makes you feel more relaxed and reassured.

The Most Critical Steps To Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Step 1. Dedicating Time To The Thought

If you analyse your thoughts, wondering why you have them or what it says about you as a person, there are models of therapy that will help you stop doing this. 

Why do you need to stop doing this?

Thoughts need the energy to survive. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy works well as it teaches you to label the thought and move on. 

You can do this right now, although it takes practice. Next time you have an intrusive thought, label it just as a thought and move your attention away rather than dedicate time to it. Try it now.

Decide on your label. You can use a label such as.

  • there’s an intrusive thought
  • it’s just a thought

Don’t push the thought away; this does not work. The more you tell yourself to stop thinking about something, the more likely you will think about it. Try this for yourself. Don’t think about your favourite food for one minute. This might be desserts, pie, steak, whatever it is, do not think about it.

Did you notice an increase in saliva? If you did, not only did you think about the thought, but you changed your physiology, as your body is now preparing for food!

Keep labelling; there’s a thought, and move on.

Step 2. How To Learn To Accept Your Thoughts

I use mindfulness, acceptance, and commitment therapy strategies to help you accept your thought process. You have come across this phrase before, ‘accept your thoughts’, so I shall take a second and explain why this is helpful.

Why is this important?

At the moment, if you are suffering, you cannot accept intrusive thoughts as ‘just a thought.’ You react to them as accurate or worried that you might act on the thoughts and cause some harm either to yourself or someone else. You have developed several ways to cope with your thoughts, including avoiding things or avoiding your thoughts.

Learning to accept your thoughts helps to stop the thought-action fusion. This is where you believe that thinking about something makes it more likely to happen.

Once you have been taught to accept them, the thoughts shall no longer mean anything to you with practice. They keep popping into your mind at the moment because you shine a spotlight on them, trying to figure out what they mean, trying to avoid them, and adopting various tactics to make sure you do not harm. Your brain has decided, ‘this is something we need to pay serious attention to.’ Learning to label them and move on helps to stop this.

Step 3 Stop Doing Things Differently.

To cope, you now do things differently. You might avoid things you believe trigger your thoughts or find that you engage in something to make you feel better. These are known as compulsions.

Behavioural therapy will help you with this, for example, CBT and ERP.

Why do I need to do this?

It’s unnecessary. The only purpose it serves is to make you feel better temporarily. If this strategy worked, you would not be reading this page, as the thoughts would be gone.

Stop Changing Your Behaviours.

You might have changed the way you exist in the world to prevent you from causing some harm (concerning your thoughts.) For example,

  • If you have intrusive thoughts regarding knives, you might have moved the blades in your kitchen, or
  • If you experience intrusive thoughts regarding children, you might avoid children’s parties, be extra careful with how you look at a child or be uncomfortable bathing and dressing children. or
  • If you have unwanted thoughts regarding your sexuality, you may avoid people, places or things that trigger your thoughts.

It would be best if you learned to stop doing this, as even though the strategies you have developed help you in the short term, they are not effective long term, as they only keep this cycle going.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in addition to mindfulness-based approaches, combined with relaxation training, will help you achieve this.

Step 4 Take The Thoughts Less Personally.

It would be best if you were taught that thoughts do not mean anything about you.

Step 5 Take The Fear Out Of Your Thoughts.

Having an emotional reaction to the content of your thoughts keeps the unwanted thought alive in your mind. When you let the thought come into your mind, and your feelings are not affected, the thoughts lose their power.

Therapy for intrusive thoughts

Psychological therapies such as CBT and Exposure Response Prevention are a more long term solution to help you overcome intrusive thoughts. If you are considering therapy, I have a series of articles that explains what happens should you decide to seek psychological support.

Doubt, anxiety and compulsions maintain intrusive thoughts. There are effective models of therapy that teach you how to react differently to unwanted thoughts without needing to resort to compulsions. The thoughts will no longer trouble you when the compulsions have gone and the doubt subsides.

Online self-help

If you would like my help, please see my online courses

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