Techniques for Reframing Intrusive Thoughts

Reframing is a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and is a very useful skill to have if you have intrusive thoughts; this article will show you how to reframe your intrusive thoughts and explain how it helps you to recover.

I shall not go into details explaining OCD or intrusive thoughts in this article as I want to focus on how to look at them differently, but you can read more about intrusive thoughts on MoodSmith or ADAA.

At the moment, if your thoughts are untreated, i.e. if you have not started therapy or are very new to obsessive thoughts, then I shall take an educated guess that they are wreaking havoc with your life, possibly terrifying even. I have been working with OCD and anxiety disorders for two decades and fully understand how upsetting they can be.

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Understanding Intrusive Thoughts

Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts to some degree. They are a normal part of human cognition. However, the frequency and intensity of these thoughts can vary greatly among individuals.

It’s important to note that having intrusive thoughts does not make you a bad person. They do not reflect your character or desires.

Here are some key points about intrusive thoughts:

  • They are involuntary and often unwanted.
  • They can cause significant distress and anxiety.
  • They do not reflect a person’s character or desires.
  • They are a common part of the human experience.

Prevalence and Nature of Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are more common than most people realize. They are a universal human experience.

However, the content and frequency of these thoughts can vary greatly. Some people may have them occasionally, while others may experience them more frequently.

Differentiating Normal vs. Disorder-Linked Intrusive Thoughts

While intrusive thoughts are common, they can also be a symptom of certain mental health disorders. These include Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders.

In these cases, the thoughts may be more frequent, persistent, and distressing. They may also be accompanied by compulsive behaviours or avoidance strategies.

How to reframe your intrusive thoughts

Learn to identify the thought in the first place

This might seem like an obvious statement but you have to learn to identify the thought before you start reframing. Let me explain: I find when working with clients that once an intrusive thought pops into their head, they run with it, meaning they engage with it, analyse it, fight it, or take steps to stop the thought from becoming true. The thought will not be true, this is a concept called thought-fusion-action and you can read more about it here.

The steps to stop the thought from coming true are compulsions. Either way, ritualising or analysing, you have to stop and identify it as an intrusive thought. Like, literally, stop and think quietly to yourself or out loud if you are alone;

I am having an intrusive thought.

Once you do this, you not only stop engaging with the thought, which also stops your emotions from spiralling out of control, but you are ready to start to reframe it.

Take your thoughts to court.

Imagine walking into a court of law with your thought and you are going to defend or refute your thought, you just can’t stand before a judge and say that it feels true or that you are worried it might be true, or reason with the judge that you are afraid what having thoughts like that will say about your character.

Reframe your thought.

If you do not have proper evidence that your thought is true, reframe it or change it to something more realistic or to a thought that you could take to court.

For example, if your thought was I might have made my family ill when serving them home-cooked food, usually the type of belief behind this thought is that somehow your hands were contaminated or food contaminated and you could give your family food poisoned or worse. You could reframe this thought by saying

  • It’s an intrusive thought, or
  • It’s my anxiety making me think anxious thoughts
  • I washed my hands
  • I have never given my family food poisoning
  • I have never given anyone food poisoning from my cooking

You can use a worksheet like the one in the image below if that helps you.

Reframing intrusive Thoughts Worksheet (moodsmith logo)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Intrusive Thoughts

Thought reframing comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which posits that by changing our thought patterns, we can alter our emotional responses and behaviours. This makes it a powerful tool for reframing intrusive thoughts. In the example above, if you did not reframe the thought, your anxiety would be sky high if you thought you had made your family sick, and you might start to avoid cooking or going to elaborate steps to ensure cleanliness; this is when you start adding compulsions to your thoughts and are reinforcing the OCD cycle.

Whereas if you reframed it, the anxiety lessens, and there is less chance that you reitualise.

Remember: Thoughts are not facts

Other strategies you can use

Mindfulness is very useful. When you catch an intrusive thought, don’t engage, focus on your breath. I won’t go into much detail regarding this as I wrote an article on mindfulness that you can read here.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT introduces the concept of thought defusion, which encourages seeing thoughts as just thoughts, not as facts or commands that must be acted upon. This can be particularly helpful for managing intrusive thoughts, and you can read more about using ACT with CBT here.

Thought-Stopping: This technique involves consciously stopping intrusive thoughts by visualizing a stop sign or saying “stop” out loud or in your mind.

Redirecting Attention: Shifting the focus to a neutral or positive thought or activity, like reading, solving a puzzle, or engaging in a hobby, can help reduce the power and frequency of intrusive thoughts.

Go easy on yourself

Having intrusive thoughts is hard enough without you getting upset with yourself, as you’re not doing it right, or forget to do it, or don’t find it helpful, You can reframe those thoughts as well.

Remind yourself

  • You are doing the best you can
  • It takes time to change
  • And you’re doing a great job!

When to Seek Professional Help

While self-management strategies can be effective, there are times when professional help may be necessary. This is particularly true if intrusive thoughts are causing significant distress or interfering with daily life.

If you decide to engage in therapy, seek out a licensed mental health professional who specialises in OCD. If you are not sure, your local family doctor should be able to recommend psychologists or therapists in your area.

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