Intrusive Thoughts & Mental Health

What are intrusive thoughts?

We can all, from time to time, experience intrusive thoughts. These are unwanted, and sometimes distressing, ideas, memories, and images that enter our mind randomly and cause disruption. The content of such thoughts can vary, and therefore, so does the level of distress caused. There are different types of intrusive thoughts. For example, they may involve rumination: thinking back on past events that were embarrassing or hurtful. They could be violent in nature, whether this is violence towards yourself or others. Or they may be something as simple as negative self-talk, through statements such as ‘I am stupid.’.

Why do we have them?

Naturally, our brain can focus more on negative thoughts. It has been suggested that this is an evolutionary tool to keep us safe from danger within our environment, as we acknowledge and prepare for potentially harmful stimuli (for more information on this, click here). This helps explain the commonality of these thoughts, as we all get them occasionally. On other rare occasions, intrusive thoughts can be a result of certain underlying health conditions, such as Dementia and Parkinson’s, and can worsen as the condition develops. Excessive or particularly debilitating thoughts have also been associated with certain mental health issues.

How do they relate to mental health?

Having intrusive thoughts does not mean you have a mental or physical health condition of course. Nevertheless, if we do begin to assign meaning to them, and drawing conclusions about ourselves or others, they can start to be damaging. If we find we are obsessing over them and that they interrupt our day-day life, they may be a sign of mental illness.

  • OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the mental illness most commonly associated with intrusive thoughts. We find that rather than being able to dismiss such thoughts, those with OCD assign meaning to them, and come up with routines and compulsions to counteract them. For example, if you have an intrusive thought ‘I could hurt a child’, and dismiss it, it isn’t necessarily harmful, as it has been ignored. If however, we begin to assume conclusions like ‘I must be crazy’, or ‘I’m worried i’m going to act on them’, and creating routines and rules to counteract them (‘I must avoid all my nieces and nephews!’), this can be a sign of OCD. With OCD, intrusive thoughts are repetitive, disrupting, and can feel very difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
  • PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after a traumatic event. Intrusive thoughts in PTSD can be in the form of ruminating on past traumatic events. These thoughts usually occur out of the blue and can be extremely stressful. This may cause an individual to avoid certain situations, including social situations which may increase feelings of isolation and depressive thoughts.
  • Anxiety: Those with anxiety are more likely to interrupt intrusive thoughts as being ‘bad’ and ‘immoral’, allowing them to worry and spend more time with them, rather than dismissing them and moving on.
  • Depression: Intrusive thoughts are not necessarily a symptom of depression. However, repeated experiences of these thoughts can certainly lead to a depressive episode.

How to tackle intrusive thoughts on a daily basis?

Here are some tips to help stop intrusive thoughts being so stressfull:

  • Remind yourself they are just thoughts, and that they do not reflect reality
  • Establish that they are automatic
  • Try not to actively push them way- allow these thoughts to come and go. You may find that they pass quicker, rather than focusing on them and attempting to push them from your mind
  • Continue with whatever you were doing, as this can act as a natural distraction, but do so without a sense of urgency.
  • Try not to change your behaviour to accommodate such thoughts.

How can CBT and Brighter Life Therapy help?

These daily tips can be very helpful, but a more formal approach may be necessary. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common way to tackle these thoughts and routines with professional help. Brighter Life Therapy provides fast access to CBT and counselling treatment, which you can read about here. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0118 40 50 108, or by emailing info@brighterlifetherapy.co.uk.

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