How To Manage Intrusive Thoughts

Have you ever been up somewhere high and then had a sudden thought that you could jump off where you are, or even push someone off?

You’re obviously not going to do it, but if that thought has popped into your brain out of nowhere—you are not alone. This is an intrusive thought, in fact, it is a very common intrusive thought for people to have.

Intrusive thoughts are completely normal, and lots of people have them. Intrusive thoughts become a mental health issue when they either become very frequent, more and more vivid, intense and distressing, or start to disrupt your daily life. Perhaps your intrusive thoughts are keeping you awake at night, or making you put yourself in situations where those thoughts may become amplified or you may be in danger. 

Many things can cause intrusive thoughts like this – intrusive thoughts are common amongst people with the following mental health conditions: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), stress or anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

As someone who has OCD and BDD, I have a lot of intrusive thoughts. These may be around the way I look, how people are reacting to the way I look, or most commonly, around my son getting hurt.

Intrusive thoughts at this level aren’t just about having the thought. You see the thought as a vivid movie in your mind. It replays over and over again and can be very distressing, especially when you picture someone you love very much, getting hurt or killed in such vivid detail.

With BDD, you start to convince yourself that a certain part of your body is so hideous, so disgusting and that this is so obvious to others, that you literally see these falsifications as a reality. You believe this distorted reality is completely real, and you cannot help but think that this is what other people see too. This might make you hide away from social situations, not attend family events, or even take time off work.

I am a Learning and Development trainer and when my intrusive thoughts were at their worst, I would lie and say my internet wasn’t working properly so that I could turn my camera off. This meant people couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see myself, so I felt I was protecting myself from psychological harm.

I also found myself protecting my son too much and wrapping him up in cotton wool. I didn’t want him to go out with his friends or to run fast in case he fell over. The list goes on. This wasn’t healthy for him at all, and probably put him in more danger through not being able to learn boundaries, his own safety and develop his own protective skills. Yet I couldn’t help but fear that he would get hurt. 

So, this probably sounds like a miserable place to be in, however, the great news is that intrusive thoughts CAN be managed, and recovery is absolutely possible.

There are many different ways this can be done.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Personally, I found CBT to be the most effective way to manage my intrusive thoughts.

CBT is a talking therapy, the principle of which is to re-wire your thoughts by testing beliefs and fears about certain situations to change how you think about them. With regards to body image issues, a particular form of CBT is used called exposure and response prevention (ERP) — this helps individuals manage intrusive thoughts around body image. 

As with any type of therapy, this is not an easy journey or quick fix, it will involve you putting yourself in situations where you must push your own boundaries to start thinking about things differently, eventually being able to dismiss those intrusive thoughts.

There are different avenues to access CBT, and usually it will start with a conversation with your GP. Many workplaces have employee assistance programmes (EAP) and some charities, such as the BDD foundation, run CBT programmes based on peer to peer learning.

There is a fantastic book called Overcoming Body Image Problems,’ by David Veale, Rob Wilson and Alex Clarke, which is a self-help guide using these CBT behavioural techniques.

Externalising Intrusive Thoughts

Another useful technique is to learn how to ‘externalize’ your intrusive thoughts. This means that you take that thought and personify it. You might see it as something annoying, or give it a name or making it into a character. So when that thought pops up again, you think to yourself ‘oh look, Alan is here again.. what are you up to Alan? I know you’re there and I don’t want to listen to you’

This helps you to separate that thought from reality and realise that it is just an unwanted intrusive thought which you can throw away.

Something else to bear in mind is your general wellbeing. When we are feeling good in ourselves and doing things to help manage our positive mental health, it is less likely (but not guaranteed) that intrusive thoughts are going to pop up.

This includes things such as:

  • Maintaining good nutrition
  • Exercising regularly
  • Sleeping and resting enough
  • Talking to friends / family
  • Having hobbies
  • Meditation and mindfulness

There are many different resources available online if you would like to read more about intrusive thoughts, and remember – it is always good to talk to someone if you are feeling overwhelmed. 

Rachel Moore 

Learning and Development Consultant 


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