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If you’ve ever had an unwanted thought, you’re not the only one. 94% of the population experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts on a daily basis. They may be sudden doubts about the integrity of your relationships, thoughts that something embarrassing will happen to you or thoughts that you may have done something life threatening. Often, our brains are able to dismiss intrusive thoughts and recognise them as something that we don’t need to be concerned about, but sometimes these thoughts can be more challenging to let go of and can keep returning, causing ongoing distress and sometimes developing into an anxiety disorder.
Whether you’re dealing with your own intrusive thoughts or know someone who is struggling with them, in this blog we’ll be covering some useful tips on how to deal with intrusive thoughts, and help reduce the impact on personal relationships or work life. But first, let’s take a more in-depth look at what intrusive thoughts are.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and potentially distressing thoughts that can seem to appear out of nowhere. They can happen to anyone and can be about almost anything. While, in most cases, our brains are able to dismiss the thought without dwelling on it, there may be times where we attach meaning to the thoughts, and therefore experience distress. For example, if we have a distressing thought and attach a meaning (‘if I have thought this bad thing, then it will happen’), this meaning can magnify the distress it causes. It’s important to try and remember that these thoughts are no different to any other thought that we have; only by creating the specific attachment to the thought do we cause any disturbance in our brains.
There can be many different forms of intrusive thoughts, such as fears of the future, memories of the past, inappropriate thoughts or intrusive images. While they might be shocking and upsetting, they certainly aren’t uncommon; as we mentioned above, 94% of the population is believed to experience them. Intrusive thoughts play an important part in our survival. The reason why distressing thoughts might randomly appear in our minds is to alert us to possible danger (e.g. the thought of accidentally cutting yourself when using a sharp knife, or thinking you may have left an iron on at home). As mentioned above, it is when we attach meaning to these thoughts that they become distressing, for example ‘I will cut my hand’ or ‘the house is burning down’. In some cases, the distress of these thoughts can lead to compulsions – in these example scenarios, you might avoid using knives, or go back to your home to check the iron. We call this pattern OCD – when we are obsessed with an intrusive thought and engage in a behavioural compulsion to make the distress and the thought temporarily go away.
Whether or not your intrusive thoughts are a symptom of a disorder like OCD, there are ways to manage these thoughts so they don’t cause you distress. Below are some strategies for dealing with intrusive thoughts that you can practise on your own or with a loved one.
Intrusive thoughts can happen to any of us. Most of the time, when we’re able to recognise them as something intrusive and not one of our regular thoughts, we can draw a line under them and move on. The thoughts become more distressing when we assign weight to them; when we think we might act on them or when we treat them like they’re real. One way to tackle intrusive thoughts that are particularly distressing is to remind yourself that they are just thoughts, everyone has them and that they don’t mean anything.
For example, having a violent thought doesn’t mean you’re going to act on it, and it doesn’t mean you’re a violent person. In fact, in being upset by a violent thought you’re showing that you are not a violent person and your values disagree with the act of violence.
Simply notice your thought, acknowledge that it is there, and refocus your attention away from your mind and focus on the present moment. Giving your thought more attention than this may give your mind an opportunity to manifest this thought into something more distressing.
Our gut instinct when something disturbing or upsetting happens is to get away from it as quickly as possible or push it away. For particularly distressing intrusive thoughts, you might be tempted to push them out of your mind. However, this will likely have the opposite effect. When you try to push intrusive thoughts away, you’re giving them more attention which can make them harder to ignore. This can happen with even the simplest thought, like a pink elephant. Try this exercise: for the next 30 seconds, you can think about absolutely anything you like; the only thing you can’t think about is a pink elephant. Whenever the pink elephant comes to your mind, reject it and push it away – it must not be there.
It’s likely you only lasted a few seconds before a pink elephant popped into your head. As soon as you try not to think about something, it inevitably comes straight into your mind. This is what happens when you try to push your intrusive thoughts away: they stay front-of-mind for much longer. To manage these thoughts better, we need to accept that instructive thoughts will always be around, for all of us, and that fighting with them only strengthens them. However, accepting them and focusing away from them will make them feel less distressing and noticeable when they do come around. Eventually you may stop noticing them completely. It might be difficult at first, but with practice it will likely become much easier.
One of the most challenging aspects of intrusive thoughts is that they tend to be about things that we would never ordinarily do. This can lead to a lot of guilt and shame that means that we feel the after-effects of the intrusive thought for much longer. It’s important to recognise, then, that intrusive, unwanted thoughts are not a reflection of things that we want to do. Just because you’re having a particularly aggressive thought doesn’t mean that there’s something deeply wrong with you – it just means you’re human. Releasing the guilt and shame that comes with intrusive thoughts will help you to manage them, make them seem less daunting when they do appear, and make it easier for you to talk about them.
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