If you’ve ever been at a great height and had the sudden inexplicable urge to jump off or the irrational fear that you left the stove after already checking on you’re not alone. Actually most people experience some degree of intrusive thoughts in their lives.
Intrusive thoughts can be defined as unwanted thoughts or images that pop into your head without reason. The reasons that we experience intrusive thoughts are complex and there are a number of ways to cope with them.
1. Be objective.
There is power in naming things because it makes things more concrete. Once you’re able to label a thought as intrusive, you have the power to tell yourself that this is an automatic thought that doesn’t define you. Without objectively labeling a thought as intrusive, there’s a tendency to try and find meaning in them.
You might assume that a violent intrusive thought means that you’re a violent person which is not the case. Being objective also means recognizing the fact that most people experience intrusive thoughts to some extent.
A study conducted in 2014 found that around 94% of the American population experiences some form of intrusive thoughts. This information may be surprising to you, but you’ve likely been told about someone else’s experience with intrusive thoughts before.
A lot of people talk about driving and suddenly thinking, “What if I swerved off the street?” This a strange and ridiculous thought that doesn’t reflect the person’s true desires. Treat your intrusive thoughts with the same objectivity.
2. Anticipate intrusive thoughts.
Because intrusive thoughts are such a normal occurrence, you’re likely going to experience them multiple times in your life. This may seem disheartening, but there is power in being aware of this possibility.
When you’re aware of the possibility of an intrusive thought, you can control how you respond to it. If you’re standing at great heights, don’t be surprised if you suddenly think “Hey, I should jump from here.” When you anticipate intrusive thoughts you can work on accepting them rather than being distressed by them.
3. Accept your thoughts.
The myth that your thoughts are under your control can lead to guilt when you have a thought you don’t like. This myth is also the reason that people think they can eradicate their intrusive thoughts by fighting them. In reality, trying to suppress your thoughts tends to make them more prevalent.
It’s paradoxical because you can’t tell yourself not to think about something without thinking about that thing. You can’t try to force yourself to stop thinking about something without focusing heavily on that thought. It’s better to accept that you have this thought. It is only by accepting your intrusive thoughts that you can allow them to pass.
One of the worst things you can do is give credence to your thoughts by acting in accordance with them. For example, you might have repeating thoughts of being embarrassed in front of others and in response, you might decide to avoid interacting with people.
A person with violent intrusive thoughts might be so afraid to hurt a loved one that they avoid spending time with them or you might refuse to cook with a stove because you’re so worried about forgetting to turn it off. By doing this, you are undermining your actual desires and mental health and giving power to your intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are so common and there is a wide variation in the way that they manifest themselves. In some ways this is overwhelming, but there is some comfort that can be gathered by this fact. No matter how you experience intrusive thoughts, you are not alone.