One aspect of my life with anxiety and depression is constantly dealing with intrusive thoughts. It doesn’t matter the time or place, and it doesn’t depend on the activity I’m doing, but every so often, I have unwanted thoughts that become stuck in my brain. And I’m not alone – more than 6 million people are estimated to deal with intrusive thoughts in the U.S. every year, and those are just the people who feel comfortable telling their doctor about it. But what exactly are intrusive thoughts, and how can we recognize when we have them? Let’s break it down.
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, intrusive thoughts are “stuck thoughts that cause great distress. They seem to come from out of nowhere, arrive with a whoosh, and cause a great deal of anxiety.” These types of thoughts don’t seem to arrive for any reason, but our brains tend to get stuck on them. In fact, ADAA also refers to them as ‘unwanted’ intrusive thoughts. Examples include doubts about decisions we make, relationships we maintain, our identity, or things more serious like intrusive thoughts of violence toward ourselves or others.
Healthline defines intrusive thoughts in a similar way:
“Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that seem to become stuck in the mind. They can cause distress, as the nature of the thought may be upsetting. They may also reoccur frequently, which can make the concern worse.”Healthline, 2019,
How Much Power Do Intrusive Thoughts Have?
Here’s where it gets a little complicated. The intrusive thoughts themselves don’t always do the most damage to our psyche. Instead, it’s the ways that these thoughts can bother and distress us that give them power. Intrusive thoughts have a way of making us think that you unconsciously want to do those things that pop into your brain. Even if you don’t really want to, those intrusive thoughts make you think that if you dig down deep enough, these thoughts are part of you. This is a myth that persists despite evidence to the contrary, but when you’re in a thought spiral, it’s difficult to see.
It’s clear that intrusive thoughts have much more power than we give them. Whether it’s the thoughts themselves, our reaction to them or how they affect our day-to-day activities, intrusive thoughts make their presence very well known.
Recognizing Intrusive Thoughts
So how can we recognize when intrusive thoughts are popping up in our brain? For one thing, intrusive thoughts can be symptoms of mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders (in addition to other mental health conditions). If you are seeing symptoms of a mental health condition, this might be one way it’s manifesting itself. Another way to recognize intrusive thoughts is to acknowledge the thought and question if it’s something you wanted to think about. Knowing the difference between these thoughts can help us work toward recognizing which thoughts are of our own doing and which thoughts are intrusive.
Now that we’ve broken down what intrusive thoughts are, the next post in this two-part series will explain how we can try to get a handle on them.
While some people have intrusive thoughts every once in awhile, others live with them for years. I still struggle with intrusive thoughts on a daily basis! But I want to hear from you. Have you ever experienced intrusive thoughts? What was it like? Let me know in the comments below!