An intrusive thought is a spontaneous thought that you don’t want to be having and actively upsets you to some extent. The content of these thoughts can be anything that may shock, disgust, or upset you.  Common types of intrusive thoughts* are:

  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Thoughts of harming others
  • Sexual thoughts
  • Self-doubt, relationship doubts
  • Contamination/health fears

Commonly, these thoughts are rooted in insecurities, fears, or areas you have an intense aversion to. These thoughts are not reflective of the person’s character, intentions, or desires which often are what makes them all the more distressing. These thoughts are unwelcome when they persist. Especially considering that when you attempt to push them away and block them out, it can make them worse. So what do we do when intrusive thoughts get far too disruptive and start affecting our daily lives and mental health? Here are a few basic approaches to help begin to cope with intrusive thoughts, as an introduction to fending them off.

Don’t fight Intrusive Thoughts

This is extremely difficult considering how much these thoughts may distress you. However, when you attempt to push them down like a balloon being pushed beneath the water, they continue to pop up over and over again. Like the balloon, the best approach then is to let them be and allow them to drift away on their own time rather than fight then. 

Don’t try to rationalize or debate the thoughts

As an example, say you’re a straight man and you begin to get intrusive sexual thoughts about other men. It wouldn’t be surprising if you jumped to fighting these thoughts with logic. “I have only ever been attracted to women my whole life, I do not find men attractive, I would never do that. I have only ever liked women!” It is easy to forget that intrusive thoughts are not grounded in logic. The more you argue with them, the stronger they become. Our brains work in strange ways and these thoughts will continue to poke us in new ways to upset us if we allow them to get to us.

Don’t go down their rabbit hole

Like debating them, intrusive thoughts entice you to further explore whatever content they create. They make you question if you are attracted to children, if you are suicidal, are there germs stuck to your sandwich, and ultimately question if there is any truth to these thoughts.  The more you explore the validity of these thoughts, the worse they can become. Giving them significance is not the solution.  It can make you feel like if only you make sense of them, they will be resolved, but unfortunately, there is rarely an easy answer behind these thoughts. 

Take care of yourself

Whenever we’re not feeling mentally well, it is important to go back to the basics of self-care. Are you sleeping enough? Eating well? Getting enough water?  How are you spending your time? How much screen time or mindless scrolling have you done lately?  Have you connected with others you care about and feel safe with lately or have you been isolating? Are you burnt out from school or work? How are you relaxing and decompressing? Most importantly, are you getting enough movement or exercise? Being stationary for too long feeds intrusive thoughts.

Vent them out

It makes sense that many people’s first response to shocking intrusive thoughts is to not engage with them at all and pretend they’re not occurring. However there is value in talking to someone, a friend or professional, or vent out your thoughts in a journal. It is simply an outlet to get them out of your head. It can help to examine what might be the underlying cause of them 

Mediation

Mediation is a difficult practice for many people, but it can be a powerful tool to combat intrusive thoughts. Apps like Calm and Headspace are great for guided meditations of different lengths of time and have various topics. Meditation acknowledges thoughts and teaches you to gently redirect your mind away from them. This can aid in becoming more present in your day-to-day life and keep intrusive thoughts at bay.


You’re not going crazy because you have intrusive thoughts despite it sometimes feeling like you are.  We don’t have as much control over our thoughts overall as we like to think, but intrusive thoughts are simply an extreme example of this.  It is important to know that these are not reflective of who you are or what you want. They are only thoughts. The goal of any treatment for them is to decrease their significance. 

In my follow-up article, I will further explore some helpful in-depth approaches to dealing with intrusive thoughts and beyond the introduction of fending them off. 

*Article expanding more on types of intrusive thoughts.

Article written by Jennifer Klesman, LCSW

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